Who Is the Most Clutch Player in MLB Today?

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2020

Who Is the Most Clutch Player in MLB Today?

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    It's a simple question: Who is the most clutch player in baseball?

    Arriving at the answer is decidedly more difficult.

    Baseball always has been and always will be a sport driven by statistics, and while there are a number of useful numbers to look at for this discussion, there is no clearly defined measure of clutch.

    Everyone will value statistics differently when weighing which player deserves the title of most clutch.

    Ahead we've presented a few different measures of clutch ability for your consideration based on 2019 production, both on the position player and pitcher side of things, before coming to our own conclusion on who is baseball's most clutch performer right now.

    Let the debate begin.

Batting Average with Runners in Scoring Position (Hitters)

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    DJ LeMahieu
    DJ LeMahieuPaul Bereswill/Getty Images

    The argument here is pretty easy.

    A clutch hitter is someone who delivers when the stakes are highest, so how well a hitter performs with runners in scoring position is a good indication of his level of clutch.

    Here's an interesting blind example:

    • Player A: 550 PA, .305 BA overall; 112 PA, .235 BA w/RISP
    • Player B: 596 PA, .252 BA overall; 116 PA, .309 BA w/RISP

    Would you rather have a .300 hitter who bats under .250 with runners in scoring position or a .250 hitter who bats over .300 with runners in scoring position?

    Player A is Hanser Alberto. Player B is Max Kepler.

    That's obviously just a cherry-picked example, but it does illustrate the value of clutch hitting, and the occasional emptiness of overall batting average.

    For reference, here are last season's top 10 in batting average with runners in scoring position among players with at least 100 such plate appearances:

    • DJ LeMahieu: .389 
    • Charlie Blackmon: .385
    • Miguel Cabrera: .369 
    • Nelson Cruz: .368 
    • Anthony Rendon: .365 
    • Freddie Freeman: .358
    • Bryce Harper: .357 
    • Jeff McNeil: .350 
    • Yordan Alvarez: .344 
    • Gleyber Torres: .344 

    That's a pretty impressive list, and it makes for a compelling argument for batting average with runners in scoring position to being used as a gauge of clutch ability.

Limiting Damage with Runners in Scoring Position (Pitchers)

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    Hyun-Jin Ryu
    Hyun-Jin RyuMark Brown/Getty Images

    If a high batting average with runners in scoring position makes a hitter clutch, it stands to reason that a pitcher who is able to limit damage with runners in scoring position is deserving of some clutch points as well.

    That's especially true of a starting pitcher, as his ability to pitch deep into games often hinges on whether or not he can pitch out of an early jam or two.

    With that in mind, here's a look at the 10 starting pitchers who did the best job limiting damage with runners in scoring position, among pitchers with at least 75 such plate appearances:

    • Hyun-Jin Ryu: 148 PA, 6.13 ERA
    • Zac Gallen: 79 PA, 6.30 ERA
    • Gerrit Cole: 140 PA, 6.57 ERA
    • Justin Verlander: 117 PA, 7.34 ERA
    • Frankie Montas: 91 PA, 7.36 ERA
    • Jacob deGrom: 165 PA, 7.44 ERA
    • Mike Soroka: 158 PA, 7.71 ERA
    • Jon Gray: 154 PA, 8.27 ERA
    • Max Scherzer: 145 PA, 8.35 ERA
    • Sonny Gray: 146 PA, 8.35 ERA

    Those are ugly numbers at first glance, but when you consider that a hit of any sort will almost certainly result in an earned run in those scenarios, it puts things into context.

    We can also take that a step further by looking at Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) leaderboard for that same situation. That essentially provides an expected ERA based on the three outcomes a pitcher can fully controlstrikeouts, walks and home runs.

    • Gerrit Cole: 140 PA, 1.35 FIP
    • Mike Clevinger: 85 PA, 1.79 FIP
    • Max Scherzer: 145 PA, 1.82 FIP
    • Lance Lynn: 213 PA, 1.90 FIP
    • Chris Sale: 109 PA, 2.00 FIP
    • Frankie Montas: 91 PA, 2.26 FIP
    • Mike Soroka: 158 PA, 2.33 FIP
    • Jose Urena: 82 PA, 2.39 FIP
    • Jon Gray: 154 PA, 2.49 FIP
    • James Paxton: 133 PA, 2.52 FIP

    The fact that Cole, Scherzer, Montas, Soroka and Gray appeared on both lists is telling of their ability to pitch around trouble.

High-Leverage Performance (Hitters)

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    Anthony Rendon
    Anthony RendonMatt York/Associated Press

    While delivering with runners in scoring position may be a good indication of clutch ability, we can take that a step further thanks to the advanced metrics at our disposal.

    One such metric that is relevant to this discussion is the "high leverage" statistical modifier, courtesy of FanGraphs, which isolates a player's performance in the most impactful moments in a game.

    Below is a list of the players with the highest Weighted Runs Created (wRC) in high-leverage situations. Essentially, these players provided their team with the most runs when it mattered most:

    • Christian Yelich: 18 
    • Anthony Rendon: 16 
    • Nolan Arenado: 16 
    • Jose Iglesias: 16 
    • Bryan Reynolds: 14 
    • Xander Bogaerts: 14 
    • Mike Trout: 14 
    • Alex Gordon: 13 
    • Bryce Harper: 13 
    • George Springer: 13 
    • Wilson Ramos: 13 

    Yelich and Rendon also tied with Mike Moustakas and Miguel Sano for the MLB lead with six home runs in high-leverage situations, while Harper (29) and Reynolds (28) were the RBI leaders.

    The highest batting average in high-leverage situations belonged to Minnesota Twins rookie Luis Arraez, who hit .556 in 31 plate appearances. Yelich was second with a .476 average in 48 trips to the plate.

High-Leverage Performance (Pitchers)

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    Scott Oberg
    Scott ObergMatthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Once again, we can also look at the pitcher side of the coin in high-leverage situations.

    As you might expect, it's a reliever-heavy list, considering most high-leverage situations occur late in games when the score is still close.

    Here are the 2019 ERA leaders in high-leverage situations with at least 30 plate appearances against:

    • Felipe Vazquez: 82 PA, 1.23 ERA
    • Scott Oberg: 75 PA, 1.45 ERA
    • Will Smith: 114 PA, 1.47 ERA
    • Nick Wittgren: 40 PA, 1.69 ERA
    • Kirby Yates: 118 PA, 1.82 ERA
    • Aaron Bummer: 72 PA, 2.05 ERA
    • Max Scherzer: 30 PA, 2.21 ERA
    • Justin Wilson: 51 PA, 2.25 ERA
    • Ken Giles: 83 PA, 2.25 ERA
    • Jon Lester: 34 PA, 2.61 ERA
    • Emilio Pagan: 78 PA, 2.70 ERA

    The top starting pitchers on this list behind Scherzer are a bit surprising, starting with Jon Lester, who had a middling 4.46 ERA last season. Those two are followed by Julio Teheran (34 PA, 3.60 ERA) and Zach Eflin (30 PA, 4.00 ERA).

    Scott Oberg and Nick Wittgren entered the 2019 season a long way from the list of baseball's top relievers, but both pitchers turned in the best seasons of their careers.

Win Probability Added (Hitters)

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    Christian Yelich
    Christian YelichNorm Hall/Getty Images

    Win Probability Added is an interesting stat to contextualize a player's impact on the outcome of the game.

    Here's a quick definition, via FanGraphs: "WPA captures the change in win expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team's odds of winning."

    It stands to reason then that if you add up each player's WPA for every plate appearance over the course of the season, the player with the highest net total would have had the biggest impact on his team's win total.

    Here are the leaders from 2019:

    • Christian Yelich: 7.121
    • Mike Trout: 5.198
    • Cody Bellinger: 4.986
    • Anthony Rendon: 4.760
    • Matt Olson: 4.702
    • Max Muncy: 4.623
    • Bryce Harper: 4.586
    • Xander Bogaerts: 4.398
    • Freddie Freeman: 4.396
    • Anthony Rizzo: 4.369

    That's undoubtedly a list that includes some of the game's best offensive players, and most would agree that the top three were the most impactful hitters of the 2019 season.

Win Probability Added (Pitchers)

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    Justin Verlander
    Justin VerlanderRich Schultz/Getty Images

    The WPA statistic cuts both ways.

    Every positive WPA event for a hitter is a negative WPA event for a pitcher—and vice versa—so it's also worth looking at the pitching side of things.

    Here are the pitching leaders from 2019:

    • Justin Verlander: 5.607
    • Will Smith: 5.580
    • Gerrit Cole: 4.709
    • Hyun-Jin Ryu: 4.507
    • Jacob deGrom: 4.497
    • Jack Flaherty: 4.241
    • Kirby Yates: 4.021
    • Aaron Bummer: 3.820
    • Mike Soroka: 3.664
    • Max Scherzer: 3.649

    This group is a bit more unexpected than the position player list.

    It's no surprise to see Justin Verlander at the top, but the fact that closer Will Smith led the NL in WPA among pitchers when he spent the season pitching for an also-ran San Francisco Giants team is interesting.

    The presence of Chicago White Sox reliever Aaron Bummer is also a shock.

    The left-hander had an excellent 2019 season with a 2.13 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 58 appearances, but he wasn't even pitching in the closer's role, tallying just one save to go along with 27 holds.

Save Percentage (Pitchers)

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    Ken Giles
    Ken GilesG Fiume/Getty Images

    After seeing relievers Will Smith, Kirby Yates and Aaron Bummer appear among the WPA pitching leaders, it's worth further exploring the idea that a relief pitcher might be worthy of consideration for the title of most clutch player in baseball.

    Saves is the defining stat for a closer, but it's not a great judge of a reliever's effectiveness.

    Closers pitching for a contender are generally going to see more save opportunities than guys working the ninth inning for a team that rarely has a lead to protect.

    Let's take a look at the closers from the two Los Angeles teams to further illustrate that point:

    • Kenley Jansen: 33 SV, 8 BS, 80.5 SV%
    • Hansel Robles: 23 SV, 4 BS, 85.2 SV%

    The Dodgers won 106 games, so Jansen had more opportunities to record a save. The Angels won just 72 games, but Robles was more effective at slamming the door when given the chance.

    So rather than simply looking at the save leaders, let's focus on the save percentage leaders among guys who had at least 20 saves:

    • Ken Giles: 23 SV, 95.8 SV%
    • Kirby Yates: 41 SV, 93.2 SV%
    • Alex Colome: 30 SV, 90.9 SV%
    • Felipe Vazquez: 28 SV, 90.3 SV%
    • Will Smith: 34 SV, 89.5 SV%
    • Carlos Martinez: 24 SV, 88.9 SV%
    • Ian Kennedy: 30 SV, 88.2 SV%
    • Aroldis Chapman: 37 SV, 88.1 SV%
    • Brad Hand: 34 SV, 87.2 SV%
    • Sergio Romo: 20 SV, 87.0 SV%

    Closers come in with the game on the line and a chance to secure a victory for their team. What else can effectiveness in that role be called besides clutch?

Verdict: Christian Yelich

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    If we're taking a stat-based approach to determining who the most clutch player in baseball is right now, it's hard to argue against Christian Yelich based on his 2019 season.

    Let's recap a few of the more notable numbers:

    • BA in high-leverage situations: .476 (2nd in MLB)
    • HR in high-leverage situations: 6 (T-1st in MLB)
    • RBI in high-leverage situations: 20 (T-24th in MLB)
    • wRC in high-leverage situations: 18 (1st in MLB)
    • wRC+ in high-leverage situations: 287 (1st in MLB)
    • Total season WPA: 7.121 (1st in MLB)

    When it mattered the most, he was the best.

    The wide gap in his WPA compared to Justin Verlander (5.607), Will Smith (5.580), Mike Trout (5.198) and Cody Bellinger (4.986), who rounded out the top five, speaks volumes to his importance to a Milwaukee Brewers team that needed every single one of their 89 wins to claim a wild-card berth.

    Plenty of players are capable of overtaking him, but for now, Christian Yelich deserves the title of most clutch player in baseball.

         

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.