MLB Skill Rankings: Brandon Crawford and Baseball's Best Clutch Hitters

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2022

MLB Skill Rankings: Brandon Crawford and Baseball's Best Clutch Hitters

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    The question is simple enough: Who was baseball's most clutch hitter in 2021?

    However, there has never been a go-to way to quantify "clutch." So, to put together this list, a number of different statistics were taken into consideration.

    After some digging and debating, I landed on these four metrics to measure clutch:

    • Batting Average with Runners in Scoring Position (BA/RISP): A player's batting average when there is at least one runner on second or third base.
    • Batting Average in High-Leverage Situations (BA/HL): A player's batting average in high-leverage situations, as defined by the FanGraphs leverage index.
    • Weighted Runs Created with Runners in Scoring Position (wRC/RISP): A player's total offensive value contributed with runners in scoring position measured in runs.
    • Weighted Runs Created in High-Leverage Situations (wRC/HL): A player's total offensive value contributed in high-leverage situations measured in runs.

    The question was how to use those statistics to best demonstrate the difference between Player A and Player B in terms of contact ability.

    On the following slide, I've outlined my methodology and scoring system, and I encourage you to give that a read before diving into the article.

        

    Catch up on past Skill Rankings articles: Power hitting, Contact hitting, Best fastballs

Methodology

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    To narrow the list of candidates for inclusion, I started by trimming the field to only players who met the following benchmarks since the start of the 2019 season:

    • 50-plus wRC+ with RISP
    • 20-plus wRC+ in HL

    The result was a list of 338 players up for consideration.

    Since the goal was to determine how much better or worse a player performs in key situations, each hitter's overall batting average was used as a baseline to compare to his batting average in clutch spots.

    The thinking here is that a .250 hitter who hits .300 with runners in scoring position (+.050 BA/RISP) is displaying more clutch than a .300 hitter who hits .310 with runners in scoring position (+.010 BA/RISP). That is how the batting average statistics will be presented.

    From there, a point system was implemented that awarded points as follows:

    • 1/2 point for every .001 BA/RISP relative to BA baseline
    • 1/2 point for every .001 BA/HL relative to BA baseline
    • 3 points for every wRC/RISP
    • 3 points for every wRC/HL

    No bias. No preconceived notions. Just a set of statistical parameters and a straightforward point system.

    The full data can be found here.

Notable Exclusions

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    Juan Soto
    Juan SotoNick Wass/Associated Press

    The following notable players failed to crack the top 25, and here's a quick rundown on why:

         

    Jose Altuve, Houston Astros (No. 26, 166 points)

    Curious about who the first player was to miss the cut? It was Altuve, whose RISP average (.320) and high-leverage average (.328) were both comfortably out in front of his .278 average overall.

         

    Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays (No. 33, 157 points)

    Guerrero was terrific in both RISP situations (.315 BA, 39 wRC) and high-leverage spots (.326 BA, 10 wRC). But he was an elite hitter regardless of the situation, not necessarily someone who is better in the clutch.

         

    Juan Soto, Washington Nationals (No. 65, 122 points)

    Despite leading all of baseball with 43 wRC with RISP, Soto falls well short of the top 25 as a result of his ugly .179 average in high-leverage situations.

        

    Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves (No. 100, 101 points)

    Since Atlanta Braves fans will undoubtedly be clamoring for Freeman's inclusion here, his subpar .222 average in high-leverage spots is what kept him out of contention.

Nos. 25-21

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    Aaron Judge
    Aaron JudgeSarah Stier/Getty Images

    25. Josh VanMeter, Arizona Diamondbacks (170 points)

    Metrics: +.121 BA/RISP, +.080 BA/HL, 17 wRC/RISP, 6 wRC/HL

    VanMeter hit just .212 over a career-high 310 plate appearances in a utility role with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2021, but he picked up his production to a .333 average with runners in scoring position and a .292 average in high-leverage spots.

         

    24. Ramon Urias, Baltimore Orioles (173 points)

    Metrics: +.069 BA/RISP, +.150 BA/HL, 15 wRC/RISP, 6 wRC/HL

    With 1.9 WAR in 85 games, Urias was a quiet bright spot for the rebuilding Orioles while playing all over the infield. The 27-year-old hit a staggering .429 in high-leverage spots, good for eighth among players with at least 20 such plate appearances.

         

    22 (tie). J.D. Martinez, Boston Red Sox (177 points)

    Metrics: +.049 BA/RISP, +.040 BA/HL, 34 wRC/RISP, 10 wRC/HL

    No stranger to producing when it matters, Martinez is a career .305/.384/.565 hitter in 1,479 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. He hit .335 in those spots during a bounce-back 2021 season, compared to a .286 average overall.

        

    22 (tie). Aaron Judge, New York Yankees (177 points)

    Metrics: +.044 BA/RISP, +.070 BA/HL, 29 wRC/RISP, 11 wRC/HL

    A .257 career hitter with runners in scoring position entering the 2021 season, Judge enjoyed the best year of his career in that category with a .335 average and 29 wRC. The one constant in an inconsistent and banged up Yankees lineup, he finished fourth in AL MVP voting.

         

    21. Austin Hays, Baltimore Orioles (179 points)

    Metrics: +.077 BA/RISP, +.095 BA/HL, 22 wRC/RISP, 9 wRC/HL

    Hays posted a .921 OPS with eight home runs and 22 RBI in 30 games in September and October, which could be a sign of bigger things to come. Hitting mostly out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup, he batted .333 with RISP and .351 in high-leverage situations compared to a .256 average overall.

Nos. 20-16

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    Yadier Molina
    Yadier MolinaIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    19 (tie). Austin Meadows, Tampa Bay Rays (180 points)

    Metrics: +.065 BA/RISP, +.054 BA/HL, 31 wRC/RISP, 9 wRC/HL

    Meadows maximized his power production by slugging 10 home runs with runners in scoring position en route to a team-leading 106 RBI in 2021. He hit only .234 on the year, but he jumped up to .299 with RISP and .288 in high-leverage spots.

         

    19 (tie). Ty France, Seattle Mariners (180 points)

    Metrics: +.030 BA/RISP, +.071 BA/HL, 27 wRC/RISP, 16 wRC/HL

    With 16 wRC in high-leverage situations, France trailed only Shohei Ohtani (17) and Willy Adames (17) in that category among all players in 2021. Thrust into the everyday first base job after Evan White was lost for the year, he hit .321 with RISP and .362 in high-leverage scenarios.

         

    18. Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals (181 points)

    Metrics: +.075 BA/RISP, +.130 BA/HL, 19 wRC/RISP, 7 wRC/HL

    Molina is a .303 lifetime hitter with runners in scoring position, and while his offensive game has declined considerably from his peak-level production, he can still deliver the big hit. The 39-year-old hit .252 in 2021his lowest average since 2006but he was still well over .300 when it mattered.

        

    17. Jake Fraley, Seattle Mariners (184 points)

    Metrics: +.094 BA/RISP, +.136 BA/HL, 15 wRC/RISP, 8 wRC/HL

    Something of a forgotten man in a crowded Seattle outfield, Fraley tallied 1.6 WAR in 78 games on the strength of his on-base ability (.352 OBP), solid defense (4 DRS) and clutch hitting. A .210 hitter overall in 265 plate appearances, he was a .300-plus hitter in both key stats.

         

    16. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Toronto Blue Jays (189 points)

    Metrics: +.092 BA/RISP, +.081 BA/HL, 26 wRC/RISP, 8 wRC/HL

    Often overshadowed by young stars Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette in Toronto, Gurriel is a terrific young player in his own right. The 28-year-old saw a dip in production relative to where he was at in 2019 and 2020, but he came through when it mattered most.

Nos. 15-11

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    Rafael Devers
    Rafael DeversMitchell Leff/Getty Images

    15. Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox (191 points)

    Metrics: +.021 BA/RISP, +.037 BA/HL, 41 wRC/RISP, 13 wRC/HL

    Devers has ranked in the top five in the AL in RBI each of the past three seasons, and after a 38-homer, 113-RBI performance in 2021, it's no surprise to see him on this list. His 41 wRC with RISP were second only to Washington Nationals superstar Juan Soto (43).

         

    14. Max Muncy, Los Angeles Dodgers (193 points)

    Metrics: +.097 BA/RISP, +.001 BA/HL, 40 wRC/RISP, 8 wRC/HL

    Despite a pedestrian .250 average in high-leverage spots that was right in line with his season average (.249), Muncy earns a spot in the top 15 on the strength of his production in RBI situations. He was one of only three players with at least 40 wRC with RISP last year.

         

    12 (tie). Jared Walsh, Los Angeles Angels (205 points)

    Metrics: +.048 BA/RISP, +.109 BA/HL, 29 wRC/RISP, 13 wRC/HL

    An All-Star for the first time in 2021, Walsh saw his overall production dip during the second half, but he remained a productive clutch hitter. His .386 average in high-leverage spots was more than 100 points better than his .277 season average.

        

    12 (tie). Manny Machado, San Diego Padres (205 points)

    Metrics: +.066 BA/RISP, +.062 BA/HL, 36 wRC/RISP, 11 wRC/HL

    Machado is the only player to appear on our contact hitter (No. 5), power hitter (No. 23) and clutch hitter skill rankings. He is a .315 career hitter with runners in scoring position, and he hit an impressive .344/.438/.656 with 10 home runs and 79 RBI in those situations in 2021.

         

    11. Jed Lowrie, Oakland Athletics (207 points)

    Metrics: +.097 BA/RISP, +.088 BA/HL, 27 wRC/RISP, 11 wRC/HL

    After playing only nine games over the previous two seasons, Lowrie made good on a minor league deal with the Oakland Athletics and posted a 101 OPS+ over 512 plate appearances. The 37-year-old hit a middling .245 overall, but he was comfortably over .300 when the stakes were raised.

10. Teoscar Hernandez, Toronto Blue Jays (208 Points)

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Metrics: +.027 BA/RISP, +.112 BA/HL, 33 wRC/RISP, 13 wRC/HL

    Teoscar Hernandez proved his breakout performance during the shortened 2020 season was the real deal when he hit .296/.346/.524 for a 133 OPS+ with 32 home runs and 116 RBI to win Silver Slugger honors.

    The 29-year-old hit a blistering .408 in 54 high-leverage plate appearances to go along with a solid .323 average with RISP. That earned him top clutch honors on a loaded Toronto Blue Jays roster that included some of baseball's most productive bats.

    Not bad for a player whom the Blue Jays acquired along with Nori Aoki in exchange for Francisco Liriano at the 2017 trade deadline.

9. Starling Marte, New York Mets (215 Points)

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    Tim Warner/Getty Images

    Metrics: +.017 BA/RISP, +.190 BA/HL, 21 wRC/RISP, 16 wRC/HL

    Outfielder Starling Marte made headlines this past season by becoming the first player in MLB history to steal at least 20 bases in each league, splitting his contract year between the Miami Marlins and Oakland Athletics and hitting .310/.383/.458 with 47 total steals.

    Beneath the surface of those impressive counting numbers, he was undoubtedly one of baseball's best clutch performers. He led the majors with 22 hits in high-leverage situations, going 22-for-44 with six walks and only five strikeouts in 53 high-leverage plate appearances.

    Now he'll look to duplicate that performance with the New York Mets after signing a four-year, $78 million deal in free agency.

8. Jesus Aguilar, Miami Marlins (217 Points)

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Metrics: +.067 BA/RISP, +.103 BA/HL, 29 wRC/RISP, 15 wRC/HL

    A late-bloomer who turned in a breakout performance in his age-28 season, Jesus Aguilar has settled into a spot in the middle of a young Miami Marlins lineup over the past two years.

    The 31-year-old has a more contact-oriented approach than the traditional middle-of-the-order slugger with an excellent 18.2 percent strikeout rate in 2021. That ability to put the bat on the ball served him well in the clutch.

    Aguilar hit .364 in high-leverage spots with 12 walks and only five strikeouts. Getting him some help in a largely punchless Marlins lineup would go a long way toward avoiding teams pitching around him when the game is on the line.

7. Lane Thomas, Washington Nationals (220 Points)

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Metrics: +.092 BA/RISP, +.215 BA/HL, 13 wRC/RISP, 9 wRC/HL

    Don't sleep on Lane Thomas as a 2022 breakout candidate.

    The 26-year-old hit .270/.364/.489 with 23 extra-base hits in 206 plate appearances after the St. Louis Cardinals traded him to the Washington Nationals in the deadline deal for veteran left-hander Jon Lester.

    Thomas hit a staggering .450 in high-leverage situations, and he will likely be penciled into the leadoff spot in the Nationals lineup to begin the 2022 season as he looks to carve out a long-term role on the rebuilding team as a table-setter for Juan Soto.

5 (tie). Willy Adames, Milwaukee Brewers (222 Points)

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Metrics: -.008 BA/RISP, +.205 BA/HL, 24 wRC/RISP, 17 wRC/HL

    The only player in the entire top 25 with a negative differential in one of his batting average metrics, Willy Adames made up for his middling .254 average with RISP by hitting a blistering .467 in high-leverage situations.

    The 26-year-old had six doubles, five home runs and 21 RBI in 49 high-leverage plate appearances. The bulk of that damage came after the Tampa Bay Rays traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers on May 21, clearing a path for top prospect Wander Franco.

    With three years of club control remaining, the Brewers appear to have found a cornerstone piece up the middle in exchange for a pair of relief pitchers.

5 (tie). Brandon Crawford, San Francisco Giants (222 Points)

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Metrics: +.055 BA/RISP, +.094 BA/HL, 33 wRC/RISP, 16 wRC/HL

    Two years ago, it looked like Brandon Crawford was washed up after he hit .228/.304/.350 for a 74 OPS+ that ranked 132nd among 135 qualified hitters. He was a negative-WAR player over 147 games, and he was entering his age-33 season.

    However, Crawford bounced back during the abridged 2020 campaign, and he then turned in arguably the best season of his entire career in 2021. He hit .298/.373/.522 with career highs in OPS+ (141), home runs (24) and RBI (90) en route to a fourth-place finish in NL MVP voting.

    Above and beyond his career-best .298 batting average, he hit .353 with RISP and .392 in high-leverage situations for the 107-win San Francisco Giants.

4. Adam Duvall, Atlanta Braves (234 Points)

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Metrics: +.052 BA/RISP, +.012 BA/HL, 34 wRC/RISP, 11 wRC/HL

    Adam Duvall hit only .228 during the 2021 season, yet he managed to dial in when the stakes were raised, batting .326 with RISP and .304 in high-leverage opportunities.

    The 33-year-old wound up leading the NL with 113 RBI while splitting the season between the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves. He was one of a handful of trade deadline additions who helped propel Atlanta to a World Series title.

    Duvall had a 31.4 percent strikeout rate overall in 2021, but he trimmed that to a more manageable 28.5 percent with RISP, showing his ability to dial in when a clutch opportunity presented itself.

3. Kyle Seager, Retired (253 Points)

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    Steph Chambers/Getty Images

    Metrics: +.096 BA/RISP, +.133 BA/HL, 33 wRC/RISP, 13 wRC/HL

    In the final season of a terrific 11-year career, Kyle Seager hit .212 for the fourth-lowest batting average in the majors among 132 qualified hitters. However, he delivered when it mattered.

    The 34-year-old hit .308 with RISP and .345 in high-leverage situations. Along the way, he tallied career highs in home runs (35) and RBI (101) for a 2.0 WAR season despite his low baseline batting average.

    Deadline pickup Abraham Toro will likely be tasked with replacing Seager at the hot corner for the Seattle Mariners. He checked in at No. 74 in our clutch-hitting rankings.

2. Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels (294 Points)

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    Rob Leiter/Getty Images

    Metrics: +.027 BA/RISP, +.260 BA/HL, 33 wRC/RISP, 17 wRC/HL

    With a 158 OPS+ and 46 home runs in the batter's box and a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 130.1 innings on the mound, Shohei Ohtani put together a season for the ages on his way to AL MVP honors.

    He was No. 2 in our power hitter rankings, but he didn't appear on our contact hitter rankings since he posted a .257 average with 189 strikeouts in 639 plate appearances.

    Ohtani had an uptick in his production with runners in scoring position, but his work in high-leverage situations is what earned him such a high spot in these rankings. With the game on the line, he went 15-for-29 with 10 extra-base hits and 12 walks in 43 plate appearances for a .517 average and 1.686 OPS.

1. LaMonte Wade Jr., San Francisco Giants (326 Points)

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    Metrics: +.377 BA/RISP, +.600 BA/HL, 17 wRC/RISP, 13 wRC/HL

    The Giants acquired LaMonte Wade Jr. from the Minnesota Twins prior to the 2021 season in exchange for right-hander Shaun Anderson. He found his way into a semi-regular role when Brandon Belt was on the injured list.

    The 28-year-old hit .253/.326/.482 with 18 home runs and 56 RBI in 381 plate appearances. Much of that damage came in the late inning, earning him the nickname "Late Night" in the midst of a breakout season.

    He hit .377 with runners in scoring position and an absurd .600 in high-leverage situations, going 18-for-30 with three home runs and 24 RBI in 33 plate appearances. The Giants' surprising success in 2021 was a total team effort, and Wade provided his fair share of memorable clutch moments.

         

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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