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Clutch play powering the Yankees hot streak

Despite Sunday’s tough loss in Kansas City, the Yankees are streaking as they head home to face the Padres. After a slow 6-9 start, the team has gone on an incredible 28-9 run and has dropped only one series since April 14. Though many of the team’s stars continue to populate the IL, the current cast of characters has unquestionably found a winning formula over the course of the past month.

One of the biggest factors in the team’s recent success has been their uncanny ability to come through in big moments. On both sides of the ball, clutch hitting and pitching has allowed the team to prevail in tight contests. Even during yesterday’s battle with the Royals, the team scored 6 of their 7 runs in two out situations and reached extras thanks to a Houdini act from Nestor Cortes in the 9th.

Whether you are a fan of the traditional statistics or sabermetrics, the Yankees have been one of the best teams in baseball when it comes to performance in key situations. After a couple years of fans groaning about an inability to hit with men on base, the team has responded by putting up a .278 AVG with RISP. That ranks second among all major league teams after not scratching the top 10 for any of the past three seasons.

But it doesn’t take a nerd to understand that not all at bats are made equal. Coming through with the bases loaded in a game you’re already winning by five runs isn’t nearly as important as getting a hit in the same situation when you’re trailing in the late innings. Thanks to the sabermetrics site Fangraphs, there’s a way to quantify just how important each at bat is during a game. Their “Leverage Index” (also known as LI) tracks how crucial each plate appearance is based on the game situation.

And during high leverage situations when the game is on the line, the Yankees have likewise been among the best in the MLB. The team has collectively slashed .282/.392/.443 in such scenarios with a 119 wRC+ making them the sixth best team when it comes to clutch hitting.

It won’t surprise any fans to know that DJ LeMahieu has been one of the biggest contributors when it comes to clutch hitting. In 17 high leverage plate appearances thus far LeMahieu has been unbelievable, hitting .500 (!!) with a 186 wRC+. Cult hero and breakout star Gio Urshela has been another clutch performer, hitting .389 with a 149 wRC+ in his 20 high leverage plate appearances.

Though I singled out these two fan favorites, the success has been nearly universal among the Yankees current position players. Luke Voit, Gary Sanchez, and Clint Frazier have likewise been transcendent in the most important at bats of the game. No matter who finds themselves up in a key spot, it always feels like they’re going to come through with a big hit to help the team to victory.

Not to be outdone, the team’s pitching staff has also stepped up in a big way when the game is on the line. Batters have managed a pitiful .204/.292/.316 slash line against Yankee pitchers in high leverage situations. To put that in perspective, opposing hitters have essentially turned into Tyler Wade when facing Yankee hurlers in a big spot (sorry Tyler).

In a nod to Boone’s managerial savvy, Adam Ottavino and Aroldis Chapman have been called upon the most in the game’s critical moments. They have by far the highest average LI on the team, meaning their pitches are rarely being wasted outside of innings of the highest significance.

Both have clearly been up to the challenge, holding hitters to a less than .200 AVG in high leverage appearances. Chapman’s numbers in particular stand out, as he has posted a 43.5% strikeout rate and 4.4% walk rate without allowing a single home run in these situations. Despite some shakiness last season, he has more than justified his $17.2 million salary this year with his ability to close the door in tight games and slippery situations.

From top to bottom, this team has found an extra gear when they know that the game is on the line. During the 6-9 start to the season, all nine Yankee losses were decided by three runs or less. Since then, they have won 18 of the 24 close games they’ve played that have been won or lost by a three run margin or slimmer.

When it comes to clutch performances, the nerd in me wants to say that it’s often driven by randomness and we can’t take too much from these numbers. But the much larger part of me that is a lifelong, diehard Yankee fan absolutely loves to see this team continue to find new ways to win. From the journeymen like Urshela to the All-Star closer in Chapman, these guys have fueled this winning streak with key contributions in the biggest moments. Games are won and lost on the margin in these crucial situations, and right now no one in baseball is as clutch as the Yankees.

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