In the past few weeks, we have written how often for baseball teams, it’s better to be lucky than good. And the Yankees this year have been extraordinarily lucky. Granted all great teams need some luck to perform as well as they do because that can be the difference that separates the World Series winner from other playoff teams.
Yesterday on The Bronx Pinstripes Show – which by the way is the best Yankees podcast out there and you should all listen to it, rate, review, and subscribe – Scott and Andrew talked about how great the Yankees have been in high leverage situations this season. They have a 146 wRC+ in high leverage situations which is best in baseball. The Astros are second at 118. Basically, that means in high leverage situations, the Yankees have been 46% better than the average team. Here is the clip of them talking about it:
The Yankees have been the best team in baseball with a 146 wRC+ in high leverage situations. The next best team is Houston at 118. pic.twitter.com/NnGMNjbigJ
— The BP Show (@YankeesPodcast) September 9, 2019
As a SABR nerd and a proud member of #BPNerds, I am skeptical of any stats that involve being clutch because we have a plethora of data and research which tell us that being clutch is not repeatable, which means it isn’t really a skill. And I’ll get into some of that research later on in this article. For now, I wanted to look more deeply at the Yankees clutch hitting this year to see how they have done it. Instead of looking at the season-long number, I broke it down by month to see how the team has performed in high leverage situations as the season has gone on.
Remember, a wRC+ of 100 is league average. So in April, the Yankees were below average in high leverage situations and they turned it on in May and June. There was a bit of a dip in July and August compared to those otherworldly numbers before the insanity that has been September. So outside of April, the Yankees have been great in high leverage situations. Here is how they rank among all teams each month:
That all makes sense. They started off 19th before moving into the top teams in all of baseball in this metric. And since May, they have been in the top-6 each month which is truly spectacular.
Effect on Record
At the end of the day, wins and losses are all that matter, especially in October. It doesn’t matter how you get it done as long as you get it done. But the season is long and we have ways of quantifying the effects that luck has for a team. Through Monday, the Yankees are 95-50 which is a .655 winning percentage tied for the best in baseball. FanGraphs has two other ways of looking at expected record.
The first is called Pythagorean win % which basically looks at your run differential and projects how many games you would be expected to win based off that. For your record, a 1-run win and a 10-run win count the same, but Pythagorean record accounts for the dominance of the 10-run win. This year, the Yankees Pythagorean record would be 89-56. That means they have outperformed their Pythagorean record by 6 wins. Things like a dominant bullpen and clutch hitting, both of which the Yankees have excelled at this year, are what contribute to that effect. The Yankees tend to outperform their Pythagorean Record every year, so let’s look a little deeper.
The other way FanGraphs can predict record is by something called Base Runs. This looks one step further than how many runs you scored vs. how many you gave up and also accounts for sequencing. What that means is you don’t lose credit for being bad in the clutch but you also don’t get credit for being good in the clutch. It is a context-neutral stat in that effect. And by that metric, the Yankees record would be 84-51, which would place them 5th in baseball. Now before you get mad at me and start yelling about how clutch matters, let me explain. The Yankees have outperformed their Base Runs record by 11 wins! That’s amazing! I write about this stat not to say the Yankees should only have 84 wins but to try and quantify how amazing they have been in the clutch and how they have the best record in baseball despite setting the record for most players injured in one season.
Is Clutch Real?
And now the part where you all get to yell at me. Research by Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs has shown multiple times that clutch is not predictive. What that means is there is no correlation between how clutch a team is one year to how it performs the next. Take the Red Sox for example. Last year, they were amazing in the clutch and won 108 games. This year, with basically the same roster, they were just eliminated from division contention.
Here is a graph showing the correlation for team’s clutch metrics between the first and second halves of a season. Not even year-over-year, but within the same season. This would account for someone just having a “great year.”
You can see how there is no correlation whatsoever. Here is the same data for an even larger sample size:
Once again, no correlation. Which means the Yankees 89 wRC+ in April did not predict how they would do later on, clearly. But on the flip side, it also means we should not expect them to continue hitting great in the clutch because they have done so lately.
But what about mentality?
Now here is where I’m more sympathetic to arguments about clutch and might risk my membership in the #BPNerds. Does mentality matter? Is DJ LeMahieu clutch because he is just a machine and has the right mindset at the plate? You often hear David Cone talking about the 1998 team and how the expected to win every single day because they had that confidence in themselves. And they went out and won 114 games and the World Series. If you listen to R2C2 – which you all should – you often hear CC Sabathia saying a similar thing.
And I get that argument. When I’m not pouring over FanGraphs leaderboards, I study to be a therapist, which means I understand how belief and the human element can matter. If you believe you are going to do well, you are more likely to do well. This years Yankee team clearly believes they will do well, they have done well, and they should continue to do well.
And that is why I believe it is reasonable to say those clutch statistics are meaningful for this team. No, it is not because they have been clutch so they will continue to do so. All the research tells us that does not matter. But what we know is the Yankees have been clutch and often talk about how much they enjoy playing with each other, the belief they have in themselves and in each other. Ultimately, that all matters too.
We often talk about teams having special years like the 1998 Yankees or the 2009 Yankees. It really seems like this team could be another one of those. You have the narrative of #Replacefor28 and the clutch hitting. As JJ always reminds us, I’ll see you at the parade.
You can contact Rohan on Twitter @rohanarcot20