Aaron Judge Has Been the Least Clutch Player on Record

A fantastic talent, Aaron Judge has nevertheless had trouble in high-leverage situations.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Some MVP ballots might have already been submitted, which is a real shame because there’s still a few games to be played and perhaps a few persuasive blog posts to be authored.

On Tuesday, this author examined some other factors that BBWAA members ought to consider when voting, particularly in a close race where voters might need to go beyond the convenience of one catch-all metric like wins above replacement.

The face of this argument is Aaron Judge, who’s had a remarkable rookie season and who leads Jose Altuve in WAR by a thin margin entering play Wednesday: 7.7 to 7.4. Judge also has 50 home runs — a nice, round, loud number that figures to sway some voters on the fence.

But as I noted on Tuesday, Judge has been the least “clutch” hitter in baseball this season. What that means is Judge has performed below his overall performance level in high-leverage situations. His 95 wRC+ under such circumstances is also slightly below league average. Meanwhile, he’s been Barry Bonds in low-leverage situations (192 wRC+).

Like so many others, I’m a big fan of Judge’s talent. Every team in the majors would sign up to add Judge. He’s a Statcast God. And his overall value also includes defense and baserunning, factors for which win-probability numbers don’t account. Clutch is not believed, or proven, to be a repeatable skill. But in a close race, when value is being produced ought to be a consideration if not a separator. Again, awards are about rewarding history.

It’s not just that Judge is the least clutch among all qualified hitters this season. After some additional digging with my curiosity piqued, I found that he’s the least clutch hitter of all-time in a single season (dating back to 1974, at least, the first year for which WPA data is available).

And it’s not just Judge. As Jeff has noted, Kris Bryant has struggled for a second straight season in high-leverage situations and is also having one of the least-clutch seasons of all time. Jose Ramirez, too. Having watched a lot of Ramirez this season, this is a bit surprising to me, but Ramirez is evidence that when you set a really high overall performance standard and your performance is lagging in high-leverage situations, your “clutch” rating will take a hit. Ramirez has a lowly (6 wRC+ in high-leverage spots, but he also has only 46 plate appearances in such situations. (Judge has 58 such plate appearances and has homered in four of them.)

Here’s the complete list of the least clutch players since 1974:

The Most Un-Clutch Hitters on Record
Rank Name Season Clutch
1 Aaron Judge 2017 -3.9
2 Josh Reddick 2012 -3.8
3 Gary Carter 1979 -3.7
4 Alex Rodriguez 2008 -3.1
5 Nelson Cruz 2016 -3.1
6 Michael Saunders 2016 -3.0
7 Bill Mueller 2003 -3.0
8 Delino DeShields 1990 -3.0
9 Chet Lemon 1982 -3.0
10 Cesar Geronimo 1976 -2.9
11 Kris Bryant 2017 -2.9
12 Ryne Sandberg 1989 -2.9
13 Gary Gaetti 1983 -2.9
14 Sammy Sosa 2002 -2.9
15 Cecil Fielder 1990 -2.8
16 Javy Lopez 2004 -2.8
17 Pete O’Brien 1985 -2.8
18 Dwight Evans 1978 -2.8
19 Dave Henderson 1988 -2.7
20 Jose Ramirez 2017 -2.7
WPA data dates back to 1974.

And, again, here’s FanGraphs’ definition of clutch:

“…[H]ow much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” It also compares a player against himself, so a player who hits .300 in high leverage situations when he’s an overall .300 hitter is not considered clutch. Clutch does a good job of describing the past, but it does very little towards predicting the future.”

Why are there so many 2017 players — and, really, 21st century players — on the list? It could be that they’re facing better reliever, being more effectively targeted and neutralized by opponents. It could also just be random. And high-leverage appearances often represent smaller samples of work, lending the results to randomness.

However you choose to weigh the above information, it’s another variable to be considered. It’s also one with which I dealt last season.

I had an NL MVP vote last year and struggled with the top of my ballot, in part because of Bryant’s performance in high-leverage situations (noted by Jeff) amidst an otherwise sterling resume.

I considered not placing Bryant atop my ballot. I ultimately did, however, as the next best NL player by WAR, Corey Seager, also was not much of a clutch performer and Bryant had a two-win edge over Freddie Freeman. I feel Bryant’s overall value, including his defense and versatility, trumped the his clutch performance. This year I don’t have a vote, and this year is a closer MVP race in each league. This year I wouldn’t be placing Bryant atop my ballot, and I wouldn’t put Judge at No. 1, either. Would I rather have Judge than Altuve going forward? That’s a different question. Who had more total value and impact on winning and losing games for his team in 2017? That’s Altuve. Trout leads the league in Win Probability Added. Trout also has a legit MVP argument — beyond his talent.

The races are so close this year that clutch performance and context of performance ought to be considered. “Clutch” is a blemish on the resumes of some of the top candidates. It was the one problem with Bryant’s candidacy last year and it’s again a problem for Bryant, and now, for Judge. And this season, the race are closer.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

How is it possible that voters are allowed to cast their ballots before the season is over??? Remember last year when one of the AL Cy Young voters submitted his ballot a week in advance, thus missing Verlander’s last two starts.

Sersiouly this may be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard of. It’s the MVP/CY Young, etc for 100% of the season, not for 95% of the season.

5 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

They should institute a policy of literally burning every submission they get before the season is over, such that early ballots are exactly the same as no ballots.

5 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

So how do you stop someone from deciding early? Even if they don’t fill out the ballot or don’t bother mailing it in until the end of the season, they can still make up their mind after game 150.

5 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

As with virtually any rule, it’s not designed to eliminate the diehard violators, it serves to reduce violations by making it more difficult to do so.

5 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

I get your point, but a rule such as “you’re not allowed to submit your ballot until the season is over” in no way “makes it more difficult” to have made up your mind prior, and not change it.

5 years ago
Reply to  eldurko

Yeah but allowing people to submit their votes early makes it impossible for them to change their ballot once the season is over, should they desire to do so.

5 years ago
Reply to  eldurko

I beg to differ. If Judge hits 3 HR a game for the rest of the season and the Yankees win the division, I’d bet my life that some of the voters who had already decided Altuve was “definitely” the MVP after 150 games would change their minds.

Bobby Ayala
5 years ago
Reply to  Jon

Is this discussion really about uninformed and impulsive voters? If you’re voting early you’ve either made up your mind and nothing will change it, or you’re heading out for vacation and want to get the mail out beforehand. If someone wants to “change their ballot once the season is over” they didn’t deserve to have a vote.