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:
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.