Yogi Berra Was Certifiably Clutch

Yogi Berra’s playing career ended well before my time. He was a superstar of an earlier generation, and though he never left the public eye, I certainly don’t know him any better than any of you do. So much of his stardom was due to his character, and to receive revealing anecdotes, we have to turn to the storytellers. Others are better equipped to talk about Berra’s personality. Others are better equipped to talk about their interactions with him, about all the things he said, about his graciousness and about his legacy. Berra, like all of them, was more than a baseball player. Berra was a person like few of them, and to fully understand him is to spend most of the time thinking about what he was off the field.

But of all the functions of statistics, one of them is to allow us to connect to the bygone eras. Stories provide information about the type of person Berra was. Statistics provide information about the type of player Berra was. Berra played before I knew what was going on. He played before most of you knew what was going on. We never got to watch him, outside of a few old video clips, but by digging into the data, we have a means by which to appreciate how talented he was, and how unlikely his story turned out to be. Berra did have one of those rare larger-than-life personalities, and that’s what made him more than just a great baseball player. Yet he was an unquestionably great baseball player, and as it turns out, he was also unquestionably clutch.

It doesn’t take long to see what made Berra so good. The man could hit. He wasn’t always the best hitter on his own team, but he finished his career with a 124 wRC+. For the sake of perspective, Jorge Posada finished at 123. Scott Rolen finished at 122. That’s already outstanding, but Berra, over the course of his career, developed a reputation for clutch performance. Now, a lot of players develop a reputation for clutch performance. In that way, Berra isn’t unusual, as it typically only takes a few big hits to get the label to stick. But Berra’s numbers go beyond the ordinary. It was fact, not reputation, as we can get from the helpful Clutch statistic. Clutch is a measure of timing, and here are the highest position-player Clutch scores for as long as we have a record:

Highest Career Clutch Scores, Hitters
Player Clutch
Nellie Fox 12.8
Tony Taylor 10.3
Tony Gwynn 9.9
Pete Rose 9.5
Sandy Alomar 8.1
Yogi Berra 7.9
Bill Buckner 7.8
Pee Wee Reese 7.6
Tommy Davis 7.5
Billy Williams 7.4
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference Play Index

That’s Berra, in sixth place, standing as a player who elevated his game in more important situations. That’s not everyone’s definition of clutch, but it’s a perfectly good one, and this is preferable to the alternative. He was a career .285 hitter, with an .830 OPS, but in situations considered high leverage, he batted .308, with an OPS of .892. He was successful with the game late and close. He was successful with runners on. Berra, simply, turned out to be more valuable than his surface numbers would suggest, because he got more of his hits when they mattered. To, of course, say nothing about Berra’s performances in the playoffs, where he couldn’t stop winning the World Series.

Just putting runs created over a common denominator, Berra ranks 210th all-time among hitters. But if you switch to RE24 — including some context — he jumps to 83rd, moving up 127 spots. That’s a nerdy way to re-assert that Berra excelled in pressure situations. This isn’t the sort of thing we usually talk about, because it’s usually nothing, but then Berra played for an awful long time.

Clutch aside, Berra as a hitter was defined by his ability to make contact and by his ability to hit for power. This plot covers what we’ll call the Yogi Berra Era, spanning from post-war to right before the mound was lowered. On the x-axis, strikeout rate, and on the y-axis, home-run rate.

berra-home-runs-strikeouts

There’s Berra, almost by himself. By these measures, the most similar hitter was Joe DiMaggio. The era was quite a bit different from the era we’ve been through more recently, but over the course of his career, Berra struck out less than half as often as the league average, and he homered twice as often as the league average. So Vladimir Guerrero becomes an unlikely comparison, although he couldn’t quite match either standard. Guerrero and Berra, obviously, were conspicuously different players, but in terms of their swing habits and power, they were cut from the same cloth.

And this is all about Berra as a hitter, completely leaving out that he spent the bulk of his career behind the plate, where he threw out nearly half of all attempted base-stealers. You don’t need to refer to WAR to understand that a great hitter has more value when he’s also a great regular catcher. Berra is remembered as maybe the greatest catcher in the history of the sport, and there’s just this one other thing — since Berra debuted, no catcher has been listed with a smaller height. Berra is, officially, the smallest catcher to have ever played a thousand games, which makes his story all the more improbable. Prior to the beginning of his career, Berra was met with some skeptics, who didn’t think he’d be big-league material. The same biases to some extent still exist today. Berra emerged not just as a good and small player, but as a power-hitting small catcher with innumerable leadership traits. The odds were long against him, but Berra overcame every single hurdle.

There are so many different ways and reasons to remember Yogi Berra. On the field, he was improbably excellent, durable and powerful and aggressive and clutch. Off the field, he was beloved universally, incomparably, all that somehow overshadowing a legitimate Hall-of-Fame career. It only follows, then, that Yogi Berra was also a Hall-of-Fame person, but I’m pretty sure that’s not a thing that exists. In every way imaginable, Berra’s life was one of the greatest. His greatest gift to the world was staying as long as he did.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Westside guymember
7 years ago

Wow. That was a truly excellent piece of writing – thank you, Jeff.