Derek Jeter on Thursday delighted those New York Yankees fans lucky enough — or well-heeled enough — to go to his final home game. First he smashed a near home run (it ended up being a double) in the opening frame. Then he finished his Yankee Stadium career in storybook fashion with a walk-off base hit in the bottom of the ninth:
In the minds of most Yankees fans, it was classic Jeter — The Captain stepping up in the clutch, like he’s been doing for years.
Then again, Jeter has also had the misfortune of playing his entire career during the sabermetric boom, which for the longest time denied the very existence of a true clutch hitter. Contrary to pinstriped dogma, Jeter couldn’t be something that didn’t exist.
Sabermetricians have since softened on that stance, and further research has shown there are players with a demonstrable ability to improve their hitting when it matters most. (Of course, most of those players are guys you’d never expect, provided you’re not a huge Scott Spiezio fan.) Sabermetricians have also devised ever more inventive ways to measure what it means to hit in the clutch, chief among them being Win Probability Added (WPA) and its derivatives.
WPA measures the change in win probability resulting from each plate appearance, putting a number on how much every play moved the needle toward a win in either team’s direction. Naturally, clutch situations will carry more WPA weight, because those moments produce the largest swings in win probability; there’s even a metric called Leverage Index that tracks how crucial a given situation is relative to the average plate appearance in Major League Baseball.
(To give an example of WPA in action, Jeter’s final plate appearance at Yankee Stadium began with a 69 percent chance of New York winning. When the plate appearance ended, the Yankees had a 100 percent chance of a win — having, you know, won the ballgame. Therefore, Jeter earned 0.31 units of WPA with that single, making it the most impactful hit of the game for the Yankees.)
If you add up all of those incremental pieces of win probability throughout the season, you’ll arrive at the total estimated number of wins a player added at the plate, giving a great deal of weight to when the player’s numbers were produced.
But there’s also a way to measure what a player’s WPA would be if we didn’t weigh clutch moments so much heavier than ordinary ones. To do that, sabermetricians have developed WPA/LI, which divides a batter’s WPA by the average Leverage Index of all his plate appearances, effectively producing a context-neutral version of WPA.
Because any discrepancies between the two metrics are necessarily driven by contradictions in performance between big and routine moments, the difference between WPA and WPA/LI has been used to quantify clutch performance. And Jeter — despite his reputation, despite hits like Thursday night’s game-winner — hasn’t hit appreciably better or worse in pressure situations than in typical ones.
As is the case with a few notable advanced metrics, the “Clutch” figures at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs don’t match up exactly (here, probably because of slight differences in the sites’ win probability models). But both data sets tell similar stories. According to Baseball-Reference.com, there have been 1,077 players to have 1000-plus career games since 1940, and Jeter ranks 634th in Clutch — right ahead of Nate McLouth, Nick Swisher and Shane Victorino. FanGraphs’ Clutch data only goes back to 1974, but among the 1,663 qualifiers with 1,000 or more plate appearances since then, Jeter ranks 639th, slightly outpaced by Deion Sanders. Relative to the universe of MLB players past and present, Jeter’s Clutch differentials are only remarkable for how unremarkable they are.
Maybe that’s the point. This particular statistical conception of clutch focuses narrowly on just one definition of the term — how much a player’s numbers improved or declined in big moments — but ignores the baseline level of performance from which each player was starting. Sanders was a relatively mediocre hitter who was relatively mediocre in the clutch as well. By contrast, Jeter was a fantastic hitter (and not just “for a shortstop”) for most of his career, regardless of the circumstance, so it means something that he performed to his usual high standards in clutch situations as well. That’s how you end up producing as many career WPA as a Hall of Famer like Ernie Banks, for instance.
If anything is puzzling about Jeter’s relatively average crunch-time metrics, it’s not the contrast against his game-raising reputation as Captain Clutch — a good amount of which was myth-making hooey anyway. It’s that his style of play has traditionally been quite conducive to outperforming one’s baseline statistics during high-leverage at bats. Running a regression between FanGraphs’ version of Clutch and its various component stats, including walk rate, strikeout rate, isolated power and speed score, the two metrics most strongly associated with a player’s Clutch number are a lack of strikeouts and a lack of power. Jeter’s career K-rate was 2.9 percentage points below the MLB average, and his career isolated power was 25 points below the norm, so you’d think he’d have a leg up in the clutch. Not so, say the statistics.
But his curtain call at Yankee Stadium demonstrated those traits perfectly. On Wednesday, my colleague Jonah Keri wrote extensively about Jeter’s signature inside-out swing, and his propensity for going to the opposite field. About how Jeter perfected the art of going the other way through hours of practice, gaining the consistency required to shoot the ball precisely into the gap between the first and second basemen. It was fitting, then, that his walk-off single showcased all of that. Jeter the “technician” produced hits like Thursday night’s farewell stroke in clutch and non-clutch moments alike.