It seems odd to read complaints about an offense that had scored the second most runs per game in baseball. Yet as the deadline approaches and the Yankees make plans to shore up their roster, there have been an increasing number of calls for the Yankees to add a bat. Some of that might be the temporary frustration of an A-Rod-less lineup, but it does extend a bit beyond that. Something feels off about this offense. They put plenty of men on base, for sure — their .342 team OBP ranks second in the AL and is 20 points better than league average. But it seems as though they hit a degree worse once those men are on base.
We can look to fairly standard stats to debunk that idea. With men in scoring position the Yankees are hitting .261, which ranks fifth in the AL. Even better, they’re slugging .439 in those situations (.178 ISO). The added power helps ensure that runs score. Even when you add in situations when they have a man on first, they’re right around the same area. That is, while they might not be a super team with runners in scoring position, they are in no way deficient. When you put that many men on base in the first place, you’re going to score plenty of runs by being just above average with men on base.
Still, there’s some context lacking from the runners in scoring position stats. For instance, on Friday night the Yankees hit extremely well with runners in scoring position. But there came a point where all those extra runs were superfluous. That is, they were putting up numbers with men on base, but not in what would be considered clutch situations. The leverage in those situations was low. Thankfully, we have some numbers we can examine to help us mete out the higher pressure situations.
At FanGraphs there are leader boards and splits for almost everything. One thing I started checking this weekend, when researching an article on the Reds for ESPN, is how teams are performing in high-leverage situations. As it turns out, the Yankees are pretty poor in this regard. They rank 10th in the AL in both batting average (.244) and wOBA (.301) in high pressure situations. The Rays and Red Sox, by comparison, are their superiors, with .338 and .335 wOBAs in those same situations. In fact, the AL East takes the top three spots; the Blue Jays rank third with a .330 wOBA when it counts the most.
We can take this notion of high-leverage performance a step further, still, when we include WPA-based stats. There are two in particular I’ve grown to enjoy on a team level: WPA/LI and Clutch. WPA/LI basically strips leverage out of a team’s performance and gives you a context-neutral rating of a team’s offensive output — that is, how they hit, period, regardless of a situation’s leverage. The Yankees here rank third with a 3.54 WPA/LI, though they trail the Red Sox and Rangers by a considerable amount. But they’re about an equal degree ahead of the No. 4 team, the Tigers, while nine of the 14 AL teams have negative scores.
(On an individual level, Curtis Granderson leads the way, while Jorge Posada has been the worst on the team.)
The Clutch stat is similar in nature, but instead of comparing a team’s production to its context-neutral state, it compares overall performance to performance in high level situations. Here’s where the Yankees are at their worst. Their -3.65 Clutch score is dead last in the AL. This is in part because they hit so well overall; the Red Sox and Rangers are the second and third worst teams in terms of clutch. But when combined with their poor overall performance in clutch situations, it helps illustrate why there is a perception that the Yankees have underperformed this year. They have scored plenty of runs, but they’ve failed when a hit would have made a huge difference.
(Russell Martin actually has the best Clutch score on the team, followed by, gulp, Francisco Cervelli. Mark Teixeira is the trailer at -1.41, and A-Rod is pretty bad at -1.19. Brett Gardner, Derek Jeter, and Robinson Cano round out the bottom five.)
In a way, a similar issue afflicted the Yankees last year. In 2010 they had a -2.50 Clutch score, fourth worst in the AL, while their WPA/LI was second best. It’s a bit different this time, though, as Alex Rodriguez led the way in Clutch last year. That is to say that Clutch score is not skill-based. Players will often regress to the -1 to 1 range if given enough time — even Captain Clutch himself has a 0.78 career Clutch score. Obviously high leverage situations have different effects on different players, but they normally don’t perform out of line with normal expectations. The problem is that the season has particular start and end dates, giving only a finite time for adequate regression.
There is a chance still for the Yankees offense to perform like the juggernaut it is on paper. Their numbers in high leverage situations stink now, but it’s not as though the team collectively wilts under pressure. In some cases, such as Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira, it might be a matter of approach. With others it could be as simple as dumb luck. The perception that they need a bat is understandable, and at DH they certainly could use some help. But what they need more than anything is for their current lineup to hit in high-leverage situations as they’re capable of normally. If that aspect of the game falls into place, the Yankees will have little to worry about in the final two months.