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Have Giants hitters been “clutch” to start the season?

Sure, they’ve hit dingers, but have they been as impactful as they’ve been impressive?

San Francisco Giants v San Diego Padres Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

This won’t be the most important thought on the mind of any reasonable fan, but yesterday’s home run barrage by the San Francisco Giants and the San Diego Padres got me thinking about just how impactful the Giants’ home runs have been; and, that’s when I reminded myself of this segment on MLB Network — which I assume most of us can only glimpse via the clips they post to Twitter and YouTube, thanks to their wonky carriage deals — which had Brian Kenny going into the possibility of MLB giving out a “Clutch” Award and how we might arrive at one.

The basic premise in the segment is that great hitters produce the best clutch results (determined by good ol’ WPA — Win Probability Added). FanGraphs has its own Clutch stat that incorporates WPA, and here’s how the two are distinguished:


Win Probability Added (WPA) captures the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team’s odds of winning. Most sabermetric statistics are context neutral — they do not consider the situation of a particular event or how some plays are more crucial to a win than others. While wOBA rates all home runs as equal, we know intuitively that a home run in the third inning of a blowout is less important to that win than a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of a close game. WPA captures this difference.


Clutch = (WPA / pLI) – WPA/LI

In the words of David Appelman, this calculation measures, “…how 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.

Of course the advanced analysis would strive to strip all context from performance to arrive at some sort of neutral value for the purposes of determining a player’s worth — after all, most everyone at FanGraphs is auditioning for a front office role — but for the rest of us, deeming neutral as preferable to context-dependent seems silly. We are talking about sports — entertainment! Context is needed! How do we arrive at a feeling — Clutch began as a feeling you get from watching a player perform in... A BIG MOMENT — without context?

So, shove off, FanGraphs. Let’s stick with Win Probability Added, and I suspect that my mini rant at the end of the last paragraph is why Brian Kenny does in his analysis, too.

How do the Giants fare in this sort of analysis? For one thing, I’m of the opinion that the Giants’ clutch performance through the first month of the season is less important when the pitching staff keeps serving up leverage index-busting home runs; for another thing, one month of data hardly seems reasonable. Still, I noted in the Mexico City series preview that the Giants are dangerously close to having to do something they haven’t done in 30 years if they’re going to have a .500 season.

Given all that, let’s take a look at their Win Probability Added totals through April 30 from the last two seasons. Before you look at the list, just know that you should try to multiple all of these values by 6 to get a sense of how they rate out over the season. FanGraphs lists this breakdown for season long totals (because, remember, it’s cumulative):

Excellent = +6.0
Great = +3.0
Above Average = +2.0
Average = +1.0
Below Average = 0.0
Poor = -1.0
Awful = -3.0

With all that in mind, here’s the first month from last season:

Joc Pederson, 1.14
Wilmer Flores, 0.5
Luis Gonzalez, 0.49
Austin Slater, 0.48
Thairo Estrada, 0.3
Luke Williams, 0.27
Joey Bart, 0.08
Mike Ford, 0.05
Jason Vosler, 0
Ka’ai Tom, 0
Mike Yastrzemski, -0.03
Heliot Ramos, -0.09
Jason Krizan, -0.1
Steven Duggar, -0.11
Mauricio Dubon, -0.17
Curt Casali, -0.28
Brandon Belt, -0.42
Darin Ruf, -0.5
Brandon Crawford, -0.54

That feels about right, you know? Nothing really jumps out at you. Luke Williams had a big hit early on and then we didn’t hear from him again. The Giants were 14-7 to close April last season, so they had some big hits in there. The top of that list was mostly the top of the list by season’s end, too. Click here for the complete list, and here is the top 10 (with their season wRC+ in parenthesis, just to see if Kenny’s thesis that great hitters produce the most clutch results):

Joc Pederson 2.63 (144)
Thairo Estrada 2.47 (106)
Wilmer Flores 1.83 (103)
J.D. Davis 0.96 (142)
Austin Slater 0.89 (124)
Evan Longoria 0.79 (115)
David Villar 0.34 (124)
Curt Casali 0.31 (101)
Jason Vosler 0.17 (127)
Luke Williams 0.08 (62)

Brandon Crawford got a little better as the season went on and wound up with -0.09 WPA, which was the 18th-best on the team. Mike Ford, Andrew Knapp, and Lewis Brinson were all ahead of him and just a bit above 0.00 in WPA. Last year... was... yeah. Let’s jump back to 2021 and see if the first month similarly portends to the rest of the season:

Alex Dickerson 0.78
Brandon Crawford 0.73
Brandon Belt 0.39
Donovan Solano 0.37
Austin Slater 0.29
Evan Longoria 0.24
Darin Ruf 0.13
Steven Duggar 0.06
Buster Posey 0.03
Jason Vosler 0.02
LaMonte Wade Jr. 0
Mike Tauchman -0.02
Skye Bolt -0.04
Logan Webb -0.08
Johnny Cueto -0.11
Tommy La Stella -0.12
Aaron Sanchez -0.12
Alex Wood -0.21
Curt Casali -0.21
Kevin Gausman -0.25
Anthony DeSclafani -0.27
Mike Yastrzemski -0.29
Wilmer Flores -0.42
Mauricio Dubon -0.59

Yastrzemski, Flores, and Dubon having worse WPAs than pitchers sure is something. There’s no way that team went on to win 70 games, right? RIGHT??? And Alex Dickerson must have — no. It did not work out that way. Here’s the top 10 from 2021 (full list here) with their season wRC+ in parenthesis:

Brandon Crawford 3.34 (138)
LaMonte Wade Jr. 3.31 (116)
Brandon Belt 2.14 (157)
Darin Ruf 1.75 (143)
Buster Posey 1.71 (139)
Tommy La Stella 1.2 (93)
Kris Bryant 1.18 (111)
Donovan Solano 0.95 (104)
Austin Slater 0.57 (101)
Steven Duggar 0.21 (106)

So, yeah, it’s mostly true that the best hitters on the team wind up being their most clutch hitters, but consider Wilmer Flores from last year and Tommy La Stella from the year before — they occupy a sort of goldilocks zone where the more modern version of clutch — that player is good because he can hit when it really matters — is affirmed by the numbers. In Wilmer’s case, it’s being an above average clutch hitter despite being an average hitter on the season; in La Stella’s case, it’s average clutch while being below average as a hitter.

Do these results suggest that WPA is predictive? No. Again, it’s most likely that a great hitter is a clutch hitter. The minor deviations are why we love baseball, though. Let’s see if the first month of 2023 suggests anything...

Blake Sabol 0.93
Mike Yastrzemski 0.51
Mitch Haniger 0.41
Joc Pederson 0.33
LaMonte Wade Jr. 0.27
Austin Slater 0.23
Michael Conforto 0.13
J.D. Davis 0.1
Matt Beaty -0.04
Austin Wynns -0.05
Brett Wisely -0.05
Bryce Johnson -0.07
Joey Bart -0.08
Darin Ruf -0.08
Roberto Perez -0.13
Heliot Ramos -0.2
Thairo Estrada -0.32
Brandon Crawford -0.46
Wilmer Flores -0.65
David Villar -0.74

Thairo Estrada’s negative value excepted, most of this list feels about right. The Giants’ cumulative 0.02 projects out to 0.12 on the season, which as you saw above is close to 0.0 which is “below average.” I guess I figured the Giants were at about “average” clutch, but they don’t appear to be. By comparison, after last April, they were 5th-best in baseball with a cumulative 1.08 WPA. In 2021, they were 7th-best at 0.33. Their 0.02 is 17th-best in baseball right now. They’re the last team with a positive WPA.

But again, it’s not predictive. Here’s what the rest of the WPA team leaderboard looks like (17-30):

SFG 0.02
OAK -0.12
PHI -0.14
CLE -0.21
NYY -0.38
HOU -0.39
MIN -0.49
MIA -1.32
CHW -2.08
WSN -2.42
SEA -2.57
COL -3.01
KCR -3.36
DET -3.4

Their teamwide 108 wRC+ is 11th-best in baseball and 6th in the NL, but yes, they are still leading all of baseball with a 27.4% strikeout rate. Are strikeouts the culprit here? Perhaps. The combined strikeout rate of the players with negative WPA is 27.2%. So over drinks or text chains with your friends, I’m giving you permission to declare that the Giants have been a little unclutch in the first month of the season.