Giancarlo Stanton did not exactly have a stellar Opening Day in 2021. To be precise, the Yankees’ designated hitter went 0-5 with three strikeouts.
Generally speaking, my eyes would simply glaze past such box score numbers. I’d tell myself it’s a long season, and that even the best offensive players have plenty of hitless days.
But on this occasion I was given reason to pause.
Amongst the many Yankee fans disappointed by the April 1 game were Yanks Go Yard podcast hosts Adam Weinrib and Thomas Carannante. While the pair are more than aware that one game does not define a season, they nonetheless felt particular unease with this performance.
It would be one thing, they argued, if the Yankees lost the game 8-0. That would be a flukey, bad-day type of loss. But the Yankees lost 3-2 to a decent team after squandering chance after chance. That’s the kind of loss that makes you think about being outmatched in the playoffs.
And fairly or not, no Yankee evokes sour playoff memories like Stanton, who suffered two, quick, ninth-inning strikeouts in the 2018 ALDS defeat to Boston.
Yankees fans still doubt Giancarlo Stanton’s ability in the clutch.
An expensive and injury prone player, Stanton’s arrival in New York has seen him cast in the same negative light as Alex Rodriguez was a decade-and-a-half ago. At his best, Stanton is blamed for not putting up MVP numbers. At his worst, he draws heat for being injury prone and for the value and length of his contract.
Another commonality Stanton and A-Rod share is their reputation for not coming up in the clutch. A-Rod couldn’t hit under pressure. He couldn’t handle the playoffs. Well, that’s what everybody said until 2009.
But is this criticism fair? Can we ever really know if a player is objectively clutch or not? And outside of that 2018 series, has Stanton even failed as a clutch hitter?
FanGraphs keeps splits on how players perform in high, medium and low-leverage situations. In high leverage situations Stanton has a career wRC+ of 117. That’s not Stantonian level hitting, but it still puts him well above the league average (for reference, Derek Jeter’s career wRC+ is 119).
Furthermore, Stanton’s drop to 117 (from a 146+ wRC in low-leverage and a 143 wRC+ in medium-leverage situations) cannot be blamed on strikeouts. Stanton strikes out at the same rate in high-leverage situations as he does in low-leverage situations (his low-leverage rate is actually 0.3% higher). His walk rate is actually best (14%) in high-leverage situations.
In short, the narrative that Stanton fails in the clutch is, at very least, un-nuanced. But un-nuanced is not the same as untrue.
For 2018, Stanton’s one full season in New York, the splits tell a much less favorable story. His wRC+ in high-leverage situations that year was a paltry 66.
What makes a situation high leverage or not depends on the psychology of the individual player at hand. Stanton could stand the pressure of being the big fish in Miami’s pond. New York pressure, however, may have been the straw that finally broke the slugger’s back.
The job of our podcast hosts is to tell a compelling story. They told it very well. When it comes to Giancarlo Stanton, however, there’s a case on both sides. Perhaps he wilts in the limelight, or perhaps he’s simply been cursed to strike out at a few inopportune moments. It all depends on which data you look at, and how much you read into it.
As a modern slugger, Big G will continue to strikeout at an unfortunate rate. But as he showed us in October 2020, that propensity to strike out is matched by a propensity to go yard. Perhaps this year, those homers will come in the World Series. Then we can all laugh off Stanton’s Opening Day performance as an April Fools prank.