The 2021 Mariners are on pace to be the most clutch team of all time, and it’s not even close. After games like the miraculous 0-7 comeback against the Astros this week, the opening day comeback, or the three 1 run wins against A’s at the beginning of this homestand, it’s evident that the Mariners have the clutch gene, but to the extent of most clutch all time? That’s lofty, but stats are backing it up.
The great folks over at Fangraphs developed a stat to quantify clutch, and I’ll give a little explanation on how it works, but if you want the full in-depth formula you can find the algorithm used to calculate it here. In the basic sense, this stat calculates the deviation from normal performance a player has in a situation with heightened stakes. The player is compared against themselves, not against all other major leaguers, leading to an interesting leaderboard typically full of names not associated with absolute stardom and big-name power found atop traditional stat lists the likes of home runs or OBP.
For example, the top 3 of the FanGraphs player clutch rankings are our very own Kyle Seager and J.P Crawford along with Alex Verdugo, while names like Jed Lowrie, Joc Pederson, and Jorge Polanco also grace the top 10. (Arbitrary but 6 of the top 10 have names beginning with J, and I think that’s a funny coincidence.) When it comes to scoring individual players with this clutch metric, anything trending upwards from 0 is above average, and the opposite is true as the further you delve into the negatives the less clutch you are. Sammy Sosa is the least clutch player of all time if you were curious, with an impressive -14.67 career number.
A team equivalent statistic is easy to manufacture for this metric, all you’ve got to do is add up the 26 man roster and look at that, you’ve got a team clutch score. The current all-time most clutch team is the 2016 Texas Rangers, with a rating of 8.20. They would go on to finish 95-67, before getting swept by the Blue Jays in the ALDS. Following them in the rankings are the 1990 Chicago White Sox (94-68), the 2010 Houston Astros (76-86), and then, with roughly 60 fewer games played than those 3, the 2021 Seattle Mariners. The Mariners sit with a clutch rating of 7.46 through just 101 games, only .74 points behind the all-time leaders. This race doesn’t only proceed forward though, as clutch statistics can regress as quickly as they arise.
For the sake of curiosity, if the Mariners were to keep up a steady pace equal to what they are currently, they would be adding roughly 0.074 clutch points on a night, leaving them at a whopping…. 11.974 points at the end of the regular season. A ridiculous, ludicrous number. Tony Gwynn accumulated 9.49 points in the entirety of his career, the all-time individual leader. This is beyond unheralded territory, if the Mariners were able to put up a double-digit number they would be alone on an island of clutch that I doubt any team would come close to for years, decades even. The best part about this though? There’s absolutely no link between being clutch and being good.
It’s evident the Mariners are clutch. They’ve got the best bullpen in the MLB, a one-run game record of 23-8, both hallmarks of being able to close it down in the latter stages of a ballgame. However, the most interesting piece of statistical data relevant to this argument is the fact that the Mariners cannot get hits with the bases empty to save their lives. In situations deemed low leverage, the M’s slash .203/.287/.337, good for an abysmal OPS of .624. Now if you bump that up to medium leverage, the numbers rise to .229/.292/.422, OPS of .714. That upward trend continues to make itself known, as high leverage situations lead to the Mariners producing a .286/.367/.494 line. I genuinely don’t know how to take those numbers.
Are the Mariners lucky? Is this evidence pointing towards future regression? What curses Dylan Moore to post a 69 WRC+ in low leverage situations, but a 170 WRC+ when the stakes are high? That’s a jump in production equivalent to adding a whole average MLB player atop of what he had already produced. What? The individual statistics page in high leverage situations deserves a novel written about it. Jake Fraley is at a 223 WRC+. Do you know what that’s roughly equivalent to? Barry Bonds in 2001-2004. That’s why the Mariners are the most fascinating team in baseball. This is a collection of absolute dudes, who when needed most in the direst straits, become baseball gods. T
he history books almost certainly will not remember Fraley, Moore, France, Crawford, or any of these Mariners alongside Tony Gwynn or Barry Bonds, but in the moments they were most needed, they became them. This trend may not continue, but if it does you’re witnessing obscure statistical history that deserves to be recognized. Is this a good model of success for the team? Is it not? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to watch.