Spoiler Alert: It isn’t great, but not as bad as you might think
Just before the All-Star break, Ben Rortvedt & Jorge Polanco delivered two of the most clutch, late-inning hits that Twins’ bats have provided all season. For the most part, however, fans have bemoaned this team’s inability to perform “in the clutch”.
Of course, defining the concept of “clutch” isn’t exactly a simple task. The parameters that define the term can be slippery. For my purposes here, I’ll be using the Baseball Reference definition of “Late/Close” plate appearances, or those taking place in the 7th inning or later with the Twins either up a run, tied, or down with the tying run on deck. Like all metrics, this single distributor cannot capture every aspect of “clutch”, but I like how it combines both late-game and close-game scenarios.
In 2021, the Twins have a .701 OPS and 80 sOPS+ (compared to league-average 100) in late/close situations. The team’s best OPS contributors in late/close action (minimum 20 PA): Byron Buxton (1.461), Josh Donaldson (1.046), and Miguel Sano (.858). The worst? Ryan Jeffers (.389), Willians Astudillo (.381), & Trevor Larnach (.233).
A .701 & 80+ OPS line doesn’t strike anyone as great—because it isn’t—but it certainly isn’t the worst in franchise history. To find that, one has to go all the way back to—last year. The 2020 Twins went .565 & 67+ in the late/close OPS department, with Jake Cave, Eddie Rosario, & Marwin Gonzalez the primary culprits.
2011—a year that in so many ways resembles this one—wasn’t much better (.599, 76+) with Luke Hughes, Danny Valencia, & Trevor Plouffe disappearing as the close games “got late early”.
Going the other direction, those early-’00s Twins teams that always seemed to be fighting back were in reality doing exactly that in late/close games: .836 & 126+ in 2001; .784 & 116+ in 2002.
The two best late/close clutch Twins squads, however, happened to be two seasons that were almost duplicates of each other:
- 1988: .788 OPS, 135 sOPS+. Twins finish 91-71 but 13 GB the runaway Oakland A’s (104-58). That year, guys like Gary Gaetti, Kent Hrbek, Randy Bush, & Gene Larkin were extremely productive in late/close opportunities.
- 1963: .805 OPS, 137 sOPS+. Twins finish 91-70 but 13 GB the runaway New York Yankees (104-57). Truly one of the most under-appreciated seasons in Twins history, with Jimmie Hall, Lenny Green, Bob Allison, and Earl Battery all proving to have ice in their veins.
The corollary to all the above analysis is that it has yet to be determined whether or not “clutch” is a skill set. Do certain batters really come through more times than not in key moments, or does it all average out over time? Either way, baseball success/failure is doled out at the season level, not by career arcs (otherwise Ernie Banks & Mike Trout would have more rings than fingers).
The bottom line here is that specifically in 2021 thus far, the Twins have been below average at hitting in late/close game scenarios. Just add it to the long line of skills/traits this squad is below average in.