Sunday was the Rafael Devers show, and for very good reason. Boston’s star third baseman almost single-handedly carried his team to a win, and thus a postseason berth without a Game 163, hitting a home run early to put his team on the board, having another big hit in the middle of the game, and then smashing a second homer, this one ultimately serving as a game winner. Devers is getting all of the attention for this game, which is precisely the way it should be.
But, and you knew there was going to be a but because it’s not Devers’ name in the headline up there, it wouldn’t have mattered nearly as much without Alex Verdugo. Now, the outfielder was almost one of the game’s goats (notably different than a GOAT) with a baserunning blunder earlier in the game, but he made up for it at the plate. He came up in the seventh inning with two outs and two men on, his team trailing by two, and he came through. Verdugo’s double brought home both runners and gave tied the game, setting the table for the aforementioned game-winning Devers homer. And it’s really just more of what we’ve been seeing with Verdugo all season.
Now, just looking at the outfielder’s overall numbers, this has not really been all that impressive of a season. With the regular season over, Verdugo has finished 2021 hitting .289/351/.426 for a 107 wRC+. By FanGraphs’ measure, he has been roughly a two-win player, which more or less translates to an average regular. It’s not terrible, and every good team needs their two-win players, but it’s also far from special. And throw in goofy mistakes like the baserunning blunder on Sunday or some defensive, we’ll call them miscues, through the year, and we easily could be looking at this season as a net negative.
And maybe as time goes and we get further away from the season we’ll look at it like that, but it still doesn’t feel like a negative to me. Having watched pretty much every inning of Red Sox baseball this year, I generally have a gut feel for how I feel seasons went for everyone — obviously a gut feel does not automatically mean I am correct! — and for Verdugo it seems more positive than negative, though closest to neutral. And as I consider all that’s happened in 2021, I think it really comes down to his propensity to come up big when the team most needed him.
Now, before we get into the numbers I think there is a conversation to be had about clutchness, and the seemingly ever-lasting debate in the game as to whether or not it exists. I think it very certainly exists, and I think human nature dictates that some people will be better in high-pressure moments than others, but I think the collective we thinks we are much better at identifying it than we actually are. The sample sizes for these moments are typically so small that it’s easy for us to fall victim to small sample noise and put actual meaning to it.
That’s a hard trap to avoid falling into, I think, and it’s one that I’m at least on the edge of with Verdugo. As I said, his numbers on the year are middling, but there’s some eye-opening differences based on leverage. Again, per FanGraphs, in low-leverage situations he was a below-average hitter with a wRC+ of 91, while his medium-leverage mark was 124 and his high-leverage was 129. Put another way, he was nearly 40 percent better in high-leverage than in low-leverage. And for whatever it may be worth, the sample size for medium- and high-leverage combined was roughly equal to the low-leverage sample.
Furthermore, numbers like Win Probability Added, which does exactly what it sounds like, paint him in a very different kind of picture relative to his teammates than his overall numbers. He was a plus-2.22 in WPA this year, which put him squarely in the top 25 percent of all qualified hitters in baseball. His clutch score on FanGraphs (explained here) put him at number five in the entire league. Among Red Sox players no one had a higher clutch score, and only Devers had a higher WPA at the end of the year.
Some of this is certainly circumstantial, and it’s worth noting that this hasn’t always been the case in his career. On the other hand, Verdugo has never really seemed like the kind of player who lets the pressure get to him, as most notably exhibited in 2020 with no signs of pressing despite replacing the best player the Red Sox developed in a half-century and coming in via a hugely controversial trade.
Alex Cora is going to have some decisions to make when filling out the lineup card on Tuesday, and one of the biggest will be his outfield alignment. Verdugo could potentially be on the outside looking in. Part of the calculus will be in figuring out how much you buy into the clutch factor that the outfielder has shown this year. A one-game scenario can always come down to a whole lot of little things, and I think it’s hard to ignore the big-moment performances from Verdugo this year. Perhaps I’m falling victim to that small-sample noise, but I’d have a hard time sitting him given how he’s performed when the lights have been at their brightest in 2021.