Are the Diamondbacks a “clutch” team at the plate? I know their record would seem suggestive on it’s own, but humor me for a moment. If they were a clutch team, what would that look like? It’s generally accepted that clutch teams, or better yet, a clutch player, would come through in high leverage situations with an unusually high frequency. By calling a player, or collection of players “clutch,” it gives them credit for the skill to come through in big situations when others cannot.
Skills, as we know, are repeatable. Mark Trumbo has the skill to hit baseballs a long, long ways. Gerardo Parra has the skill to throw out base runners who test his arm when they should really know better by now. And Brad Ziegler has the skill to induce a high frequency of groundballs. I have the skill to feed and clothe myself and, odds are, you do too! It’s great to have a skill, even if it is just enough to make ourselves presentable to the general public, because it assigns us value. If I were a baseball player, being “clutch” would surely be a great compliment. Unfortunately, it would be untrue because “clutch” as it’s currently defined isn’t a real thing, as Joe Sheehan laid out for us back in 2004:
The notion of clutch persists because it allows for a storyline with a hero and a goat, and that’s both an easy tale to write and an easy one to read. While it’s a facile concept, players buy into it because it’s flattering. No one wants to believe that they’re successful just because they hit the genetic lottery and that, on a particular day, they performed better than the other, equally-gifted guys. It’s much more enjoyable to extrapolate a certain moral superiority from on-field success, to attribute that game-winning double to your heart and desire, rather than to your fast-twitch muscles and hitting the fastball at just the right angle to push it past the diving center fielder. It’s this need to turn physics and physicality into a statement about the character of people–to stick labels on them based on their day at work and the bounce of a ball–that is the most damning thing about the myth of clutch.
Don’t believe Sheehan? That’s fine, let’s let the numbers speak for themselves instead. In 2009, Tom Tango challenged Hard Ball Times readers to a contest. He allowed them to pick the “most clutch” player on their favorite team, then Tango chose a different hitter from the same team and tracked and compared their performances in high-leverage situations. Readers went with their guts, selecting guys that they felt were indeed “clutch,” presumably due to the narratives written about them that Sheehan describes above. Tango, by and large, went with players who are generally better overall hitters although they didn’t necessarily have the clutch tag specifically assigned to them. While you should read the article linked above, know that Tango won by a relatively wide margin by simply choosing better hitters rather than ones the media has endeared as “clutch performers.”
No team was more “clutch” in 2013 than the St. Louis Cardinals. They set a MLB record for highest batting average with runners in scoring position last season, hitting .330 with runners on second, third or both. To the bewilderment of every spectator and analyst, the Cardinals just couldn’t be cooled off with runners in scoring position, defying the odds time and again. But is it a repeatable skill? Apparently not as Matt Snyder of CBS’ Eye on Baseball pointed out just last month. Instead of driving in runs left and right, the 2014 Cardinals, while comprised of the same core of players, have managed only the 24th best offense with runners in scoring position, essentially repealing their dominance from the year prior.
Why am I brining all of this up? Well, the Diamondbacks happen to find themselves as the third worst team at the plate with runners in scoring position in baseball at the moment. Yikes. That’s not conducive to scoring runs or winning games. Have a look for yourself.
As you can see, Arizona is taking up space in the cellar with the San Diego and Chicago, hardly the company the team wants to be keeping. The seasonal data doesn’t make them appear very “clutch” by the looks of things. Collectively, the team is batting like Alex Presley with guys on second, third or both. And while this a collective reflection, let’s look at how the individuals with 20 or more plate appearances with runners in scoring position have fared.
No surprise here, Paul Goldschmidt is king, followed by A.J. Pollock, Trumbo, Chris Owings, Aaron Hill and others. You know what else this looks like? The order of the best hitters on the team (with maybe a slight alteration or two). This is because, as Tango pointed out back in ’09, the best hitters are the most productive under all circumstances, not just the ones where a run is most likely to be scored. Search by low-leverage situations and it’s the same hitters at the top of the list. In essence, the propensity to be “clutch” is really just the propensity to be a talented hitter and have the good fortune to come up with runners on second and third base.
Should we be worried about the Diamondbacks’ woes with runners in scoring position? Not really. Because it’s not a repeatable skill, there’s no reason we should expect teams who are good in this department to carry it out from year to year. Luckily, we also shouldn’t expect it to be carried over by poor performing teams. Any metric filtered for situations where there are runners in scoring position are vastly overrated. What they tell us is what has happened in the past. What they dont’ tell us is what will happen going forward. Comments around certain teams or players with runners in scoring position are useless when looking at the future and while you’ll hear a fair share of analysts and commentators throwing these stats around, they don’t have much value other than to state the frequency of past events.
The rule of thumb should be that the best hitters in the game will comparatively perform well in all situations with the usual variances in performance. You can’t build a clutch team simply because it doesn’t exist. What you can build is the best collection of hitters possible and that’s exactly where Arizona’s focus should be.
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