Wednesday, September 12, 2007

As Clutch As Clutch Can Be

A throwaway line in Svrluga's chat today about Ryan Church got me thinking. First, the line: "I don't think the club believes Church is a clutch player, a good grinder."

I'm in no position to argue with the last part. I hate trying to ascribe motive based off body language -- remember when the Angels traded Jim Edmonds to the Cardinals for Kent Bottenfield because they didn't like Jimmy's laid-back attitude? -- because you can't tell, just as none of us keyboard (or remote control) commanders can tell what the hell is going on with Felipe Lopez just because he's not smiling. At any rate, what about the first part of that? Is Church 'clutch'?

First, a general belief on clutch. Many statheads don't believe in 'clutch.' The more reasonable ones believe it exists, just that it's really hard to measure. I tend to think that there's no such thing as clutch, per se, but that there is an absence of it in some batters, just as there's no such thing as 'cold'. It's just air that lacks heat. I also think that finding a measurement of an ability, one way or another, is quite difficult because players don't get enough opportunities one way or another to really get any sort of meaningful sample. Of course, most of us are smiling, thinking about all the big hits that Ryan Zimmerman has had and thinking that the statheads are protactor-wielding pinheads. But regardless of whether you believe in a player's ability to be clutch, clutch hits DO exist. So how has Church down? How about the rest of the Nats?

First, the tool. I decided to use Leverage Index, which is a stat that sorta describes what it sounds like. LI uses actual on-field events and compares that to what's happened in baseball past to assess how important an actual situation is. An AB when you're trailing by 10 in the 4th inning has a lot less value than one when the game is tied in the bottom of the 9th. Makes sense, right? The gritty details are here, but the number represents how important a particular AB is with respect to the eventual outcome. A LI of 1.0 is an 'average' AB. And a LI of 2.0 is twice as important. The key, since you're probably rolling your eyes, is to remember that this number isn't pulled out of someone's ass -- just their spreadsheet. And that it's based on results of a great number of games over the last bazillion or so years.

If you're interested in the actual chart of LI, here ya go. It changes dramatically from AB to AB based on how many outs there are, how many runners are on, and most importantly, what the score is.

With that out of the way, how do our favorite Nats do when it really matters? I looked at each player's trips to the plate when the leverage index was 3 or higher, truly clutch situations.

Let's start with the unsurprising.

Ryan Zimmerman has 6 singles and one homer in his 18 opportunities. When the game's on the line, he comes through 33% of the time. I guess what'd surprise most people is the flip side of that. He failed 12 times, including 4 strikeouts. I vividly remember his bases-loaded liner against Chris Ray early in the season, but not too many other times when he didn't come through. It must be nice to have your fans only remember the times you succeed; I'm sure our friend Chad would appreciate similar considerations!

You'd probably guess that Dmitri Young has been clutch. Well, sort of. He had 14 "clutch" plate appearances and knocked out a homer and three singles, while walking in another. Four hits in thirteen ABs... is that 'clutch'?

The other name that probably pops to mind is Jesus Flores. Despite being the backup, he has as many clutch opportunities as Dmitri. And as you're probably fondly recalling, he's had more successes: 6 hits (a homer, two doubles and three singles) and a walk. Six hits in thirteen ABs? I know that that's 'clutch.'

In terms of success percentage, the team leader is a surprising name. He's helped by his limited chances, but Nook Logan is 3 for 5: a double, two singles and a walk. He also had a number of 'clutch' stolen bases which greatly helped the team's chances of winning, especially early in the year when he first got the callup.

So who stinks?

Well, why not our good friend Brian "Snyder?" He's two for twelve with a GIDP. But he does have 5 walks -- he's got a good eye, but he's not particularly patient.

The player with the most "clutch" plate appearances also has some of the worst results. Austin Kearns is just three for seventeen in his chances, including two crushing double plays. He's also walked three times and was hit by a pitch. Until I saw it on his list, I had forgotten about his 8th-inning homer against the Marlins that unbroke a tie a few months back.

What's your guess on Ronnie Belliard? Would you believe that he has as many clutch hits as Ryan Zimmerman? Yep, 7, even in the same 18 opportunities. He might not have done all his to end games like Ryan, but many of his were as valuable to the team's bottom line. All but one of Belliard's was a single, and he did smack into a double play. He also chipped in two sac flies, though one of those came in the 9th with the team down two runs (a losing play!)

Notice a name I left out? Mr. Attitude himself? No, not Church, the other one. What does your gut say on Felipe Lopez? Would you believe he leads the team in clutch hits? Seriously. He has 8 in 18 opportunities. Look it up, he's hit for the clutch cycle, with a homer, triple, double and five singles. When the game is on the line, Felipe's the guy!? I can't quite wrap my mind around that one! But when you look back, there was his bases-clearing triple against the O's, and his grand slam against the Reds. Overall, he's had some huge hits for the Nats. He doesn't have many hits, but the ones he has, have counted!

So where does that leave the man who started our story, the other Mr. Attitude?

How about three for thirteen with a double and two walks? clutch? not clutch? damned if I know, but it's not like he never came through.

The number of opportunities any Nat has had isn't enough to demonstrate any sort of innate ability, but it's a look at what's happened. Sometimes the stats don't surprise, as Ryan Zimmerman shows. But sometimes they do, helping to shine a flashlight under the bed to see things, like our socks or Felipe's ability, that we've forgotten about.

  • If you're interested in looking up some of these numbers yourself, or seeing what some of these individual plays are, start here. Click on an individual player's name, then on the 'play log' box. From there, sort by WPA or LI to see where the player did the best (or worst) and how 'clutch' each situation was.


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