Monday, July 1, 2013

Clutch Hitting Revisited (Part 3)

My second post on this subject introduced two charts near the end that examined player hitting by leverage situation, and if you haven't read that post, I highly recommend doing so now. This scatter graph shows batting average in low leverage situations compared to medium leverage ones:
I argued that there are no clutch hitters, just good hitters that perform in clutch situations. Many of you have undergone Myers-Briggs testing or some other kind of attitudinal testing at work, and I took a class titled "Leadership Through People Skills" in the process of obtaining my MBA. While these processes differ (just ask the people who developed them), they all work under the basic assumption that people can be grouped, typically into quadrants. I figured I could do the same with my data, and the next chart shows my first split:

I split the low leverage batting averages in the middle (actual average is .271, midpoint in the 837 data points is .267) at .270, which I can support to separate good hitters from bad. Now I'll introduce the horizontal midpoint line:

NOW we can see some difference in ability to perform. We'll quickly dismiss those in the "BAD" quadrant--they don't hit for average regardless of the situation--they're just bad hitters. The "EHH"s are bad hitters that can rise to the occasion from time to time, but the numbers aren't great. The "UNDERPERFORM" are an interesting bunch, good hitters who don't perform as well in higher leverage situations. The "GREAT" are who we think they are--great hitters who hit regardless of the leverage situation. This further buttresses my conclusion there are no great clutch hitters, just great hitters. For completeness sake, the number of hitters in each quadrant:
Bad                           322 (38.5%)
Ehh                           134 (16.0%)
Underperform        107 (12.8%)
Great                        274 (32.7%)

This compares low leverage situations with high leverage:

The same effect is observed--in high leverage situations there is more success, implying either some element of clutch ability (maybe), a change in pitching (likely) or some combination of these and other factors. No matter how I measure it, be it batting with runners in scoring position and less than two outs or in high leverage situations (and checking one data set suggests that about 66% of these situations overlap), hitters perform much better than in either low leverage or bases-empty situations.

This chart shows the OPS difference between low leverage and high leverage situations:

I set the midpoint lines at .800 even though the average was .770 and the midpoint of the values was .760--it would make a difference, but not substantial. This is a very complete picture with a simple story:
1. There are no clutch hitters
2. There aren't that many GOOD hitters
3. Bad hitters are bad regardless of situation, and great hitters are great regardless of situation
This is not to suggest that these statements are absolute--every day there's a .180 hitter that comes through in a high leverage situation as well as a .350 hitter that doesn't. If we accept the idea that those to the right of the .800 OPS line are the good hitters (242, or 28.9% of the sample), 164 (67.8%) are EVEN BETTER in high leverage situations. It's not because they have ice water in their veins or take a different mindset to the plate (although they certainly DO have to experience some change--who wouldn't?), they succeed because they're the BEST HITTERS IN THE GAME, regardless of situation. That one very lonely point in the Great quadrant at the upper right represents Barry Bonds. Regardless of how he achieved it, he's the best hitter in the past 50 years and perhaps longer, and even he could "only" increase his OPS from 1.014 to 1.099 (both of which are otherworldly, by the way). In other words, as great as a hitter as he was, his OPS improved by 8.3%--very good, don't get me wrong, but it's not 30% or even 20%. The relative paucity of data points in the "Ehh" and "Underperform" categories suggest that leaking into these categories is atypical and that we really only have two kinds of hitters--great and bad, with the bad outnumbering the great by about 2-to-1.

I didn't see the game but learned via Twitter that White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson invoked his new mantra, The Will To Win (TWTW) during Saturday's game. Chicago's 670 The Score blogger (and inveterate Twitterer) Tim Baffoe (@TimBaffoe) tweeted that Hawk said "Winning close baseball games is a state of mind." You can read my thoughts on Hawk right here if you want, but this was a tangential reference to clutch performance--the last chart makes it clear players are either good hitters or not, and THAT determines if they perform in close ballgames. The good players do so more often than the bad players--because they're GOOD.

I promised to do some profiles, and I will in the next post--I'll take two players from each of the quadrants (I'll use the OPS numbers, since they're a better marker of production than batting average alone). I understand that I'm dangerously close to doing one of two things:
1. Boring you to death
2. Making the same point over and over
I'm probably doing both, but for as much ink as the subject of clutch hitting has received over the years, it's important to see if idiotisms like TWTW are true. 16,000 people attended the June 30th, 2013 game between the Padres and Marlins (no one knows why), which the Marlins won 6-2 on a walk-off grand slam home run by Jeff Mathis--that's as CLUTCH as it gets, even though the Marlins are going absolutely nowhere and the Padres can't afford to lose games in this manner if they expect to stay competitive in the NL West (quick note--they won't). Good for Mathis, a journeyman catcher with an OPS of .498 AFTER that grand slam--can we seriously call him a clutch hitter? Absolutely not--he's firmly ensconced in the "BAD" portion of that chart (or would be, if he had enough plate appearances to be in the sample--he doesn't, suggesting he's not good enough to be BAD--think about that), but as Tom Petty famously informed us over 30 years ago, "Even the losers get lucky sometimes." 

Clutch hitting belongs right up there with myths like unicorns or that backup catchers or fifth starters are keys to team success--brainless tropes thrown out by idiots. In this wonderful age of data availability, there's no reason to perpetuate these myths but use them as opportunities to educate fans and impart useful information. Len Kasper does this on a daily basis, Steve Stone as well but with fewer metrics. Joe Sheehan publishes a newsletter that lays out the facts, and it's happening more and more each day. Cliches like "clutch hitting" are simply that--tired and wornout tropes that substitute empty words for substantive analysis. Leave it to ESPN and Hawk Harrelson to discuss.

No comments :

Post a Comment