Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Clutch Hitting Revisited, Part 4

I've made my points ad nauseum regarding clutch hitting in the prior three posts and will flesh out how some players in baseball history have performed. In this post I will concentrate on the difference between hitter OPS in high leverage and low leverage situations. I'll begin with reintroducing the last chart shown in part three:

I'll pick out a couple of players in each of the quadrants and discuss them briefly. All of these players are relatively recent (typically within the past 30 years), and all Hall of Famers who began their careers from 1947 on are represented. Just for fun, I'll give them their own chart at the end.

BAD (OPS Below .800 in Low AND High Leverage Situations)
These are not very good hitters regardless of the situation, and the list is filled with middle infielders from the 1970s and 1980s--Tom Veryzer, Tim Foli, Mark Belanger, etc. In this sample of 837 players, they totaled 513, or 61.3% in this quadrant alone. In other words, glove men in the days when people really thought that fielding was equal to hitting (it's not--it's not EVEN CLOSE). Included in this group is a man who had a .582 OPS in low leverage situations compared to .669 in high--an improvement of 15.8%, but a 15% improvement over nothing is still...essentially nothing. He muscled his way to 28 home runs of which 13 came in high leverage situations (by my definition, a Leverage Index of 1.11 or more). The only fear when he came to bat was that of his own manager. He is...

Of course, when the Sox were good in the early 90s they could afford his lack of production with a lineup featuring Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura and some stellar pitching. FanGraphs calculates his career WAR at 13.3 and credit his fielding saving 106 runs...and his hitting costing 298 runs. That was okay--he was a niche player the Sox could afford at that time.

At least Guillen increased his production in high leverage situations--this player had a .589 OPS in low leverage situations and .571 in high. He played back in the 70s in the hey-day of the poor hitter who overcame in other facets of the game (at least in the baseball minds of the day). The baseball world was filled with poor hitting-good fielding catchers, poor hitting center fielders who could steal a base, and quite frankly, other than the batting average, most of these other metrics were either unknown or undervalued. He was also a shortstop, and he played for a man who was ahead of his time in player evaluation. This player is...

Mark Belanger

Using FanGraphs metrics he is the 3rd-best fielding player in HISTORY (check the link--you know who #1 is and I suspect will be mildly surprised by #2), so he had that going for him. The pertinent question--would he be a regular on a roster today? It's one thing to be a poor hitter, but he is often considered the embodiment of the worst-hitting person to be a regular, which is probably unfair. If you sort that list by worst hitting, you find players like Don Kessinger, Leo Durocher, Larry Bowa and Ozzie Guillen who are worse. Besides, those Orioles lineups didn't need his hitting, not with Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Paul Blair, Bobby Grich later and others. The part I find interesting is that he batted leadoff in about 10% of his big league plate appearances and had a career OBP of .300, and played for a manager who actually CARED about OBP years before anyone else did in Earl Weaver. Hitting isn't everything, but for the players in the Bad category, they better be REALLY good in some other facet, or they were going to have a very short career.

Modern incarnations of the Bad are Omar Vizquel, Jose Lopez, Brian Schneider and Cesar Izturis. Vizquel will have support for a Hall of Fame candidacy, but for the others, you know what word is creeping into your head.

EHH (OPS Below .800 in Low Leverage, Above .800 in High)
In Part 3 I suggested it might have made more sense to move the lines to around .760 or .770 instead of .800 because that's  where the midpoints were, but I chose .800 because it's an easy number. Doing that skewed my quadrants to the extent that most players reside in either the Great or Bad, but then again, mediocrity doesn't have a long shelf life in the Major Leagues. There are 77 players (9.2%) in the Ehh category, and these are very interesting. One is a borderline Hall of Famer in many people's mind (not mine--he's very much in the Hall of Very Good) who had power and speed but was considered by many to be an underperformer. His name is...

He represents these players very well, players who hit for average and had some power but not overwhelming power. Parker batted .268 with a .783 OPS, which puts him right on the cut line, and if I moved my definitions he'd be right on the cusp of Underperforming and Great, but hit .310/.864 in high leverage situations. It's hard to not look at those two sets of numbers and think that there isn't some element of "clutch" lurking there, but the real point is that Parker is widely considered to be a great hitter--only my arbitrary definitions put him in the Ehh category, and with company like Michael Young, Bill Madlock, Cal Ripken, Nick Markakis, Hunter Pence, Mark Grace and Derek Jeter, a very good argument can be made that my category is wrong. If I move the line back to .770, most of these disappear.

UNDERPERFORM (OPS Above .800 in Low Leverage, Below .800 in High)
Another small category with only 49 (5.9%) players. Similar to Ehh, it's one made from moving that line from .760-.770 to .800 and represents some of the better hitters in baseball who for some reason or another didn't perform as well in high leverage situations. It's not a simple matter of no room to improve, because this uses fixed benchmarks instead of percent increases. In fact, almost all the hitters in this category had career OPS around .770 or so and it's littered with Hall of Very Good Players--Bobby Grich, Al Oliver, Willie Horton, Chet Lemon, Bob Watson, etc. It also includes Carlton Fisk (.268/.814 in low leverage, .273/.787 in high--essentially the same), Craig Biggio (.280/.801 vs. .286/.793) and Ivan Rodriguez (.295/.813 vs. .290/.758). All 49 players were/are very good, and their "underperformance" is a matter of degree, at best--most Major League rosters would be improved with their addition.

GREAT (OPS Above .800 in Low and High Leverage Situations)
These 198 players (23.7%) are exactly who you think they are, great hitters, but some do stick out, and not necessarily for good reasons. This recent player batted .238 but had power with an .802 OPS in low leverage situations. He came to play in high leverage situations, boosting that average to .250 and the OPS to .821. He is...

I'll be the first to admit that using the words "Great" and "Pat Burrell" in the same post, let alone SENTENCE is a stretch, but he is the exception in this list. Viewing the list and you'll see solid hitters with power that hit regardless of situation. I'll break it down a little further and plot out only those players in the Hall of Fame or played at least 5 All-Star Games--these are criteria that most can agree would apply to anyone considered a great hitter:
To add some numbers, 29 players (8 HOF, 21 others) are in the Bad quadrant, 16 (4 and 12) in the Ehh, 6 (1 and 5) Underperforming and 89 (35 and 54) in the Great category. 

I'll list the Hall of Famers that are NOT in the Great category:
Bad--Ozzie Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Luis Aparicio, Brooks Robinson, Nellie Fox, Robin Yount, Lou Brock and Gary Carter
Ehh--Cal Ripken, Tony Perez, Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar
Underperform--Carlton Fisk
To a man, middle infielders or those prized for their fielding. I am adamant that my two least-qualified Hall of Famers in recent vintage are Bill Mazeroski and Lou Brock, with Tony Perez a very close third. I've always considered Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox to be overrated but never really saw them play to draw any conclusions. Modern Hall of Famers that also cause me to wonder are Andre Dawson and Jim Rice, because in my mind they lowered the bar for a lot of people to start banging on the door. When people seriously discuss the merits of Dale Murphy as a Hall of Famer, it makes my teeth hurt, but that's a post for sometime in mid-December. 

And that's enough on clutch hitting, and I'll state it one last time--there are most definitely clutch situations, and the better the hitter, the better the chances are he will perform in that situation. Good hitters are good hitters, bad hitters are bad, and any numbers that suggest otherwise use either insufficient sample sizes or look at percent increases, which is unfair to the good hitters. It won't happen in my lifetime (I think), but I can hope for the day when people who really should know better (players, coaches, announcers, columnists, etc.) won't create mythical clutch hitters. I can dream, can't I?


  1. Good analysis Scott that does a nice job of debunking the myth of clutch.

    My quesiont is "why would you want someone to be a clutch hitter anyway?" By definition, a clutch hitter performs better under high-leverage situations - so by the same definition, he performs worse under low-leverage situations.

    Why would you want someone performing below his peak capability most of the time?

    I'm much more attracted to the players in your "Great" quadrant - after all, you never know whether that 2nd inning knock isn't going to end up being the decisive one.

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