Monday, September 9, 2013

Batting With Runners in Scoring Position

Whether clutch hitting exists or not is a question that will never be answered (I say no and took four posts to make that point a couple of months ago), but clutch hitting SITUATIONS absolutely do exist. I won't belabor posts that no one read in the first place other than to state one way to define clutch situations is anytime there's a runner in scoring position (RISP) when a batter comes to the plate. 

This table shows the difference in hitter's OPS in RISP vs. non-RISP situations (bases empty or a runner on 1st, minimum 300 plate appearances):

Freddie Freeman has had 146 plate appearances with a RISP, batted .440 with 5 home runs, 74 RBI with an OPS of 1.189, 330 points higher than his overall OPS. As I've watched the Cubs-Cardinals games over the year, the Cubs TV team of Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies have made plenty of mention of the Cardinals' success with RISP, and when the top 25 in the majors includes Allen Craig, Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday that will happen. I've written so much about Miguel Cabrera that I'm certain there's nothing else to say, but in his case these numbers shouldn't be surprising--anyone batting .353 overall clearly can hit in ANY situation, but to take an already-incredible 1.113 OPS and increase it by almost 300 points in RISP situations is, well, simply amazing.

There are some surprising names on the list--Paul Konerko has not had a great year (and neither have the White Sox) but when he's at bat with RISP he appears to be delivering. At least the White Sox aren't at the bottom of baseball in base runners like they were not all that long ago--that would be Houston, making what Brandon Barnes has accomplished that much more impressive. At 27, Barnes may or may not be the center fielder for the Astros when they become competitive again, and he hasn't had a great year at the plate AND leads the majors in caught stealing, but on the rare occasions when Houston has RISP and Barnes is at bat, he comes through. 

Who's at the BOTTOM of this list?

In this particular case a player most definitely does NOT want to be at the top of this list. Most of these players aren't worthy of discussion but there are some notable names that will play large roles in how far their teams advance in the playoffs. Two of them are right next to each other--Adrian Beltre and Andrew McCutchen. In both cases this particular measure might be misleading--Beltre has driven in around 15% of the base runners on base when he bats and McCutchen around 16%, both slightly above the MLB average of 14%. I've already written twice that McCutchen is my selection for NL MVP (still there), and in both Beltre's and McCutchen's cases the drops are relative--the higher a player's OPS, the greater the opportunity to drop.

Some others players don't have that luxury. As a hitter, Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons is an excellent shortstop--over 80% of his WAR value (5.2 of 6.2) is based on his defense. As long as Atlanta has solid hitting surrounding him like they currently do, they can bat him 8th. I don't recommend batting him first--a .259 OBP in almost 300 plate appearances suggests more patience is needed. Simmons has clear defensive value--Anthony Rizzo does not have that luxury. As a first baseman, it's difficult for him to bring defensive value, so he better be able to hit and if his future is as a #3 hitter, he needs to produce when runners are on base. A .751 OPS is not enough for what the Cubs have invested in him and to have that OPS plummet with RISP is something he'll have to work on over the winter. He's only 23 and has plenty of time to develop into the hitter the Cubs hope he will become.

Joe Mauer is another player this type of analysis may be unfair to--he's had an excellent season this year and this may be taking too narrow a slice of data and making more of it than should be. Now that the Twins have traded Justin Morneau he's about the only power left in a young lineup that experts say is ready for a renaissance--we'll see.

Tomorrow I'll expand this list and go back in time--I'm not sure how far, but for today I'll finish with another measure I prefer, the percent of base runners that are driven in. Here are the leaders (minimum 300 plate appearances):

Using Allen Craig as the example, in his 563 plate appearances there have been 362 base runners, of which 87 scored. Not all of these are necessarily RBI and any home runs that Craig hit in these situations do not count Craig as a base runner scored. This is my favorite measure of hitter effectiveness in that it shows how well a batter did in the situations he was given--in other words, a batter can't drive in a runner who isn't on base. 24% is a phenomenal number, indeed, anything above 20% is pretty special and about 40% higher than the MLB average of 14%.

Not all base situations are equal, and this table does NOT reflect base situation or outs in an inning--it's a far different at-bat with a runner on 1st and two outs vs. runners on 2nd and 3rd with no outs, and the place at Baseball-Reference with this data does show some of these breakouts. I wrote a post earlier showing the percent of base runners that score given the base situation and will update it after the season is over, but it confirms common sense in that some base runners are easier to score than others.

The top 5 teams in baseball in number of base runners will be playing in October and the worst playoff-bound teams in terms of base runners are Atlanta (17th) and Pittsburgh (18th). It's a two-way street--teams need to get runners on base and then have them score. It's no coincidence that some of the best at hitting with RISP just happen to be among the best hitters PERIOD--the two very much go hand in hand.


  1. I see an immediate problem with the figuring of clutch hitting using the RISP. This would count hits made in situations where a team is ahead by 2 or more runs where those runners would not be important...certainly not clutch. And what about sacrifice flies and groundouts that move runners ahead. When speaking about people such as Freeman, Craig, or Holiday, just hitting the other way and avoiding the double play is a positive. There must something better than RISP alone. Perhaps something situational?

  2. I agree. My preferred method is stratifying by leverage index, but that's too complicated for what I wanted in this instance. The productive out is a trickier proposition, one solved using base runners scored, but even then ignores advancing runners to 2nd or 3rd. No one metric ever shows it all.