Clutch Masters

A lot of folks believe you can’t identify clutch batters, and I’m not going to jump into the middle of that brouhaha. The issue is a complicated statistical one, but a lot of sabermetricians believe that hitting in the clutch is nothing more than random chance in action.

Since many people don’t believe in clutch hitting, they don’t pay much attention to it. And that’s a shame, because there are seasons, and sometimes entire careers, in which players hit better with men in scoring position. And when they do, these players help their teams win. So let’s try to correct that oversight today.

I track a statistic I call “Clutch” (oddly enough) which roughly measures the number of runs a player has created by batting better with runners in scoring position (RISP). It accounts for two things: batting average with runners in scoring position and home runs with runners on base. If the batter hits relatively better with runners on base and in scoring position, Clutch gives him credit for it.

Here is a list of the 2005 Clutch leaders. Clutch runs are included in our total Runs Created stats, (as created by Bill James) and I’ve included the Runs Created total for each batter so you can see how much of his total offensive contribution comes from clutch production:

Player           Team    RC   Clutch
Sheffield G.     NYA     81    12.9
Ramirez M.       BOS     68    11.9
Sexson R.        SEA     66     9.0
Barrett M.       CHN     42     8.2
Lee C.           MIL     71     8.1
Lugo J.          TB      58     7.4
Everett A.       HOU     43     7.2
Johnson R.       TOR     35     6.8
Teixeira M.      TEX     70     6.8
Vizquel O.       SF      52     6.7
Matheny M.       SF      38     6.7
Encarnacion      FLA     60     6.7

Two batting giants of the American League East, Yankee right fielder Gary Sheffield and Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez, are at the top of the list. To understand why, check out Gary Sheffield’s 2005 batting splits:

                    AB     BA    OBP    SLG     OPS
Bases Empty        173   .243   .332   .364    .696
Runners On         152   .382   .481   .763   1.245
RISP                83   .398   .491   .819   1.310

As you can see, Sheffield’s batting average climbs from .243 with no one on base to .382 with runners on and .398 with runners in scoring position for an overall line of .308/.405/.551. That’s just crazy. Sheffield usually hits better with runners in scoring position, but this year is extreme. To see what I mean, check out his battting average in the same situations over the last six years:

               2000    2001    2002    2003    2004    2005 (so far)
Bases Empty    .315    .305    .294    .317    .281    .247
Runners On     .338    .319    .322    .345    .299    .377
RISP           .357    .304    .367    .379    .325    .390

RISP-Empty     .042   -.001    .073    .062    .044    .143

I’ve added an extra line that calculates how much better Sheffield batted with runners in scoring position vs. having the bases empty. This year’s .143 difference is much higher than any previous year.

Here are Manny’s splits for 2005:

                   AB     AVG     OBP     SLG     OPS
Bases Empty       158    .228    .318    .418    .736
Runners On        162    .327    .406    .710   1.116
RISP               98    .347    .430    .806   1.236

And here are his batting average splits for the past five years:

                2000    2001    2002    2003    2004    2005
Bases Empty     .317    .286    .310    .326    .290    .228
Runners On      .381    .328    .396    .325    .328    .327
RISP            .354    .314    .435    .338    .340    .347

RISP-Empty      .037    .028    .125    .012    .050    .119

Manny’s .119 split this year is also very high, but not as high as it was in 2002, when he hit an amazing .435 with runners in scoring position. Overall, Ramirez is batting .278 this year vs. .308 last year but, as you can see, he’s hitting as well as ever with runners on and in scoring position. This makes his contribution more valuable than it appears on the surface.

Now, I should point out that most batters hit better with runners on base for a very simple reason: poor pitchers tend to let runners on base more often than average pitchers. So the average batter is facing a better pitcher when the bases are empty than when runners are on. For instance, in the American League this year, batters are batting .260 with no one on base, .278 with runners on and .275 with runners in scoring position—an increase of .015 vs. no one on base. This gives Sheffield’s and Ramirez’s clutch performance a bit more perspective.

Also, batters don’t bat as well with runners in scoring position and two out (.255 in the AL this year). One reason for this is that they can’t hit sacrifice flies (which help keep the at-bat totals down) when there are two outs. So if a batter happens to come up with a lot of RISP situations and fewer than two outs, his average will be relatively higher. This is something that has definitely played in Sheffield’s favor over the past five years.

This year, for instance, he’s batting .463 with RISP and fewer than two outs but .276 with RISP and two outs. And he’s had relatively fewer RISP at-bats with two outs. On the other hand, Manny is batting .400 with RISP and fewer than two outs and .292 with RISP and two outs. And he’s had about the average proportion of RISP at-bats with two outs.

I don’t, however, want to turn this into a study of clutch hitting. That’s been done plenty of times. All I’m really trying to do is credit guys who have produced with men on base, and Ramirez and Sheffield are adding a punctuation mark this year to a fine run of clutch hitting.

In fact, here’s one more list: the top clutch hitters from 2000 through 2004, the first half of the decade. This list only includes batters who played all five years and ranks them by the difference between their batting average with RISP vs. their batting average in all other situations.

Batter            BA/RISP   BA/Other    Diff
Jose Valentin       .290       .235     .056
Gary Sheffield      .347       .300     .046
Jeff Bagwell        .317       .277     .040
Manny Ramirez       .356       .318     .038
Miguel Tejada       .314       .278     .036
Carlos Delgado      .316       .285     .031
Bobby Higginson     .291       .261     .030
Scott Rolen         .309       .283     .026
Edgardo Alfonzo     .302       .278     .024
Joe Randa           .299       .277     .022

Ramirez and Sheffield are near the top of the list, but the very tippy top belongs to long-time White Sox shortstop (and current non-playing Dodger third baseman) Jose Valentin (with a special nod to Astro firstbaseman and third place finisher Jeff Bagwell).

During his White Sox years, Valentin wasn’t a flashy player and his play in the field and at the plate tended to be overlooked. But sabermetricians understood that he was a fine shortstop, as evidenced by his Zone Rating. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge his ability to hit in the clutch, too.

Over his entire career (since 1992), Valentin has batted .227 with the bases empty, .263 with runners on and .274 with runners in scoring position. Plus, he’s had an average proportion of RISP at-bats with two outs. Using James’s clutch formula, that yields 36 extra runs created, or almost four extra wins over his career. These are wins that most sabermetric stats exclude.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. Clutch hitters may not exist, but Jose Valentin is definitely one of them.

References & Resources
The specific definition of Clutch is:
(hits with RISP minus (overall BA times at bats with RISP)), plus
(home runs with runners on minus (overall HR/AB rate times at bats with runners on base))

Thanks to Dan Fox for his help putting these stats together.

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