The Gods and Dogs of Garbage Time

For as long as I can remember, clutch hitting has been one of the great debates among statheads. Does it exist? Can it be proven? If so, who does the best in clutch situations? And so on. Me? Well, I’ve stayed the hell out of that whole mess. I think there’s something to it, but I can’t prove it.

These discussions always look at how players do in the most important situations—with runners on, runners in scoring position, and of course the all-important close and late at-bats. That’s how you dole out labels of clutch and choker.

It occurred to me that the entire debate can be flipped around. How about looking at how guys do when it doesn’t matter at all? Instead, tabulate career numbers for a slew of players and see who really stepped up when it didn’t matter because the ballgame had been decided, and who slacked off taking it easy.

The Set Up

Due to the wonder and glory that is Baseball-Reference, anyone can check on this. This year the website included player splits. One bunch tells how any player from 1957 onward did ranging from when the score was tied, to when there was more than a four-run difference.

That last one, performance in blowouts, is the key to this study. Games where a team is up or down by five or more runs are rarely competitive. It’s just garbage time. A player who really performs better in garbage time—a Garbage Time God, frankly isn’t as valuable to his team as his stat line indicates. Whether it be a result of how a player responds to pressure or random happenstance, he did less to help his teams win games than the back of his baseball card indicates.

By and large this study consciously intends to skirt the big debate in clutch hitting: is it skill or is it luck? Instead, my main focus will be on value. We can all agree that hitting a homer when your team is down by 10 runs is fundamentally less valuable than doing it in a tie game.

Still, while the focus is on value, I think these results, at least with the Garbage Time Dogs, are less likely to be purely a product of luck than traditional clutch hitting examinations. While it’s an open question whether or not a player can really step it up a notch or two for the big time situations, I can’t imagine anyone would think that a player could lower it a notch or two. If a player doesn’t think he has to concentrate as hard, his results may diminish.

Alternately, a Garbage Time God might be more mentally comfortable in the less pressure-filled environment. I can’t prove anything, but for me that idea passes the smell test anyway.

Plan of action

I found every player with at least 1,000 games played from 1957 to 2007, and compare their overall numbers to their numbers when the game is out of reach and see who really picked it up when it didn’t matter and who fell back some.

Actually, one minor tweak to that. I’m only going to look at guys whose entire careers are since 1957, so I’m sure the numbers I’m using are their full info. I don’t know if anyone noticeably got better or worse at this over time, but just in case I’ll only use full sample sizes.

Results

There’s over 700 players in my sample size. Let’s start by comparing OPS. For what it’s worth, these guys have a combined career OPS of 764 in over 4.25 million plate appearances. Over a half-million of these plate appearances came in blowouts, where they had an aggregate OPS of 772. Teams will rarely have their top relievers in games in Garbage Time, and you’ll definitely have your share of mop-up men so their numbers should improve.

The batters closest to the average are Tony Phillips (763/768) and Amos Otis (768/773).

But now for the main event: the Gods and Dogs. My formula is (Normal OPS/Garbage OPS). And remember—you want to be a Garbage Time Dog. These guys provided better value. Here are the 20 greatest Dogs since 1957:

Name	     allOPS	GarbOPS	Gar. Score
Gates Brown	750	570	1.316
Jerry Adair	639	522	1.224
Willie McCovey	889	743	1.197
John Lowenstein	740	621	1.192
Ron Hassey	722	609	1.186
Gary Sutherland	599	513	1.168
Wayne Garrett	691	593	1.165
Jerry Remy	655	565	1.159
Tommy Helms	642	558	1.151
Mark McLemore	690	601	1.148
Phil Garner	712	622	1.145
Jim Dwyer	751	661	1.136
Dean Palmer	796	701	1.136
Leon Durham	831	736	1.129
Mike Devereaux	709	628	1.129
Wally Backman	688	610	1.128
Hubie Brooks	718	637	1.127
Buck Martinez	627	557	1.126
Frank Howard	851	757	1.124
Tino Martinez	815	725	1.124

Tino Martinez just makes it, which is fitting given his reputation as a Clutch God. Since he was at his worst when it mattered least, his career was more valuable that his stat lines appear, aiding his clutch reputation.

It’s perfect that Gates Brown vaults to the summit. The man was a pinch hitter who was supposed to deliver in the clutch, not when the game was out of reach. And he is blowing the field away! In part it’s because he’s got fewer plate appearances as a one-swing-a-game guy, but his score is amazing. Here’s what it looks like if you take his total numbers, Garbage Time figures, and non-GT appearances (all minus garbage) and normalize them all to 600 plate appearances (with his actual rate stats, so they won’t perfectly match his prorated at-bats, hits, etc):

	PA	AB	H	2B	3B	HR	W	K	AVG	OBP	SLG
Total	600	533	137	18	5	20	57	65	0.257	0.330	0.420
Garbage	600	546	115	14	4	8	44	62	0.211	0.275	0.295
Not G.  600	532	140	19	5	22	59	65	0.264	0.337	0.443

Also notable is the only Hall of Famer on the list: Willie McCovey. He had two to three times as many plate appearances as the guys around him. Amazingly, among the other Hall of Famers in this pile, the second-best (Paul Molitor) scores at a mere 1.049 (817 regular OPS, 779 in Garbage Time). McCovey’s murdering his fellow immortals. Here’s the pride and joy of the Bay Area prorated to 600 plate appearances:

	PA	AB	H	2B	3B	HR	W	K	AVG	OBP	SLG
Total	600	507	137	22	3	32	83	96	0.27	0.375	0.515
Garbage	600	538	130	19	2	25	57	105	0.242	0.320	0.423
Not G.  600	504	138	22	3	33	86	95	0.273	0.381	0.524

With many of these guys, the issue might just be sample size, but that’s less likely with McCovey, who had two seasons in his Garbage Time splits alone. Look at those lines and what do you see? It’s a guy who isn’t taking his time. His walk rate’s plunging and as he’s swinging at more bad pitches, he falls behind and can do less damage. Maybe he was less interested when the game meant less.

Them’s the dogs. Now how about those gods?

Name	     allOPS	GarbOPS	Score
Davey Johnson	744	917	0.811
Sid Bream	756	929	0.814
Larry Brown	613	734	0.835
Tony Kubek	667	798	0.836
Donn Clendenon	770	897	0.858
Bill Almon	648	754	0.859
Moises Alou	886	1028	0.862
Jerry Grote	642	743	0.864
Charles Johnson	763	879	0.868
Tony Oliva	829	955	0.868
Wes Parker	726	835	0.869
Milt Thompson	707	812	0.871
Joe Pepitone	733	841	0.872
Tommy Davis	734	842	0.872
Gary Carter	774	885	0.875
Leon Wagner	795	909	0.875
Jody Davis	710	808	0.879
Roy Smalley Jr.	740	842	0.879
John Mayberry	799	909	0.879
Bob Horner	839	952	0.881

Well, speaking as a Cubs fan, it makes sense to see Moises Alou on that list. He always seemed a little too sensitive. Here he’s shining when there’s the least pressure. Gary Carter‘s obviously the best player there, but I think the most important discovery on this list, though, has got to be Tony Oliva. After all, he has a viable shot to make it into Cooperstown as a Veterans Committee pick (assuming that committee ever deems anyone else worthy ever again). Here’s Oliva at 600 plate appearances:

	PA	AB	H	2B	3B	HR	W	K	AVG	OBP	SLG
Total	600	556	169	29	4	19	39	56	0.304	0.353	0.476
Garbage	600	558	159	26	5	33	35	55	0.334	0.378	0.577
Not G.  600	549	165	29	4	18	40	56	0.301	0.350	0.464

Oliva had just enough of that to be a reasonable borderline candidate. That’s precisely why this is so damaging. If you’re only a borderliner, then you can’t be raising your game to such an incredible degree when it doesn’t matter. Personally, I’ve supported his Cooperstown candidacy. Until now.

Maybe the most interesting line of the bunch, though, belongs to Sid Bream:

	PA	AB	H	2B	3B	HR	W	K	AVG	OBP	SLG
Total	600	528	139	32	2	15	60	76	0.264	0.336	0.420
Garbage	600	556	189	47	3	22	34	70	0.339	0.377	0.552
Not G.  600	525	133	31	2	14	63	77	0.254	0.331	0.395

I mean, what the hell? That can’t be the same guy. It’s like having Clark Kent around whenever Lex Luthor is pitching for the Yankees, while Superman only shows up to go bowling. He’s crushing the ball for average and power when it doesn’t mean a damn thing. Interestingly he declines in one area. Like McCovey, his walks drop considerably in Garbage Time.

My hunch? When the game got closer Bream tightened up, and took more pitches. He wasn’t taking them to wait on one, but because he was a bit more passive the more crucial the situation. Then again, he also homered in three consecutive NLCS, so maybe I’m just blowin’ smoke. (Looks back at his numbers). Naw, no way. The difference is too insane. If anything, his NLCS performance is the flukey one.

Long as I’m looking at these guys, I really ought to look at the most extreme one of the bunch, future managerial great Davey Johnson:

	PA	AB	H	2B	3B	HR	W	K	AVG	OBP	SLG
Total	600	527	137	27	2	15	61	74	0.261	0.340	0.404
Garbage	600	545	175	31	3	26	51	56	0.320	0.383	0.534
Not G.  600	525	133	26	2	14	63	76	0.254	0.335	0.388

Like Bream, he made better contact and did more with it while walking less. But good God Lord Almighty did he ever make better contact.

Cooperstown calling?

Tony Oliva makes me wonder about other possible enshrines. I took 50 of the players not currently in—both current and retired who I felt had the best shot at induction and sorted them. I’ll admit my in/out line for this list was arbitrary, but with 60 guys, I’m sure I got everyone worth looking at. Here are the Top Dogs among those up for grabs:

Name	     allOPS	GarbOPS Score
Will Clark	881	795	1.108
Barry Bonds	1051	950	1.106
Vlad Guerrero	970	877	1.106
Roberto Alomar	814	752	1.082
Mark McGwire	982	915	1.073

Just missing is Captain Fist Pump himself, Derek Jeter, who has always had a very nice clutch reputation. His 850 lifetime OPS includes a 782 garbage time performance. Near the top of the list, however, Barry Bonds has often fought a reputation as a shirker when it mattered.

You know how valuable Barry Bonds’ stats look when you see them on the page? Well, it turns out they underestimate how much he helped his teams. Sweet Jesus. I gotta see how he looks prorated at 600 plate appearances. Because it’s Barry, I’ll throw in an extra column—intentional walks.

	PA	AB	H	2B   3B	HR	W	IW	K	AVG	OBP	SLG
Total	600	469	140	29   4	36	122	33	73	0.298	0.444	0.607
Garbage	600	495	139	23   3	35	95	14	78	0.281	0.399	0.551
Not G.  600	466	140	29   4	36	125	35	73	0.300	0.449	0.612

It’s an across the board decline. Sure, intentional walks are down, but so are regular walks. You’d think if they pitched around him as often his natural walk rate would maintain itself. Since that’s not the case that should mean they’re pitching him to him more. While it looks like he homers as often, please note he has notably fewer at-bats in normal situations, yet actually has one more homer when it matters in the prorated lines. He has over a team season’s worth of data for the Dog Days, so sample size really shouldn’t be an issue.

Well, along with Oliva, who are the HoF-hopeful Garbage Time Gods?

Name	     allOPS	GarbOPS	Score
Tony Oliva	829	955	0.868
Steve Garvey	775	863	0.898
Jeff Kent	861	951	0.905
Joe Carter	770	843	0.913
Bobby Grich	795	870	0.914

Just missing the list is sabermetric darling Jeff Bagwell (overall 948 OPS and a garbage time score of 1029), who has also had some rather well-known postseason problems. He’s had a great career, but his overall value isn’t as impressive as his numbers at Baseball-Reference make it appear. The shock is Steve Garvey. Maybe it’s memories of Game Four of the 1984 NLCS, but I always considered him to be a clutch God, not a garbage man.

Other oddities
A few other players really got my attention when looking up this information. In particular, drastic changes in walk and whiff rates are important, I believe. It indicates a drastically different approach to the plate when the game no longer matters. Some had their whiff rate go up, indicating they were going all out. One such hitter is Dr. Stangeglove, Dick Stuart.

	PA	AB	H	2B	3B	HR	W	K	AVG	OBP	SLG	
Total	600	550	145	22	4	31	41	132	0.264	0.316	0.489
Garbage	600	562	158	24	5	24	25	105	0.280	0.310	0.467
Not G.  600	548	143	21	4	32	44	136	0.262	0.317	0.492

The key is his walk and strikeout rates. In Garbage time, he made contact in almost four-fifths of his plate appearances. In other times, that only happened in 70% of plate appearances. Though his contact rate dropped, his isolated power dropped a whopping 38 points. When it mattered, he wanted to inflict the maximum damage with each swing. When it didn’t matter, he was content to get a hit.

Another fun one is Jerry Remy.

	PA	AB	H	2B	3B	HR	W	K	AVG	OBP	SLG
Total	600	539	148	17	5	1	43	49	0.275	0.327	0.328
Garbage	600	543	125	13	3	0	53	57	0.230	0.299	0.266
Not G.  600	538	151	17	5	1	42	48	0.281	0.330	0.336

A lousy hitter in general, but when the game was all but over, he just seemed passive to the point of apathy. His walks and strikeouts were up, indicating more taken pitches. Plus it looks like he took weaker swings. Like I said at the top, one can always debate whether or not a player rises up to a higher level in the clutch, but it’s always possible for him to take it down a gear in these situations. Remy? He was parked in neutral.

Conclusion
In terms of value, for some players career numbers obscure as much as they illuminate. Find a player who win shares or linear weights says was as good as Willie McCovey, and I’ll guarantee the former Giant did more to help his teams with the stick.

And while this study mostly concerns itself with value, some of the splits are so wild that I have trouble believing that some guys either didn’t try as hard when the game was out of reach or thrived in the lack of pressure. This has an implication for more standard clutch hitting ideas. It could be that a clutch hitter got his reputation at least in part because of how he took it easier when the game didn’t demand his utmost.

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