The Elusive Clutch Hitter by Scott Lindholm February 21, 2011 It’s (almost) spring (training), and a young man’s thoughts turns to baseball metrics. I’ll start with two charts: This chart shows the batting average of a subset of major league players when runners are in scoring position (RISP) on the horizontal axis and the batting average of those same players with no runners in scoring position (nRISP) on the vertical axis.I wanted to see if batting average increased with RISP, which would indicate a clutch effect. By my logic, any situation with RISP, no matter the score, inning, what part of the season, whatever, is a clutch situation. My underlying hypothesis is that when there are RISP, batters want to bat them in, or at the very least, advance them. If this is the case, we should be able to see an increase in batting average with RISP as opposed to nRISP. I chose an arbitrary improvement of 10%, which equates to about 27 points of batting average (the average average, as it were, of this sample was .277). The black line at the 45-degree angle shows quite clearly that about as many hit worse with RISP (the points above the line) as hit better with RISP (those points below the line). At the end of this article, I’ll fully explain my sample, sample size and methods. This next chart summarizes the data shown above: From Scott Lindholm Stats As stated above, I was looking for those players who managed to bat 10% higher with RISP (or 10% worse), and the black lines mark the areas on the left and right which denote the number of those players. To begin, here are the players who managed to bat 10% or more better with RISP: From Scott Lindholm Stats The AB, H and BA columns show how the player performed with no runners in scoring position, and the spAB, spH and spBA columns show how the player performed with runners in scoring position. The percentage difference in batting average was calculated by (spBA-BA)/BA). As you look at that list, how many of those players jump out at you and scream “Yep, he sure was a clutch hitter”? There are some arguments to be made regarding the player’s non-scoring position batting average, since the lower the average, the greater the opportunity to have a higher percentage increase in batting average, but that didn’t really occur at the macro level. And also, I did black out that person who topped this list on purpose to gently nudge the nice people at FanGraphs to publish this post, at which point I’ll reveal it (and there’s no way you’ll guess who it is–NO WAY). This chart shows those players who batted 10% worse with RISP: From Scott Lindholm Stats Again, nothing here that really screams out at me, except that as a Cub fan, I’m not too shocked about Alfonso Soriano. Here we can also see that batting average really wasn’t a factor, since only two .300 hitters (Robinson Cano and Hal Morris) made the list, and the higher the average,the easier it would be for a greater percentage decrease. I’ve never been a big believer in clutch hitting in the first place, because I don’t think it’s something that can be replicated at will. A PGA golfer can drive the ball 300 yards every time, a good NBA free throw shooter will make it 85-90% of the time and a major league fastball pitcher will be able to hit 95 on the radar gun consistently, but hitting in clutch situations is entirely different. Past success will have no bearing on the next at-bat, and even to the extent it may occur, it will make a very minor difference. For a player who has 600 at-bats in a season, about 1/4 (on average) will be with RISP, or about 150 at-bats. If a player can improve his batting average 10%, or from about .272 to .300, he’ll increase his hits in these situations from about 42 in a season to 45. To put it another way, he will be successful three more times IN A SEASON than if there was no improvement, or about once every 50 games. That’s a pretty small difference. This last chart will show the wild swings in the performance of some of the best hitters in recent memory: From Scott Lindholm Stats It’s messy on purpose. Even some of the best hitters swing wildly from season to season in their ability to bat for average with RISP vs. nRISP. I don’t claim this to be the end of the clutch hitting discussion, and there are plenty of other measures that can measure it, but I liked this simple way of defining clutch because it’s clean, easy to explain and a fairly rational definition of clutch. In the end, I don’t think there are clutch hitters–I think there are good hitters, and good hitters will perform as they do, clutch or no clutch situation. METHODOLOGY For those interested, I put forth my question in the standard research method. My null hypothesis was there was no difference in batting average with RISP vs. nRISP. All my information came from split data available on baseball-reference.com. My sample size was 557 players, chosen in three ways: 1. For all players whose career began in 1990 or after, at least 1,000 at-bats with runners in scoring position 2. For current players, at least 200 at-bats with runners in scoring position (I have a few with less, but I was interested in them) 3. For any player who played in 1990 and met the criteria in point 1, I went back and got their data. This would be players like George Brett, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, etc. Some would argue that I chose the best hitters, and I probably did, since better hitters will have longer careers, which should make it easier to see if clutch hitting exists. I can run the same tests using all players since 1990 (and might), but I’m not sure the results would vary appreciably. I also noted the effect that a player’s batting average might have, and was quite surprised to see the following data: From Scott Lindholm Stats At every batting average breakpoint, there was little difference (dBA) between the average with nRISP (nBA) and the average with RISP (spBA). As mentioned earlier, I will do further study of OBP, since I have no clue what causes that difference other than a greater willingness to take a walk, and also to see what effect (if any) sacrifice flies will make. If you want the data set I used, I’ll share the career player data.