April 25, 2007
Perception and Reality
The question of whether clutch hitters exist continues to be a hotly debated subject. Players, in particular, steadfastly believe such creatures exist. In fact, when the question was posed to the major leagues' reigning Most Valuable Players, each answered with queries of his own."You think the Yankees feel pretty good when Derek Jeter is up to bat in a clutch situation in October?" Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said.
In contrast, some analysts are of the mind that 'clutch hitting' is more an adjective than a measurable skill. Multiple studies have shown that very few players consistently hit better with runners in scoring position or in close and late situations, with numbers that are only slightly higher than all other plate appearances. Performance analysts note that if hitting in the clutch is a skill, as baseball people suggest, then it stands to reason that it is repeatable. A quick and dirty way to determine if there are clutch hitters is to see who has ranked among the best with runners in scoring position and in late and close situations in this decade.
Thus, we took a look at the top 10 in the major leagues in both categories in each full season of this decade, with a minimum of 100 plate appearances for runners in scoring position, and 50 plate appearances for late and close situations (which are defined as PAs in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or with the tying run on deck). If anyone finished in the top 10 twice in the same category during those seven seasons, he was considered a repeatable clutch hitter.
The list, with the years they finished in the top in a category, includes Barry Bonds (RISP in '01, '02, '04, '06); Miguel Cabrera (RISP in '03, '06), Carlos Delgado (RISP in '00, '03), Nomar Garciaparra (RISP in '00, '06; L&C in '00, '04), Todd Helton (RISP in '00, '03), Jeff Kent (RISP in '03, '05), Derrek Lee (L&C in '00, '05), Gary Matthews Jr. (L&C in '02, '06), Placido Polanco (RISP in '05, '06), Albert Pujols (RISP in '03, '06), Manny Ramirez (L&C in '00, '02), Ivan Rodriguez (RISP in '03, '04), Gary Sheffield (RISP in '02, '03, '05), Ichiro Suzuki (RISP in '01, '04; L&C in '01, '04), Mike Sweeney (RISP in '00, '02), Bernie Williams (L&C in '00, '02), and Michael Young (RISP in '05, 06).
Let's look at those 17 players and their overall batting averages from 2000-06 along with their averages with runners in scoring position, the most popular-if not necessary the most reliable-metric used by the general public to measure clutch hitting.
PLAYER OVERALL RISP Barry Bonds .328 .359 Miguel Cabrera .311 .316 Carlos Delgado .292 .315 Nomar Garciaparra .315 .326 Todd Helton .339 .356 Jeff Kent .303 .317 Derrek Lee .287 .276 Gary Matthews Jr. .264 .246 Placido Polanco .303 .355 Albert Pujols .332 .346 Manny Ramirez .320 .349 Ivan Rodriguez .309 .311 Gary Sheffield .308 .344 Ichiro Suzuki .331 .342 Mike Sweeney .308 .347 Bernie Williams .288 .292 Michael Young .300 .335
With the exception of Lee and Matthews, everyone had a better batting average in scoring position than their overall average.
That does not surprise Howard, who defied the trend in his MVP season of '06 by hitting .256 with runners in scoring position as opposed to .313 overall.
"Everyone should want to be up to bat when there are runners in scoring position," Howard said. "Driving in runs is the name of the game. I think a hitters' ability to come through in the clutch is something that separates him from everyone else. It's not an easy thing to do. The natural tendency is put pressure on yourself in big situations. I know it's something I'm still trying to overcome. The really good players, though, don't press. Their eyes light up."
As Howard alluded to, Ortiz is considered the gold standard of clutch hitters in today's game. He cemented that reputation with a number of big hits during the Red Sox's march to the World Series title in 2004, and prompted Nate Silver to ask "Is David Ortiz Really Mr. Clutch?" in Baseball Between the Numbers.
Jeter is right behind Ortiz in the court of public opinion, as Morneau was quick to mention his name.
"He's just so cool when the pressure is on," Morneau said. "It's amazing. Every time he comes up in a big situation, you just expect he is going to get a clutch hit."
Yet neither Ortiz or Jeter made our list of 17 clutch hitters from this decade. Ortiz is a .283 lifetime hitter, and his average goes up to .293 with runners in scoring position. On the other hand, Jeter had a .317 career batting average overall but a .306 mark with runners in scoring position.
Furthermore, of all players who had at least 700 plate appearances with runners in scoring position from 2000-06, Jeter's .316 batting average ranked 19th and Ortiz was all the way down in 63rd place with a .289 mark. Here are the top 10 from 2000-06:
PLAYERS AVG Barry Bonds .359 Todd Helton .356 Manny Ramirez .349 Mike Sweeney .347 Albert Pujols .346 Gary Sheffield .344 Ichiro Suzuki .342 Michael Young .336 Nomar Garciaparra .326 Magglio Ordonez .324
Boston manager Terry Francona crunches as many numbers as any skipper in the major leagues, but he too recognizes there is an intangible that can't necessarily be measured.
"Big Papi (Ortiz) loves being in those situations and that's the whole key to being a good clutch hitter," Francona said. "Derek is the same way. All I know if that I hate it when I see Jeter coming to the plate late in a close game and I love it when I know we've got David Ortiz coming up with the game on the line."