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Clutch: What the Numbers Say

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By twist of fate, I had just completed loading all of the available play-by-play Retrosheet data into a shiny new database when I noticed yet another "Clutch" slash "Bobby Abreu" thread on PhilliesPhans.com. I decided to test out my new toy and see if there wasn't some pattern to be discovered in the late-inning performance of Abreu and the rest of his teammates.

First, let's talk what was done. Retrosheet has made available play-by-play data from 1960-1992, and 2000-2005. It's a fantastic source of data, but it's not the simplest stuff in the world to use. I used the tools available on their site (BEVENT.EXE), plus some PERL and mySQL, to create a database of all plate appearances in those 39 years, including all available game situations (date, opponent, inning, score, outs, baserunners, opposing pitcher, etc.)... I can't begin to say enough about Retrosheet, and the value of the data they provide. I can even see who was playing each position in the field for every atbat in those years, so I can state with confidence that Pat Burrell's had almost 3 times as many atbats with Derrek Lee playing firstbase than he has against any other major league 1B. Odd.

I've taken that play-by-play data, and come up with 2 tables for this study: first, a breakdown of all Phils batters with more than 1000 PA for the team from 2000-2006 (plus Ryan Howard), as well as the team's numbers as whole; second, the same set of numbers in game situations that met my "clutch" criteria. This set of criteria is as follows:

  • Game is in the 8th inning or later
  • Phillies are tied or losing
  • if losing, the batter can tie the game or take the lead with a homer.
In the thread linked above, there was some debate as to what defined clutch; I saw it as pointless to include a 9th-inning leadoff AB in a 3-2 game, but to exclude a 9th-inning, 2-out AB with the bases loaded in a 6-2 game. I fail to see one as clutch, the other as not. There was also debate over the inclusion/exclusion of tie games; I chose to include them, as the batter can win a game for his team which they were not already winning. Philosophically, the debate hinges on whether batters are 'tighter' in a game in which they trail and relaxed in a tie game, or if both situations are similar, emotionally. It would take quite a bit of convincing for me to believe that professional athletes operate in an 'avoid losing' manner, rather than an 'achieve winning' one. Perhaps, as a follow-up, I'll exclude ties for a player or three, and see if there's a measurable difference.

For each player, the table shows AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS overall, against LHP, and against RHP. Also shown is the 'blend' of PA - what % in each situation were against LHP, and what against RHP.

Finally, a word about sample size. Jimmy Rollins has the 3rd most "clutch" appearances for the Phillies over the last 6 years, with 237. His OPS is .762. With a single additional homer, one in 6 years, in 237 PA, his OPS would be almost 25 points higher. Not a single player has even a half a season's worth of plate appearances in clutch situations; most of them have a month or two. So, while Placido Polanco might look like a 'choker', keep in mind that everyone outside of Albert Pujols has 114-PA stretches where they don't look too hot.

Now, the data:



Interpretation

First things first: the team, as whole, performs ever-so-slightly worse in clutch situations, which is exactly what one would expect. They don't get many ABs in these situations against mop-up men, journeymen, or just plain bad pitchers; they are typically facing closers, top setup men, and LOOGYs. I'll have to run the league as whole, but I'll be surprised if the Phillies' dip in performance isn't one of the smaller dips in the league. Props to them for performing even this well against the other teams' best.

Next: Abreu. He's at a team-leading .919 overall, facing LHP 29% of the time. In the clutch, he's at .899, facing LHP 40% of the time. The .020 point gap is all in power; his average is slightly higher in the clutch, and his walk rate is identical, despite the perceived "looking for a walk" behavior we so often hear. He's about 1 homer in 294 PA shy of being identical in the clutch as he is in every other situation. What's striking to me is his performance against LHP in the late innings - he's actually perfomed BETTER against LHP in these situations than against RHP. I haven't studied the issue yet, but one explanation could be quality of pitcher; that opposing managers have been so desperate to pull in a LHP to face Abreu/Thome that they ignore, to a degree, the quality of that LHP, thus letting Abreu face a mediocre LHP as opposed to an outstanding RHP. One might question the merits of that decision, given the numbers above. While Abreu hasn't raised his performance level in the late innings, neither has he failed to perform. He would seem to be one cool customer, not letting the situation affect his approach.

Let's take the rest of the team, in descending order of Clutch PA:

Pat Burrell, 264 PA. Wow... he's performed quite well when the pressure is on, raising his AVG, OBP, and SLG considerably, DESPITE not getting to feast on LHP very often (and with good reason: .360/.469/.630 is a Bondsian line). Burrell's better against both types of pitching, and in all respects. This is counter to what I would have expected going in, and franky, I'm thrilled. Burrell is the perfect guy to split LH hitters in a lineup, BTW.

Jimmy Rollins, 237 PA. Another guy who's performance is pretty consistent, regardless of situation. His number perk up a bit (.762 OPS vs .737 overall), but in 237 PAs, that's noise. He, like Abreu, gets his personality interpreted quite a bit ("Look, he's trying to hit a homer again"), and I hope these numbers at least show how asinine that is. His AVG, OBP, and SLG are pretty consistent, and certainly don't show a guy overswinging when the game is tight.

Mike Lieberthal, 194 PA. Lieberthal'ls performance dips quite a bit in these situations, which jibes with his reputation. It doesn't help that he sees a lot more RH in late innings than overall, but he's not taken advantage of the LH that he does see. If there's anyone "looking for a walk" in these situations, we might have to look at Mike - his average dips 40 points, but his OBP remains nearly identical, indicating a far higher walk rate, and his SLG just falls off the table to Joe Millette levels. Small sample sizes and all that apply, but Lieberthal has earned at least some of his rep.

Doug Glanville, 148 PA. Nothing on this page describes the Phutility of being a Phillies Phan than this: over the last 6 seasons, with the game on the line, Doug Glanville has the 5th-most plate appearances. Glanville couldn't hit - his overall .646 OPS is absolutely horrible for a starting OF - and he was even worse in the clutch, slugging an embarassing .294. Unbelievable.

Tomas Perez, 125 PA. Scratch that last paragraph. This, this is worse. 20 times a year, for the last 6 years, we've had the outcome of a game hanging in the balance of one, two, maybe three plate appearances, and THIS is the guy we've had at the plate. We DESERVE to not make the playoffs, if this is our end-game strategy. At least Tomas keeps in line with his miserable .658 overall performance, notching a .681 in the clutch. Hopefully, that extra double in the clutch won us a ballgame...

Travis Lee, 120 PA. Oh, dear god... it's the Phillies fan death spriral. Lee, a poor excuse for a starting firstbasemen, follows the same "please walk me" path as Lieberthal, losing 30 points off of both his average and "slugging", while maintaining his OBP.

Scott Rolen, 119 PA. Well, if you weren't in a bad mood after Lieberthal / Glanville / Pieman / Lee, this ought to get you there. Rolen, despite Dallas Green's character assassinations, was a heckuva hitter any time, including these situations. His AVG, OBP, and SLG all trended slightly up. Nice trade, guys.

Placido Polanco, 114 PA. Polanco, who I remembered anecdotally as a pretty clutch guy, was actually kind of brutal. Despite slugging .439 overall, he managed only a .358 in the clutch. He did murder LHP, both overall and in the late innings, posting an 1.150 OPS in the clutch against southpaws. His .584 OPS against RHP, though - in 5 times as many PA - makes his overall performance quite disappointing.

David Bell, 106 PA. Here's the single most interesting thing, to me, in the entire study. In 106 clutch PA over the course of his Phillies career, David Bell has been allowed to face a LHP only 3 times. Three! This is truly a case of fear by opposing managers - no other RH hitter, not Burrell, not Rolen, not Polanco, was managed this way, with each of them facing LH at least 12% of the time, 4 TIMES as often as Bell. And, heck, you have to hand it to opposing managers - the three times he HAS been allowed to face them, he's 2-for-3 witha 2.333 OPS. And, while I'm doling out Props to Mr. Bell, his .910 clutch OPS is significantly higher than his overall number (.700), sample sizes be damned. If only they could find someone who can play in innings 1-7, they'd have the makings of a really strong situational platoon.

Jim Thome, 106 PA. If you condemn Abreu's performance at all, you need to do the same for Mr. Thome. He's got almost the exact same pattern - slightly worse overall performance, though still strong, with a far heavier diet of LHP. And, like Abreu, he's actually excelled against the LHP he's faced, possibly lending credence to the above-stated opinion on the quality of lefties brought in to face the back-to-back Abreu and THome.

Marlon Anderson, 102 PA. Yawn. Pedestrian overall, about a triple better in the clutch.

Chase Utley, 81 PA. Utley's got a rep for being clutch, and deservedly so. He's performed at a .311/.370/.527 level in the end game, about 60 points higher than his normal OPS. Granted, he's been protected from facing LH much (only 10 times, with awful results), but against RHP, he's raking at an almost 1.000 OPS clip. Heckuva start.

Ryan Howard, 34 PA. Ridiculously small sample size, yes. Almsot completely sheltered from LH (1 PA), yes. But even still, a devastating late-game performer to this point - .400/.471/.867 is Whiffle Ball territory. And his 1 PA vs LHP is a thing of beauty - it was a homer, giving him the perfect 5.000 OPS.

Finally... I think a few things are obvious from the data: one, that the team as a whole doesn't have a problem in the clutch; two, that their best hitters overall - Abreu / Burrell / Utley / Howard - don't shy away from the tough situations; three, they should build their lineup from the end-game back, separating Utley and Howard with Burrell.

Comments are stongly encouraged.

Note: The information used here was obtained free of charge from and is copyrighted by Retrosheet. Interested parties may contact Retrosheet at 20 Sunset Rd., Newark, DE 19711.