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Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell: Mr. Clutch and Mr. Not-So-Much

A great misconception about sabermetric baseball fans is that we don't believe in clutch hitting.  The truth is that we don't believe that there's any inherent quality in an individual hitter that makes him more of a dependable clutch hitter than any other hitter.  Statistical studies have generally shown that no such quality exists (except at the extreme margins), and general common sense says that any baseball player who can't handle pressure was weeded out of the game long before the major leagues.

But, that doesn't mean that we don't believe that you can't characterize past events as clutch or not.  There's no controversy there - some hits are clutch; and some performances are, well, not so much.

And that's what we saw last night from Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell.  Howard continued his torrid September by hitting a game-winning 2-run home run in the top of the eighth with two outs and a full count.  At the end of the game, Howard's September triple-slash line sat at .396/.448/1.000 for a 1.448 OPS.  Think about that 1.000 SLG for a second.  That means that Howard averages one base for every at-bat.  That's incredible.

What's amazing about Howard's season is just how good he's been since May 9.  Before May 9, he was horrendous.  On that date, his numbers were .167/.282/.326 for an OPS of .608.  That's pretty much incomprehensible for a player of Howard's caliber.  But, since then, he's been a monster.  He's hit to the tune of .273/.352/.600 for an OPS of .952.  That's still less than his career OPS of .969 and is nothing compared to his MVP year 1.084 OPS.  But, a .952 OPS would place him 9th in the majors and 5th in the NL this year.  I'd say he's been pretty good from May 10 on.

And his counting stats have been even more impressive.  Since May 10, he's played 114 games.  In those games, he has 39 home runs, 119 RBI, and 77 runs scored.  Translated over an entire season's worth of games, that's a pace for 55 home runs, 169 RBI, and 109 runs.  Now that's production.

On the other hand, we have Pat Burrell.  Last night, he struck out five times in five plate appearances.  Two of those strikeouts came with men on base when the Phillies needed a run -- in the fifth when the Phils were ahead by only one and two men were on; and in the seventh when the Phils were down by two and had a man on third.  Burrell flailed at the plate.  Luckily, Howard picked him up last night with his 8th inning homer.

The amazing thing about Burrell is how his past two seasons have played out when looked at together.  He has been two completely different players.  Check out this chart:

Combined 125 0.195 0.333 0.396 0.729 14 52 42
Overlap 177 0.291 0.416 0.605 1.021 47 124 105

The first line are Burrell's combined stats from the beginning of last season (until July 1) and the second half of this season (from July 23 on). The second line is Burrell's stats when you overlap the two seasons -- from July 2 last season until July 22 this season. I chose those dates because they were his high and low points over the past two years. On July 1 last year, his OPS stood at a measly .733. It only went up after that game. Conversely, on July 22 this year, Burrell's OPS was 1.004. It has only declined since then.

What we have here are two completely different players. From the beginning of last season until July 1 and from July 23 of this year until now, we have a weak-hitting middle infielder inhabiting Burrell's body. In between, though, we have an MVP.

It was great having the MVP showing up to last September's games. Too bad this September we get the weak-hitting middle infielder.