By John Perrotto
There is no such thing as a clutch hitter. So say the sabermetricians, and they have plenty of data to back up their assertion, including in this outstanding piece that was published nine years ago at Baseball Prospectus but is still very relevant today.
Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle knows all about data. He respects it and uses it often to help guide him in decision making. However, there is one statistic that has developed over the course of this season that confirms what Hurdle's instincts tell him.
Despite their recent offensive lull, the St. Louis Cardinals, who Hurdle's surprising Pirates are battling for supremacy in the National League Central, are hitting .334 with runners in scoring position and .313 with runners on base this season. By comparison, they have a .239 batting average with the bases empty.
"That's a high number, (85) points higher," Hurdle said of the Cardinals' mark with runners on second or third as opposed to no one on base. "That number will grab you."
Some will argue that the Cardinals' big RISP number is nothing more than random statistic variance -- noise, if you will. But Hurdle thinks there's more to it.
"I understand the principle behind the theory (that there is no such thing as a clutch hitter) but I don't buy it," Hurdle said. "You can sit up in a box with all the numbers and color-coded charts you want but there's something about standing in the batter's box in the bottom of the ninth inning with a runner on second base and a closer on the mound that you can't duplicate with a computer. It's something you can only experience as a human being to truly understand."
Since 99.9 percent of the population will never have a chance to be in that situation, mortals must rely mainly on statistics to understand how difficult it is to hit with runners in scoring position. This season's data strongly suggests RISP situations aren't actually much more difficult than hitting with the bases empty: Major-league hitters have a .259 batting and .729 OPS when batting with no one on, but those figures drop just slightly to .257 and .726 in RISP situations.
Furthermore, 18 of the 30 major-league teams have a higher batting average with runners in scoring position than they do with men on base this season. (However, no team equals St. Louis in terms of batting average; the Tampa Bay Rays have the second-largest spread, 27 points, with a .283 RISP average compared to .256 with the bases empty.)
Still, almost every major-league player will emphatically tell you that some hitters have what might be called the "clutch gene."
It certainly seems to be a part of the DNA of almost every position player on the Cardinals' roster. Six of St. Louis' regulars are batting over .300 with runners in scoring position: first baseman Allen Craig (.475), second baseman Matt Carpenter (.400), catcher Yadier Molina (.383), right fielder Carlos Beltran (.382), left fielder Matt Holliday (.347) and shortstop Pete Kozma (.330).
"Admittedly, I don't have the data in front of me but I have been playing in the major leagues for a long time now," said Holliday, a 10-year veteran. "I think good hitters get hits in big situations because they don't change their approach and have a good idea of what they want to accomplish when they step in the batter's box.
"I don't think clutch hitting is randomness or coincidence or by chance. I don't know that for a fact but I do know you would never want to take that mindset into the box. As a hitter, you want to know that you have the skill and ability to come through in those situations rather than thinking that maybe you'll just get lucky. I don't think you'd be very successful taking that approach."
"Approach" is the word the Cardinals use over and over in explaining their success with runners in scoring position. Holliday says it and so does Craig, Carpenter and manager Mike Matheny.
"They've very disciplined and they don't try to do too much," Matheny said of his hitters. "It's that mind game you talk about, knowing who you are facing, knowing the approach you are going to be taking whether the score is 12-1 or 1-0, regardless of if there are runners in scoring position or not. It is knowing the situation and understanding what it takes to be successful in that situation."
"We have got a lot of hitters in this (locker) room with a good approach and they don't change their approach with runners in scoring position," he said. "We have a good hitting philosophy on this team, which has been taught to us by a lot of good hitting coaches throughout the organization. That is why we are so successful in the clutch."
Added Holliday: "I think if there is one theme to our lineup, it's that we use the whole field. When you are able to take that approach, it opens things up and makes you a better hitter in any situation."
Craig is the King of Clutch, despite a current slide in which he has gone 0-for-22 with 10 strikeouts in his last seven games. In addition to that gaudy .475 RISP average this season, he hit .400 in those situations last year and has a .394 career mark, with a .446 on-base percentage and a .641 slugging percentage in 369 plate appearances over four seasons.
Of course, Craig says it's his approach that makes him so potent with runners in position.
"Your odds of being successful are on the ground and on the line," Craig said. "If you're trying to hit a home run and trying to drive it too much with guys on base that doesn't work because fly balls get caught. You've got to try to hit line drives."
Craig is also a smart guy, a Cal-Berkeley alum, who understands one other simple factor in becoming known as a clutch hitter.
"The luxury of being on our team is you're hitting with men on base a lot," he said with a smile.
Playing for a potent offensive team creates more RBI opportunities, of course, but players hitting in a strong lineup also seem to do better in the clutch, at least in terms of driving in runs. The top five players in the major leagues in terms of OBI percentage -- the percentage of others batted in -- are Craig (24.7), the Baltimore Orioles' Chris Davis (23.1), the Arizona Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt (22.2), the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera (21.5) and Carpenter (21.2). The Tigers have the highest-scoring offense in the major leagues, while the Cardinals are fourth, the Diamondbacks rank fifth and the Diamondbacks stand 14th. (It is a small sample size, to be sure.)
The romantic in me says there really is such a thing as a clutch hitter. I'm 49 years old, and my formative years came during a time when conventional baseball wisdom wasn't challenged. When a baseball broadcaster said someone was a clutch hitter, I believed him. Then the Bill James Abstracts began to be mass marketed when I was in college, and that opened up a new way of thinking. Suddenly, conventional wisdom wasn't what it used to be. The data said that opportunity and randomness have the strongest impact on "clutch hitting."
It's an internal struggle. I want to believe the mythical clutch hitter figure still exists, with Craig being the best current example. Yet the statistics don't lie, and the clutch hitting superheroes of my youth were unmasked a long time ago.
* * *
John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.