Clutch hitting is a mythical beast. Its existence and usefulness has long been debated between traditionalists and sabermetricians, with no clear-cut conclusion between the two. In general, the ability to hit well in high leverage situations continues to be extolled by the champions of RBI and batting average, while sabermetrics classifies the skill as both unstable and unpredictable.
For the purposes of this article, we'll operate under the assumption that clutch hitting does exist and can be measured in a tangible way. FanGraphs' founder David Appelman developed a great statistic called "Clutch" that helps define the parameters of clutch hitting. To put it simply, a player is considered Clutch when he performs significantly better in high leverage situations than he does in context-neutral situations.
A few key things to keep in mind: A player does not need to be a good hitter or hit well in high leverage situations in order to maintain a high Clutch score. He does not need to perform better than another hitter to be considered clutch. He just needs to play better when the stakes are high and worse when they 're low. The greater the disparity between the two, the higher his Clutch score will be.
Through the first two months of 2014, Kyle Seager has led the Mariners with a Clutch score of 0.98, good for fifth best in MLB. His production level has fluctuated from .250/.386/.368 in low leverage situations to .400/.400/.850 in high leverage situations. Even so, he ranks second in overall offensive production to Robinson Cano, he of the 1.0 fWAR and .322/.372/.428 batting line.
Over the last five years, there have been two common themes running through the Mariners' camp. First, when Kyle Seager has been a regular staple of the lineup, he has consistently led the team in both offensive production and Clutch hitting. Second, in the dark days before Seager was a full-time Mariner, the highest Clutch producer was never the best hitter on the team.
Here are the Mariners' leaders in offense from 2009 to 2013:
And here are the M's leaders in Clutch hitting for those same years:
According to FanGraphs' handy little chart, Seager ranked at the high end of Clutch hitters in 2012 and 2013, with 0.5 Clutch signifying above average performers, 1.0 Clutch great performers, and 2.0 Clutch excellent performers. When Seager was not in the lineup, Ichiro led the Mariners in hitting, but never managed to perform significantly better in high leverage situations. In 2011, he batted .316/.336/.342 in low leverage situations and just .175/.284/.246 in high leverage situations, earning a negative Clutch score of -0.02. In 2010 and 2009, the opposite happened: he hit well in every kind of situation, creating little to no disparity between his performance in context-neutral and high leverage situations.
While Clutch is a great tool for examining past performances, it lacks value as a predictive statistic. Because Clutch isolates high leverage performances, relying on Win Probability Added (WPA) and Leverage Index (LI) to do so, it perpetually struggles with small sample sizes. Although Seager carries an above average Clutch score through 43 games this season, his performance in high leverage situations is based on 20 plate appearances, while his performance in low leverage situations rests on 86 PA.
FanGraphs' glossary notes that very few players produce consistent Clutch scores over the course of their careers. From 2009-2013, only Kyle Seager and Joey Votto have finished in the top tier of Clutch producers multiple times, both with Clutch scores over 1.5. Seager is the only one to do so in consecutive years.