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Breaking down clutch as it applied to the 2013 Mariners

A discussion on Kyle Seager, Kendrys Morales, Joey Votto, and why our bias is both a fun and dangerous thing.

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Rick Yeatts

The constant arguments about the existence of clutch have grown fairly tired. As we are often guilty of, the argument against clutch got so loud that the point began to be distorted, and some analysts started to disparage the concept so harshly that the joy of a timely hit was lost. Simply citing a good hitter's stats with runners in scoring position was no demonstration of a clutch skill, it's been argued. Hitting with runners in scoring position is overrated, after all, the only reason that hit mattered so much was because of the runners on base in the first base. In order for a player to be clutch, he must demonstrate measurably better performance in high leverage situations than in regular ones.

The past decade of mainstream awakening regarding clutch has led to some pretty neat additions to our wealth of knowledge - the inclusion of high/medium/low leverage splits on Baseball-Reference was a huge step, as was learning about WPA (Win Probability Added) and Fangraph's clutch metric. Readers of this site know the WPA methodology and usage, as it's posted after every game. It's always good to have a refresher, and there's plenty of resources available without leaving the site, as you can read below.

Despite all of these developments, we're still peppered with arguments against any usage of clutch, but they're often against those who grossly abuse it. People and the reputation for being clutch are influenced by significant memories, not significant games. Thanks to the linear nature of baseball, a walk-off hit in a 17-inning game in September really doesn't matter any more than the same hit on a Sunday afternoon in May. Yet given the urgency or perceived importance of each separate at-bat, a player might get tagged with a reputation that sticks forever. This is especially magnified in October, where the reputation sticks around for many future years, fueled by confirmation bias. Derek Jeter's highest clutch rating since 2006 is -1.87. Doesn't really matter to many. That's ok.

This year's debate centered around Brandon Philips and Joey Votto, and while the diatribe against Votto wore thin, there was still some truth buried in all the misguided rants about RBI. Votto was worse in high leverage at-bats this year and feasted in blowouts and low-leverage ABs. Philips was excellent with RISP and performed his best in high leverage at-bats. For one, the narrative fits. Philips has hit better in high leverage at-bats over his career, and he has a positive clutch score, even though it's hardly significant. For the other, it's contained to one year - Votto has made a career of annihilating pitchers when the game matters most.

Brandon Philips, 2013 Brandon Philips, career Joey Votto, 2013 Joey Votto, career
OPS 0.706 0.749 0.926 0.960
High Leverage OPS 0.772 0.779 0.862 1.100
Low Leverage OPS 0.662 0.726 1.009 0.932
Clutch (Fangraphs) 0.73 0.4 -2.38 2.35
Margin > 4 runs OPS 0.689 0.760 1.194 0.952

It's Votto, not Philips, who has been the better clutch performer over his career. Yet this season, it's Philips getting praised for a sub-part offensive year because of his key situation performances. This debate was highly publicized and unlikely to be forgotten any time soon - is it irrational to think that both sides of this will view these players with bias going forward? Whenever Votto strikes out looking with a runner in scoring position, the narrative could grow stronger, and every time Philips hacks away at a ball out of the zone and manages a sacrifice fly, will the other side do the same?

It's an exercise in arrogance more than anything else. Everyone goes through some sort of "what have you done for me lately" mentality, and while even the most rational may refuse to publish it, it's something everyone thinks. When I sit at a bar with a friends, I have no problem agreeing with the sentiment that Kendrys Morales is "so clutch." After all, he actually is. Still, I wouldn't speak up when the same is uttered about Raul Ibanez, even if it isn't true - sometimes it's fun to see things through a cloudy lens of joy, and I don't particularly enjoy being a know-it-all turd to my friends.

Regardless of what you think about clutch and whether it's a sustainable skill or not, these events still happen, and they can get glossed over by those who are only concerned about the future, which is the perpetual life for many of the readers on this site - constantly looking forward instead of appreciating what players did in a lost season. I happen to believe in clutch as a wonderful event, and not something you can predict going forward with any sort of confidence except for a small handful of players. Those events are still worth appreciating, regardless of what happened in the past or will transpire in the future.

This is essentially a long introduction into appreciating the top clutch hitters on the Mariners in 2013 and examining them in the proper context, compared to their careers.

Kyle Seager

Seager made waves in his 2012 season for being a hitter who dominated in key performances, and much of that was due to his .892 OPS with RISP, but Seager was excellent across all high leverage AB, posting a .909 OPS. Seager walked away from 2012 with a +2.20 clutch rating, which was first in the American League.

2013 was another clutch season for Seager, but in a different way.

2012 2013
OPS 0.738 0.764
High Leverage OPS 0.909 0.910
Low Leverage OPS 0.667 0.641
Clutch (Fangraphs) 2.2 1.54
RISP OPS 0.892 0.716

Seager dominated once again in high leverage plate appearances, but was pedestrian with RISP. He's now a walking demonstration of how each PA in a critical situation matters - 12 of Seager's 23 home runs came when the score was within one run, as did 22 of his 32 doubles. For perspective - that's 69% of his doubles in 57% of his total PA.

Different method, similar levels of excellence in the most critical situations.

Kendrys Morales

Back in June, I wrote about Kendrys Morales and the development of the clutch skill, which didn't reach any concrete conclusions but is still an interesting read. One of the subjects who demonstrated learning a clutch skill was Joey Votto, but then, 2013.

Morales put together yet another year of better performances in key situations.

2013 Career
OPS 0.785 0.813
High Leverage OPS 0.911 0.877
Low Leverage OPS 0.725 0.792
Clutch (Fangraphs) 0.6 2.12
RISP OPS 0.866 0.871

Morales demonstrated an even bigger gap between high and low leverage ABs than he usually does, but his clutch metric is measurably less than Seager's. Unlike Seager, Morales feasted with RISP once again, and also dominated in Late & Close plate appearances (.970 OPS). Morales is one of those players where perception is actually reality - a player who has consistently hit measurably better when the game is on the line. It's not really a prediction of future years, just something to enjoy.

There weren't any other regulars on the Mariners who posted noticeable clutch scores (good or bad), but the other player worth examining closer is Raul Ibanez.

Raul Ibanez

It's worth noting that Ibanez hit .882 OPS in medium leverage PA in 2013.

2013 Career
OPS 0.793 0.809
High Leverage OPS 0.663 0.827
Low Leverage OPS 0.792 0.786
Clutch (Fangraphs) -0.57 0.43
RISP OPS 0.795 0.861

Ibanez was actually pretty terrible in the most important plate appearances of the year, though several key bombs influenced the memories we'll all take away. Whatever. The table above is a series of facts. Know them, but don't let them make you an obnoxious know-it-all. In three years, I'll choose to remember the ridiculousness. For now, I'll use this as evidence to take down a narrative which may be used as support to bring him back.

Sometimes our biases can get the best of us. It's always a good idea to check the numbers when using a murky definition like clutch, which means different things to different people. Compare it to your own definition, put things in proper perspective, and come to the same conclusion that I do.

Kyle Seager is a boss.

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