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The value of clutch pitching in 2014

How well did the Mariners’ pitching staff perform in high-leverage situations this year?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Back in May, Kyle Seager was ranked the fifth-most Clutch third baseman in the major leagues. More than an intangible quality like "grittiness" or "hustle," Clutch is a simple metric developed by FanGraphs that uses win probability to determine how well a player performs in high leverage situations. The greater the discrepancy between his performance in high pressure situations and low pressure situations, the more Clutch he appears to be.

Clutch scores are spread across a scale from 2.00 to -2.00, though few performances exceed 1.00 or drop below -1.00. Those with positive scores are considered Clutch in high-pressure situations, while those with negative scores are not. By the end of the 2014 season, Seager's Clutch score had slipped from 0.98 to 0.32, hovering between "average" and "above average" on the Clutch scale. Despite this, his ranking stayed level at sixth place among qualified third basemen.

With a season's worth of data to examine, I returned to FanGraphs’ leaderboards to find out if the Mariners had excelled in any one area with regard to Clutch ability. As a team, they held a Clutch score of -0.87 at the plate, good for 16th in the league. On the mound, however, things appeared a little differently.

Unlike hitters, who are deemed "clutch" in the event of game-winning RBI and walk-off home runs, Clutch ability is not often attributed to pitchers. One reason is that pitchers are likely to face a greater number of high-leverage situations than a batter might. Pitchers are also able to exert greater control over high-leverage situations by adjusting their pitch sequencing and variety depending on the situation at hand.

When we calculate a pitcher’s Clutch score, we measure how much better they perform in high-pressure situations than low-pressure ones. For instance, pitchers are considered Clutch when they escape more 3-0 count, bases loaded, no-out situations than 0-2 counts with the bases empty and two outs. This can give relievers an advantage, since they generally face more high-leverage situations than starting pitchers do.

An essential component in determining Clutch ability is comparing players against their own performances, rather than those of their peers. A pitcher can only hold a favorable Clutch score if he pitches better in high-leverage situations than he does in low-leverage ones. If, say, he pitches well in high- and low-pressure situations, his Clutch score will be significantly lower.

In 2014, the Mariners’ pitching staff put together their best collective Clutch score in five years, at 3.50. (Another way of putting it: the Mariners won 3.5 more games in 2014 by pitching well in high-pressure situations.) They finished sixth-best in MLB, their highest ranking since they placed fourth in 2010 with a score of 5.58. The chart below illustrates the split between Seattle's rotation and bullpen Clutch scores from the past five seasons:

Year Clutch Clutch (SP) Clutch (RP)
2014 3.50 0.92 2.35
2013 1.67 2.24 -0.41
2012 1.38 1.79 -0.41
2011 -3.96 -0.96 -2.30
2010 5.58 1.89 3.78

For both the 2014 and 2010 seasons, the Mariners’ abnormally high Clutch scores stemmed from phenomenal bullpen performances. Among the relievers used last season, half finished above the threshold for "great" Clutch ability, led by Joe Beimel (1.55) and Tom Wilhelmsen (1.20). Both Beimel and Wilhelmsen received fewer high-leverage opportunities than the majority of the 'pen.

The Mariners' 2014 rotation fared slightly poorer in the long run, although they fell in the "above average" tier for Clutch pitchers with a score of 0.92. None of Seattle's starters crested 1.00 in their individual Clutch scores, but Roenis Elias came the closest with a score of 0.98 and placed tenth among qualified major league starters. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings of work, Elias was bumped to 15th place, while the Mariners' upcoming starter, J.A. Happ, placed 10th overall with a score of 1.15. Happ was also the most Clutch pitcher on the Blue Jays' staff in 2014, a full 0.49 points above runner-up Mark Buehrle.

Unfortunately for the Mariners' 2015 staff, Clutch scores are restricted to past performances and trends. While we can certainly hope the Mariners will be able to replicate a high Clutch ranking next season, Clutch ability relies too much on luck and circumstance to offer any predictive benefit. Thankfully, the strength of a pitching staff does not rely entirely on its ability to be Clutch, but to perform well in both high-pressure and low-pressure situations. If the 2015 Mariners can manage that, they'll be just fine.