Clutch Hitting

I am not going to get into the endless discussion about clutch hitting in general. Suffice it to say I buy the argument that it’s more or less a mythical beast. To clarify, what the sabermetricians mean when they say there is no such thing as clutch hitting is that it is not a repeatable skill. Of course, hitting successfully in the clutch is great. It’s just not something a team can control or count on. Some players and teams will excel in a given year in clutch situations. But for the most part, they will fall back to the mean the following year. In general, players (and teams) that hit well with runners in scoring position, are good players and good hitting teams, period. There are exceptions. But when a player or team significantly outperforms (or underperforms) his/its normal batting level in clutch situations, it’s probably just good (or bad) ‘ole luck. In other words, it’s not likely to continue indefinitely (yeah, yeah, Ortiz. I know).

Two nights ago, I was listening to John and Suzyn in the car during the Yanks’ dismal 11-3 loss to the O’s. Adam Jones had just doubled in a run with two outs, giving the Orioles a 5-3 lead at the time. John and Suzyn said, with evident exasperation, that that was exactly the kind of hit that the Yankees have not managed this year (true enough!). Suzyn then said, that’s what good teams do, they hit in the clutch. Again, insofar as hitting in the clutch helps you win games, Waldman is correct. But it’s not an approach, or a strategy, or a reflection mental fortitude or character. It’s either just an outgrowth of the team’s offensive level in general, or happenstance. For example, the two teams with the highest batting average with runners in scoring position (RISP) this year, according to this sortable Yahoo tool, are the Tigers and the Rockies. They’re also the two teams with the highest batting averages overall.

The Yankees’ triple slash with runners in scoring position is a pedestrian .250/.325/.356 and they are especially bad in terms of RISP slugging – only four teams slug worse in such situations. The key contextual point, though, is that the Bronx Ineffectual Projectiles’ overall offensive performance isn’t much better: .250/.313/.383. The batting average is the same and there is only a ten point difference in OPS. The Yankees do slug more meekly with RISP than they do normally (and the overall slugging is no great shakes). It is also true that the Yankees are hitting especially poorly with runners in scoring position and two outs – they’re batting .208 in those situations. But everyone does worse in those circumstances. Six teams are hitting below the Mendoza line in that category this season, including the first place Washington Nationals. And now we’re talking about small sample sizes with lots of volatility.

I am not picking on John and Suzyn here (who, in any event, are like the weather. You can complain – but that ain’t gonna change anything). And the Yankees are, indeed, incredibly frustrating to watch. But the real problem with the team isn’t the lack of clutch hitting – weak though it’s been. It’s that the Yankees just have a sucky offense.

(Matt Snyder, at CBS sports, has some well-placed rants about RISP, including here and here).

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