To start, this is a topic that has been taken in depth by writers more talented than myself, so I’ll simply be focusing on the 2017 Cleveland Indians rather than delving into the overall legitimacy of clutch hitting. This year, hitting with runners in scoring position has been a major issue for the Tribe as they rank 28th in average in this situation despite being in the middle of the pack offensively otherwise. While this is a regular pet peeve for the uneducated fan, it’s long been known that there is no real thing as a clutch player.
In general, players who hit well do so in all situations. If there was a switch to flip that would make a hitter more proficient with runners on, he would do so in all plate appearances. Yes, an opposite field single with a runner on third and two outs is more valuable than one with none out and none on, but it’s better than a strike out in all situations. To begin, here’s a baseline for the discussion. The numbers from all of MLB in all situations and those specifically with runners in scoring position.
|MLB||All PA||W/ RISP||Difference|
|All vs RISP||AVG||OBP||SLG||AVG||OBP||SLG||AVG||OBP||SLG|
While average, OBP and slugging percent have varied from year to year, in each individual season they have been almost identical when comparing all at bats to those with runners in scoring position. The one exception is that there is an increase in on base percent, entirely based on walks as there was no bump in average.
So, the numbers normalize throughout the league when you consider a large enough sample, but what about a single player? The list below shows the Indians six players who have had near or more than 1,000 plate appearances with the Tribe since 2012 and remain with the team.
|Since 2012||All PA||W/ RISP||Difference|
The first chart shows us that we should expect about a 2% increase in OBP for each player, but that otherwise the numbers should be similar. Obviously, the sample sizes are much smaller here, but some of the results are similar. The biggest outliar is Michael Brantley, who has hit consistently better with runners in scoring position. You can call him clutch, but at the same time he’s hit over .300 and slugged over .440 in all situations, so it isn’t like he just turns it on during clutch situations. On the other side, Lindor is the only player who has been significantly worse in clutch situations, but he also has the smallest sample size and saw a huge change in results between 2015 and 2016 as his average with RISP dropped by over .100, his OBP dropped by almost .090 and his SLG dropped by more than .170, all numbers that will likely normalize as his career continues.
Heading into Sunday’s game with Minnesota, hitting with runners in scoring position was a problem mentioned by many for the Indians woes. However, they had hit just .237/.319/.385 as a team for the season in all situations, so the fact that they had hit .209/.301/.376 with runners in scoring position isn’t all that surprising. If you can’t hit without runners in scoring position, why should you be able to hit with runners on base?
A more anecdotal argument can be useful, however, to show how circumstances can make actual ability to hit with runners in scoring position moot. The Indians didn’t have an RBI hit with runners in scoring position from Brandon Guyer‘s RBI double on May 10th through Daniel Robertson‘s RBI single on May 14th, but there are two plays from the last week that can really qualify that fact.
The first was from last Monday when Jose Ramirez flew out to center with runners on first and second and the Indians down by four. With two outs, chances are that both runners would score on a fly ball to deep center and the Indians scored two later on that could have tied the game even if they didn’t extend the sixth after what could have been a Ramirez double. Instead, Kevin Pillar made what could have been the catch of the year, diving straight back to rob Ramirez and end the inning. The ball Ramirez hit had a 66% chance of falling in safely and traveled 388 feet coming off the bat at 101.5 MPH. There is no reasonable argument that Ramirez could have hit that ball any better and both the eye and the math say it should have been a hit, yet it went down as another out with runners in scoring position.
The opposite side was the play that broke the Indians rough streak without a hit with runners in scoring position, Robertson’s single on Sunday. Ramirez was on first at the beginning of the at bat, but went to second thanks to a balk. After the balk, the infielders went back to normal positioning and Robertson snuck one just beyond Jorge Polanco at short for an RBI single. If the balk hadn’t occurred (and it was definitely a questionable call), the infielders would have been playing closer up the middle and there’s a good chance that this single would have been a double play. Either way, those watching it could use it as confirmation bias. If he grounds into a double play, it’s just the Indians offense continuing to struggle. With the hit, it’s a new call-up breathing life into the team with a clutch at bat.
In no way was Robertson’s contact better than Ramirez’s and if they each hit the exact same ball 100 times, Ramirez would have a much more successful season overall, but in this situation, Robertson’s was enough to bring the run in while Ramirez’s was not.
Over the long haul, these things normalize and the numbers will come back to normal. It may seem like magic and credit could be given anywhere, but the Indians will hit better than they are now and they will hit better with runners in scoring position just due to random luck. In the end, this is really just another small sample size problem that will go away with time.