Is it me?
April 18, 2006

Baseball can be a confusing game.  On the surface, it seems so simple: the pitcher pitches and the hitter tries to hit it.  And the preponderance of numbers make it feel like everything that goes in the game has an easy explanation.  OPS, ERA... what could be easier? 

I am struck by the number of studies that have been done on clutch hitting and nearly all of them come to the same conclusion: that there is no evidence that anyone hits significantly better in the clutch than they do in every other at bat.  But do any of them really prove their point?  For example, many look at what a player does in close and late situations and compare that to his regular at bats.  That seems simple enough.  The problem is that those at bats are considerably different than just the added pressure of the game situation.  A close and late situation is usually handled by a pitching specialist like a closer.  No team puts their worst pitcher in with the game on the line if it can be avoided.  Usually, it's one of their best, if not the best, at least according to his ERA and WHIP.  The other at bats are usually pitched by the starter whom the hitters have seen two or three times in the game already.  So basically aren't those studies contending that there are no clutch hitters because they couldn't find hitters who hit Mariano Rivera better than Shawn Chacon? 

Here's another problem.  What is clutch and what is considered successful clutch hitting?  What consitutes a clutch situation and are all clutch situations equal?  If they are not, is it more valuable to be good in certain clutch situations?  A team is down by two in the 5th inning and a guy hits a three run homer.  Compare that to a team down by one in the ninth and the hitter hits a solo shot to tie the game.  Which was more clutch?  The earlier one could be the margin of victory but there were still four innings left to play.  The one in the ninth only ties the game, but without it, his team probably loses. 

As for what constitutes success, imagine a batter fouls off strike after strike and ends up making the closer throw 12 pitches before hitting a long drive to center field.  The ball goes over the fence but the centerfielder makes a spectacular play to rob him of a game-winning homer.  The hitter did everything possible to deliver a victory but ultimately was not successful because of a one in a hundred chance of fielding.  Is he a clutch hitter?  The numbers indicate he didn't come through in the clutch: he gets an 0-for-1.  There are no asterisks in the numbers that say what the fielders did in those at bats or what kind of contact the hitter made.  Or what happens if Eric Gregg or Charlie Williams is behind the plate and strike three is called on a pitch a full foot outside.  Again, he gets an 0-for-1 but this time with an ignominious strikeout in the boxscore.  The batter had a terrific at bat yet the boxscore indicates he's not a clutch hitter even though his lack of success is entirely due to the circumstances beyond his control.  I'm not making excuses because that's part of the game.  But we are talking about small samples so even one or two instances like this can affect the overall results.  There are some that say that everything evens out over the course of a season, but I doubt last year's Angels would agree.

So what makes a situation clutch?   Maybe if we do a better job of defining that then we'd have a better handle on who the clutch hitters are.  To my mind, clutch situations can be defined as circumstances when the game will be decided.  We don't always recognize them when they are happening but I'm ok with that.  So I guess we'd have to go back through every game pitch by pitch to find the critical points in each game.  I haven't seen any studies where anyone does that.  Anyway, the cards are usually stacked against the hitter when the game is percieved to be on the line.  Opposing managers generally do everything they can to make it as tough as possible when it's an obvious situation.  So to me, any hitter who hits as well in those situations as they do in all others is coming up bigger than should be expected.  I'm ok with calling those guys clutch hitters. 

Here's another hot topic early this season: Jon Papelbon.  There's been a lot of discussion about whether to move him from the closer's role to the rotation.  The argument is that the 200 innings of a starter is more valuable than 70 from a closer.  My question is simply will he be as effective as a starter?  Here's a number for you: 5.51.  That was Mariano Rivera's ERA as a starter.  In 67 innings, he gave up 11 homers and this was when he was 25 years old.  Starting and closing are two very different animals.  I can't name a single starting pitcher in the last 50 years who was successful using just one pitch.  I think Walter Johnson might have been the last.  Even Nolan Ryan threw a curve and Randy Johnson had a slider.  But it's quite possible, as Rivera has quite ably proved over the last 10 years, that one can be a closer with just one pitch.  Papelbon has a great feel for pitching and he as a very good fastball.  But as a starter, he'll probably need three good pitches.  I think he has two, and probably a third that needs some more work.  Given two or three times facing a pitcher, most major league hitters will take their pound of flesh if the pitcher doesn't have three at least decent offerings.   With a closer where each batter gets only one chance, diversity in the number of offerings isn't nearly as important as the quality.  In Papelbon's case, he likely won't be nearly as effective as he's been as a starter.  He wouldn't be bad but I have serious doubts he'll have an ERA in the high twos/low threes.  He might develop into a guy like that because he is very very talented.  But rookies rarely have that kind of mastery.  I guess the question the Red Sox have to answer is which replacement would be better.  Would the Red Sox be better off with Foulke closing and 200 innings of high 3.00/low4.00 ERA from Papelbon, or 2-ish ERA from Papelbon as the closer and 4-5ish ERA from DiNardo, et al.?  Since they are currently in first place, my guess is that the path they've chosen is probably the one what will continue to bring them the most success.

Here's another one I don't get.  Everyone is going crazy for Chris Shelton.  A couple of analysts on ESPNews went so far as they thought the guy would hit 40-45 homers this year.  I love early season exuberance as much as the next guy but aren't we talking about a guy who hit a total of 48 homers in 1186 minor league at bats?  Yet he's going to come close to matching that total in half as many at bats facing the best pitchers on the planet pretty much the first time he sees them?  I'm probably cynical but I don't see him going much above 30 homers even with his hot start.  The comparisons to Mike Sweeney are apt, except that Sweeney was a better hitter and made his debut at a younger age.  If Shelton debuted at 21 or 22 years old I might think that this surge was the logical progression of power development, but he's 25 going on 26 years old.  I did some comparisons for hitters who have their first significant major league exposure at age 25 and put up the kind of power, average, walk and strikeout numbers as Shelton and the players who came up as the closest comparables were Rico Brogna, Al Martin and Mark Quinn.  As for the company he's keeping with his fast start - only Mike Schmidt and Larry Walker have hit more home runs in the first two weeks of a season - but it's not uncommon for these kind of records to be held and broken by decent but not great players.  For example, the record for most consecutive games with a homer is eight straight and three players have done it.  Ken Griffey is a sure fire Hall of Famer and Don Mattingly is a borderline Hall of Famer and made regular All-Star Game appearances.  But Dale Long was a career .267 hitter with a total of 132 homers in 10 seasons.  Yet in 1956 he hit homers in eight consecutive games.  Shane Spencer had one phenomenal September hitting .373 with 10 home runs but for the most part was a fourth outfielder the rest of his brief career.  So if Shelton's home run binge were to end suddenly and he were to fade back into relative obscurity just like Spencer did, it wouldn't be extraordinary.  He's a nice story but it seems to me that this particular bandwagon is about to have some engine problems.  I expect he will settle down when pitchers stop throwing him meaty fastballs. 

I feel bad for Jim Bowden.  He just got busted for DUI, but given the amount of flack he's taken over the past year it's understandable that he's been driven to drink.  He got hammered in the media for demoting Brandon Watson just two weeks into the season and bringing up a struggling Ryan Church from Triple-A.  But what was he supposed to do?  Watson was terrific in spring training but when the games started to count, he was exposed as a player who's not ready and might not ever be ready to make it as a big leaguer.  The Nats had already lost eight or nine games.  Was Bowden supposed to continue to let the guy struggle for a month and finish April with 20-25 losses?  Church wasn't very good in spring so the decision to reward the player who was good seems like a pretty sound one.  But a change needed to be made so Bowden made it.  I don't understand why that's a bad thing. 

Last year he got mercilessly reamed for trading away Tomo Ohka, Sunny Kim and Zach Day.  But none of them are a threat to be anything more than innings eaters and at the time the media was impaling Bowden for not doing a better job of building an offense.  I'm sure he would have liked to have signed some of the better free agent hitters, but the budget just wasn't there for it and for the guys it was, they wanted to sign elsewhere.  He gets flack for the Guzman signing, but who knew that a 26-year old with a hidden shoulder injury wouldn't hit better than he did.  Yes, Guzman hadn't been very productive offensively since his first couple of years, but I don't recall anyone saying he would be merely average defensively and that his OPS would hover in the .500 range until September.  And 26-year old hitters don't tend to get much worse; they tend to get better with many of them having their best years offensively between the ages of 26 and 28.  Anyway, he trades those pitchers for players that might help and that other teams were willing to part with.  Since most teams don't trade their best hitters for average (at best) pitchers, he had to take a chance on some guys who might have some upside but also carried some risk.  As for the pitchers, Day was injured and had never shown much control, Kim had been throwing batting practice for the Nats' opposition for much of the last three years and Tomo Ohka simply refused to throw strikes.  Ohka's pitch breakdowns before and after the trade to Milwaukee are like night and day.  He and Frank Robinson nearly came to blows on the mound several times because Ohka refused to throw strikes.  Was Bowden supposed to let his 70-year old manager throw down in the middle of a game with a fungible pitcher?  So he makes the trade, Spivey gets injured and Ohka suddenly decides he's going to start pounding the strikezone.  Is that Bowden's fault? 

He again got pummelled this offseason for letting Darrell Rasner and Jamey Carroll go because he ran out of roster room signing a lot of low cost guys who might rebound, like Daryl Ward, Royce Clayton, Matt LeCroy and Damian Jackson.  Yeah, he blew it signing Michael Tucker, but are Rasner and Carroll really that irreplaceable?  I really like Carroll as a player but the reality is that his contributions are pretty limited.  Bowden took a ton of flack for trading for Alfonso Soriano, too.  But Brad Wilkerson obviously has more concerns than his nagging injuries from last year, Terrmel Sledge is a nice fourth outfielder but by no means a regular and Armando Galarraga might end up as a nice pitcher but he's still probably two years away.  Yes, it was a risk taking on a guy who thinks of himself as a second baseman - well, he was a four-time All Star at the position so it's not like he's crazy to think that - but the team needed power and speed and got both in the trade.  And again, it's not like he's was going to be able to swing Pujols or Teixiera for that package.  And so far it's looking like a pretty good deal as Soriano is hitting close to .300, getting on base nearly 36% of the time and slugging over .500.  Three homers and three steals.  But is anyone apologizing to Bowden for all the crap he took over the deal?  Nope, they just keep hammering away saying what a terrible GM he is.  Maybe the guy deserves a break.  I'm not saying he's Branch Rickey, but given the circumstances he's working under I can't imagine too many GMs doing significantly better.  But maybe that's just me.