The Faces of Clutch   (05/21/01)

I've been thinking about this clutch hitting thing some more and even did a little legwork on my theory.  But before I get to the numbers, I'd like to point out that no one has said anything about the concept of clutch pitching.

It seems odd that some people are quite willing to discount the existence of clutch hitting without discounting the notion of clutch pitching.  Perhaps that's because there's plenty of statistical evidence to show that clutch pitching exists.  But unlike clutch hitting, this statistical evidence is readily available.  One can look at just about any statistical database and find splits for runners in scoring position and other crucial game situations.  From this, we have evidence that shows there are a number of pitchers who pitch significantly better when the game is on the line.

So, given that no one denies that there is proof of the existence of clutch pitching, then we should consider that the physical laws of conservation - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - might apply.  If clutch pitching exists, then so must clutch hitting.

Ichi Trigger Finger

After my last column, I started thinking that Ichiro Suzuki might be the perfect hitter to look at when trying to determine the nature of clutch hitting.  Like any rookie, he's seeing the league for the first time.  For that matter, the league is seeing him for the first time as well.  But unlike other rookies who are still developing their skills as they get older, Ichiro comes to the majors as a complete product.  He has an established level of play from his years in the Japanese Leagues and is at an age (27) where his physical abilities have peaked.  Any improvements he makes over his established level of play would be due entirely to the mental adjustments that come from first hand experience.  The fact that we can isolate these variables in his case makes him a very good subject to study.

If you remember, I suggested that a hitter struggles most in his first at bat versus a pitcher, but in each successive at bat, he becomes better suited to get hits.  The reason we haven't seen evidence of clutch hitting in statistical surveys is because we were comparing one particular kind of at bat (Late Inning Pressure) to all other kinds of at bats.  In order to get a more accurate picture, I suggested we compare LIPs to just the at bats where the batter is facing the pitcher for the first time in the game.

So, I took a game by game look at what Ichiro has done this year, chronicling each at bat, who it was against and the situation in which it came.  I have a catalogue of all of his hits except for one which I suspect occurred on April 17 against the Rangers.  In his second at bat versus Rick Helling he reached first on Ken Caminiti's fielding error in the 2nd inning, yet the box score lists him as having gone 4 for 4.  An error is usually described as an at bat and an out, so it would have been impossible for him to go 4 for 4 in that game.  He should have been credited with going 3 for 4.

Anyway what I found was pretty interesting.  Ichiro's current overall batting average, according to my catalogue, is .360.  In forty-three 1st inning lead-off at bats, Ichiro got a hit 15 times, giving him a .348 average in that situation.  In all other at bats where he faced a pitcher for the first time in a game, he hit .344 (21 for 61).  Given that his overall batting average is higher that it is in those situations, it seems clear that he hits better when he's seen the pitcher.  In fact, in the at bats where he faced a pitcher again, he batted .375 (36 for 96).  The difference wasn't as great as I expected, but I may have an explanation, which I'll get into a little later.

So what about his hitting in the clutch?  Currently, Ichiro is hitting .452 (14 for 31) in close and late situations, and .493 (33 for 67) with runners on base.  With runners in scoring position he is hitting .571 (20 for 35).  That's not really a lot of at bats to work with but it's pretty clear he's not doing poorly in those situations.  And while I don't expect him to have a career average above .450 in those situations when he retires 10 or 12 years from now, I do expect that he'll show a significantly positive difference between his first at bats versus pitchers and his first at bats versus pitchers when the game is on the line.  In short, I expect he'll be viewed as a clutch hitter.    

I'll continue to follow Ichiro's exploits.  I'll think I'll also look into Tsuyoshi Shinjo's numbers.  He's another rookie fresh from a career in Japan.  I'm still looking for a database with the at bat breakdowns, but perhaps Shinjo will be able to offer some interesting data to the mix.

Rickey Can

Which brings me to an interesting question.  Does a clutch hitter have to necessarily hit well at the end of the game?  What happens if he's a lead off guy?  It could be argued that his most important at bat is the first one of the game.  It's been demonstrated in numerous studies that the team that scores first wins the majority of it's games.  If a leadoff man can get on base to start the game, it increases his team's chances of scoring the first runs.  So could a lead-off man be considered a clutch hitter if he gets on base in his first at bat better than he does during the rest of the game?  If so, is that what makes guys like Rickey Henderson so great?

Henderson has the reputation as being the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, largely due to the fact that he has the most walks, steals and lead-off home runs in history, and is closing fast on the runs scored record.  But could he be even better than that?  What if he got on base in his first at bat of a game much better than he did in the rest of the game?  

Well, if this year is any indication of what he's done his entire career, he does.  It's amazing enough that at 42 years old he can still hit enough and walk enough to have a batting average of .293 this year and an on base percentage of .418.  But in 12 of the 26 games he has started and led off the game for the Padres, he has gotten on base to lead off the game, giving him a .461 first inning on base percentage.  He has reached base via the basehit 9 of those 12 times for a .346 first inning batting average.  If a lead-off hitter's first at bat is his 'clutch situation', then Rickey Henderson is definitely a clutch hitter.  

Mariner MVP

Which brings me back to Ichiro.  As I pointed out, his batting average in the first inning is a remarkable .348.  Given that he is the lead-off hitter for the M's, that at bat is a daily clutch situation for him.  And he excels in it.  So even though he doesn't get on base in that first at bat better than he does during the rest of the game, he still does better than most other hitters in his position.  So maybe the reason the differential between his leadoff numbers and his other numbers isn't so great simply because Ichiro hits no matter the situation.  Ichiro is simply a great hitter - clutch, leadoff or otherwise.

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