The most overused expression in baseball is "clutch." Although "pine tar on the neck" is making a recent push.
Get a hit in a close game with a runner in scoring position? Clutch.
Bloop single to break a tie in the eighth inning? Clutch.
Walk-off home run? Definitely clutch.
Big home run in the World Series? Super-duper clutch.
No team was more breathlessly mentioned as clutch last season than the St. Louis Cardinals. They hit .330 with runners in scoring position, which is even more phenomenal than it may sound. We have play-by-play data going back to 1950 and that’s the single-season record -- 18 points better than the No. 2 team, the 1950 Red Sox. But the Red Sox hit .302 that year; the Cardinals hit .269 overall, raising their average an incredible 94 points compared to what they hit with the bases empty.
Allen Craig hit .454 with runners in scoring position, the third-highest average in 40 years, behind only George Brett in 1980 and Tony Gwynn in 1997. Matt Holliday hit .390, Matt Carpenter .388, Carlos Beltran .374 and Yadier Molina .371. Heck, even Daniel Descalso (.361) and Pete Kozma (.322) joined the fun.
Clutch hitting is one of the more controversial issues in sabermetric circles. Once debunked by Bill James, he wrote last year that it could exist. Last October, Albert Chen summarized the clutch hitting debate in Sports Illustrated:
"Clutch hits exist, clutch hitters do not," James Click, a former Baseball Prospectus writer and now the head of the Rays' analytics department, wrote in 2005. "There is no statistical evidence to support the idea that some hitters consistently perform better in situations defined as 'clutch' as compared to normal situations. Good hitters are good clutch hitters; bad hitters are bad clutch hitters."
But is it that simple? In his 2006 study Nate Silver concluded that "clutch hitting ability exists more than previous research would indicate." And according to Tom Tango's extensive '07 study published in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, "About one in six players increases his inherent OBP skill by eight points or more in high-pressure situations; a comparable number of players decreases it by eight points or more."
But eight points is a minor gain compared to what the Cardinals did last season. Leaving aside whether they were lucky, clutch or just extremely focused with runners in scoring position, the statistical analyst in me looked at the Cardinals’ lack of power in 2013 -- they were 13th in the National League in home runs and lost Carlos Beltran, their top home run hitter with 24 -- and surmised their run scoring will decrease in 2014. Back in January I wrote:
Based on their component statistics -- singles, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, steals, double plays hit into and so on -- the Cardinals created about 727 runs. They scored 783 runs. ... The Cardinals' situational hitting added about 56 runs beyond what you would have expected.
How real is the Cardinals' ability to hit with runners in scoring position? In 2012, they hit .264 -- below their .271 overall mark. They did hit .290 with runners in scoring position in 2011 (best in the majors), compared with a .273 overall mark. It's clear the Cardinals do take a different approach with runners on base, willing to sacrifice power for base hits. But they're not going to repeat that .330 mark.
Through 23 games, the Cardinals' offense has struggled. Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Mets dropped the club to 12-11 and the Cardinals are 12th in the NL in runs while ranking last with just 12 home runs. They've scored two runs or fewer 11 times in 23 games and have scored 13 runs in their past seven games.
Two big changes in the offseason were to install rookie Kolten Wong at second base and to trade for outfielder Peter Bourjos. This improved the team’s speed and athleticism, but the Cardinals have stolen just eight bases and are fourth in the NL in double plays grounded into, a problem the team had last year. The only players with more than one home run are Jhonny Peralta and Yadier Molina, not exactly a pair you're going to count on for 20 home runs. Matt Holliday has one home run and Matt Carpenter, last year’s breakout performer with 72 extra-base hits (including 55 doubles) has just one double and one home run in 23 games.
Oh, and with runners in scoring position? The Cardinals are hitting .234, about the same as their .243 overall mark, and have been unable to use "clutch hitting" to compensate for a lack of power this season.
Look, it’s too early to be in panic mode about the Cardinals’ offense going in the tank all season -- they are 12-11 -- but I do think the lack of power is going to be a season-long issue in a very competitive division. A nice homestand against the Pirates and Brewers will help -- they've played 17 of their 23 games on the road -- but at some point they’ll need to rely on some home runs and not just clutch hitting.