SweetSpot: clutch

"Clutch" Cardinals crush Pirates

October, 3, 2013
Clutch hitting has long been one of the touchier subjects in sabermetric circles, with the conventional wisdom being that clutch hitting doesn't exist. Well, "doesn't exist" might be harsh, but rather there is no evidence that players raise their game in certain situations. A .280 hitter is a .280 hitter regardless of the situation, and data suggest this is true.

The St. Louis Cardinals, however, are doing their best to put that theory to the test. They hit .330 with runners in scoring position this season, and then wore out Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett with ducks on the pond in the third inning of Game 1 of the NLDS.

First, postseason superstar Carlos Beltran hit a three-run bomb to make it 3-0, and then David Freese (another postseason hero) hit a bases-loaded single that ended up scoring three runs thanks to a Pittsburgh error.

Adam Wainwright did his usual thing, allowing one run in seven innings while hardly breaking a sweat, and the Cardinals cruised to a 9-1 win.

So clutch hitting was the key, right? Well, maybe not. Just the inning before the Cardinals put up a seven spot, they wasted a two-on, no out rally when Freese grounded into a fielder's choice before Daniel Descalso hit into an inning-ended double play. And for the game the Cardinals were just 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

So are the Cardinals clutch or not? While I tend to agree with sabermetric orthodoxy that hitters don't "raise their game" in clutch spots, the Cardinals do have the kind of team that is more inclined to hit well with men on base.

For starters, they were second to the Rockies in the NL in overall team batting average (.269), and they don't strike out -- only San Francisco had fewer strikeouts than St. Louis among NL clubs. In order to get clutch hits you need already be able to hit for a high average and put the ball in play. The Cardinals do both.

Another hidden factor is that when men are on base, it's harder to shift because you have to be close enough to each base to prevent runners from easily stealing. That's a huge factor for the Pirates, a team that loves to shift. The Bucs love to position their defenders based on spray-chart data, but if they have to modify their shifts with runners on base that will theoretically open up holes for the opponent's hitters. This is a subplot worth watching in this series.

In the Pirates-Cardinals National League Division Series preview that Joe Sheehan wrote for his newsletter, he talked about how recent history shows that World Series winners have been teams that made contact. According to Sheehan -- whose newsletter is very much worth subscribing to -- the team with a better contact rate during the regular season has gone 22-6 in the last four postseasons. Per Sheehan, here is how the 2013 LDS teams line up in terms of contact rate across MLB.

1. Tigers
5. Cardinals
9. Dodgers
10. Rays
11. Athletics
22. Red Sox
25. Pirates
28. Braves

If recent history holds, we're looking at a rematch of the 2006 World Series. As for the Pirates-Cardinals series, the Birds won Round 1 thanks to some early big hits off of Burnett and some stellar pitching from Wainwright. But considering how close these teams played each other this season, I expect the rest of the series to be a lot closer.
It's remarkable how some narratives take on a life of their own.

For the past few years, Joey Votto has been the Reds' best player by almost every objective measure. (He even has an MVP to show for it.) But because his RBI totals have remained relatively low for someone with the reputation of a middle-of-the-order slugger, there is a sentiment out there that Votto is too passive. (This is a sentiment that is perpetuated by Votto's own manager.)

This narrative is silly for reasons I'll explain in a moment, which is why it was refreshing to see him hit a game-changing two-run homer off J.P. Howell in the fifth inning on Friday that would provide the tying and winning run in a 3-2 Cincinnati win against the Dodgers.

It was vintage Votto. He's one of the few left-handed hitters who is adept against lefties (career .883 OPS), and he deposited a pitch on the outer half to the opposite field, but increased his RBI total to only 66 in the process.

So why does he have so few RBIs? Well, it's no secret he's not afraid to take a walk, and after taking two free passes on Friday he now has a league-leading 113 on the season. That's just the type of hitter he is. He knows that teams will pitch him carefully when runners are on base, and he's not going to give up an out. As a result, he has 40 walks when he comes to the plate with runners in scoring position, which is the most in MLB. (He's also hitting .294 in such situations, which isn't so bad.)

Sure, he could be more aggressive with men on base, but the end result would be more outs and (likely) fewer runs. And per Baseball Reference, Votto has a career line of .308/.430/.532 in situations defined as "late and close," so it's not as if you can even tie yourself in knots making a "Votto's not clutch" argument.

Votto had been in a bit of a slump of late, as he's hitting just .254 since the All-Star break -- albeit with a .404 OBP -- so his teammates and manager must have been thrilled to get a hit of any kind.

Of course, part of what makes Votto so effective is that he's productive on offense even when he isn't hitting, and no one should try to change that. And hopefully he can hit a few more homers like this one over the next few weeks and put this silly "passive" narrative to rest for good.