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Can Clutch Be Measured in MLB?

Chemical engineer, sport enthusiast, part-time rapper, food critic, philanthropist.

The Chicago Cubs

The Chicago Cubs

From Trevor “The Story” Story writing an early intro, to Gary “The Sanchize” Sanchez burning up the Bronx in the summer, to arguably the most intense Game 7 in sports history, the 2016 MLB season was full of excitement from start to finish. The season saw the revival of Justin Verlander, the regression of Bryce Harper, and the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez. It truly was a roller coaster ride for most baseball fans. For this article, I wanted to take a look back at this historic campaign.

I saw an article on ESPN on one of the most useless “stats” in baseball: WAR, or wins above replacement.

What Is WAR in Baseball?

If you are unaware of this metric, WAR is basically an attempt to summarize a player’s total contribution to his team into one number. Seems nice, right? Well, problems arise due to the fact that there are many different ways to calculate WAR.

For instance, back to this ESPN article I read (well, skimmed). The focus was on southpaw Robbie Ray. I would assume that most baseball fans see Ray as a back of the rotation guy/long reliever or have no idea who he is. Well, depending on which calculation of WAR you use, Ray is either a “borderline elite” pitcher or someone who is not worthy of a spot on the 40-man roster. That is a problem.

So, back to the bigger picture, I wanted to take a look back at this historic campaign, right? Alright, so, how? What is one of the most controversial terms in all of sports . . . no, not PEDs.

I’m talking about clutch.

Can You Quantify Clutch?

As fans, we tend to generate biased opinions on players based on one or two performances. That’s just how sports work. For example, many people see LeBron James as a great player who chokes in big moments, while Kobe Bryant was a great player who seemed to excel in crunch time. The same could be said for Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, respectively. Does it mean it’s true if the majority thinks it? Not necessarily (obviously). So, the real question is, can clutch be quantified?

I checked out sites like Fangraphs in an effort to find an answer, and yeah, they did have a clutch calculation. One problem: Their calculation involved a derivative of the most despised metric in MLB history (slight sarcasm), WAR. Ahh, now you see why I talked about Mr. Ray and his mystical 2016 season. I instantly found an issue with their idea of clutch, so, I decided to take it upon myself.

Welcome to MLB’s (Unofficial) First Annual 2016 “Clutchies”

Yeah, I rushed the name.

So, the way I see it, there are two different measures for clutch:

  1. Total Adjusted Clutch (TAC): How well a player performs in a “clutch situation.”
  2. Total Production Ratio (TPR): How much a player’s performance improves in a “clutch situation” (seen as the more general representation of clutch).

Basically, a player with a high TAC is someone that you can trust to deliver in high leverage situations, while a player with a high TPR is someone who will typically out-perform the back of their baseball card in high leverage situations. There is a difference.

To make a long story short, after analyzing the 2016 season for 145 different position players (without the use of WAR), I came to some pretty interesting conclusions. Here’s a quick breakdown.

Total Adjusted Clutch and Total Production Ratio breakdown.

Total Adjusted Clutch and Total Production Ratio breakdown.

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So, to explain:

  1. The majority of players, in both TAC and TPR, are in the “negative” category, meaning that they are not clutch.
  2. Most players hover around the average, meaning that very few players show a drastic change in production in high leverage situations.
  3. No players landed in the “bad” or “terrible” categories . . . but that is to be expected. Players landing that low in the negative section would statistically not last very long in professional ball (I stuck to analyzing mostly full-time players).

How Did the Players Score?

Now, to point out these players by name.

(A player’s TAC and TPR ratings have no true meaning until they are compared to the entire population. Only batting is taken into account, not fielding. Yes, the larger the number, the better; however, the mean/variance of these numbers will change from year to year, yielding different results than one may expect . . . so, without further ado . . . )

Total Adjusted Clutch

Let’s start with Total Adjusted Clutch (TAC).

TAC charts for the most and least clutch.

TAC charts for the most and least clutch.

Perennial gold glover Yadier Molina leads the pack by a significant margin, while the strongest man in Miami, Giancarlo Stanton, is stuck in the basement. One player in particular, a Mr. World Series MVP, Ben Zobrist, landed in the top 10—coincidence?

Moreover, with a simple glance, it seems as though older players tend to be more clutch than the younger generation. Could the experience and poise required for high leverage situations come with age? Maybe . . .

Total Production Ratio

Let's move on to Total Production Ratio (TPR).

TPR charts for the most and least clutch.

TPR charts for the most and least clutch.

Again, we see Yadier at the top, and Giancarlo at the bottom. Looking at the ‘most clutch’ side, we now see players like Sal Perez and Logan Forsythe; although they may not be the best in high leverage situations, they tend to represent the more general definition of “clutch.”

On the other side, I’d like to point out two of the NLMVP candidates: Daniel Murphy and Kris Bryant. This proves that one can have a fantastic season, but at the same time struggle mightily in the clutch (another reason why I do not agree with using WAR in the calculation for clutch).

Yadier Molina proves that age is just a number, winning the 2016 Clutchie Award.

Yadier Molina proves that age is just a number, winning the 2016 Clutchie Award.

The Analysis Behind These Numbers

Okay, so at this point (if you’re still reading) you’re probably saying, “Alright, so you got numbers and analyzed them, but like, how?!”

I don’t want to delve too deep into my process, but for a quick explanation, I chose different situations throughout the game in which I saw to be “clutch” and other situations I saw to be “not clutch.” Comparing and weighting stats between these two categories (along with season totals), I was able to throw numbers into a formula and develop ratios.

Once both TAC and TPR were developed for the 145 selected players, I ran a simple statistical analysis to see exactly how clutch players were compared to one another. So, if you care, there ya go. And if you’re still skeptical, you can either try it yourself, or simply trust the process #TTP.

Clutch Is Extremely Important

In conclusion, I do feel as though clutch is an extremely important metric, whether you agree or disagree with the method to determine it.

And if you’re still curious, here are my ratings for some of baseball’s best in 2016.

My ratings for some of the top players from 2016.

My ratings for some of the top players from 2016.

Summary: Yadier Molina is clutch. Giancarlo Stanton is not clutch.

© 2016 CJ-Biondi


CJBiondi from NJ/PA on February 25, 2020:

Sure, the numbers should still hold true at a team level!

baseball dude on February 25, 2020:

Can you do this at the team level?

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