One of the most heated debates among baseball fans today is over the existence and importance of clutch hitting. I get why it’s a controversial issue. On the one hand, the history of our game is written by baseball heroes; those great players who rose to the occasion when their team’s needed a hit to win or a homerun to stay alive, and delivered in the clutch. Hitting well when it matters most is dramatic, it’s fun, and it sticks in our memories for our whole lives. Really, a lot of how we experience the game comes down to clutch hits.

Further, clutch hits gets a lot of attention because they’re easy for commentators to talk about. It’s simple and reductive: when a player strikes out late in the game with the tying run on third, it’s easy to talk about the game as if it all came down to that one play. In almost every game you can hear a broadcaster talk about a player or team’s ability to hit in key situations, so of course it seems important, especially as compared to something like a player’s line drive rate, which is almost never discussed on air.

But on the other hand, when fans and pros alike have looked into clutch hitting from a more factual and less emotional standpoint, they haven’t found much clutchiness. That is, the great players didn’t seem to be any more great when the game was on the line than other times. Not only that, but players that had a lot of big hits one year, frequently didn’t have as many the next, or maybe ever again. Being good in the clutch doesn’t look so much like a skill, the way making contact, hitting for power, or taking walks does, as like random variation, like a player hitting well on the 14th of every month.

I think it’s a fascinating issue because it raises some good questions. First, what does it mean to be a “clutch hitter?” Second, is it worthwhile to compare a player to themselves rather than other players? Finally, if hitting in the clutch is a skill, how much is it worth compared to other skills? I’m not going to try to answer these questions definitively (maybe they can’t be), but I’m going to address them in an attempt to add some clarity to a debate that’s sure to go on for another decade or ten.

What is Clutch?

The most common way that you’ll hear the Reds broadcasters talk about clutch hitting is in terms of Batting Average with Runners in Scoring position, or BA w/RISP. It’s a shame, because of all the ways you could think about clutch hitting this is one of the worst. Batting average tells you so little, and having guys on second and/or third means very different things in different games. If The Reds are down 4 runs in first inning, there are two outs with a guy on second, and Schumaker lines a single to left field failing to score the runner, was that a clutch hit? No, in fact it’s a nearly meaningless hit all things considered. When you hear people talk about BA w/RISP, your immediate reaction should be skepticism. It is a statistic with so much noise in it as to tell you basically nothing of any value.

Another way to look at clutch is percentage of runners driven in. This is better than just RBI (another measure of clutch), and certainly better than BA w/RISP, but it limits the idea of clutch hitting to driving in runs. If it’s the bottom of the ninth, nobody out, Reds down by one and Votto doubles to lead off the inning, that’s pretty clutch right? A bunt and a sac fly and you’re tied without even needing another clutch hit. Freeing the idea of clutch from simply driving in runs is another good step, and brings in the concept of “leverage.” This is the idea that there are times in a game that matter more than others.

The leverage of a game situation can be measured pretty precisely now, because baseball stat people have measured the probability that a team will win in every possible game situation (you can see the win probability charts in your Titanic Struggle Recaps here each day), and we know that some situations can lead to much bigger changes in win probability. Generally, four things dictate the leverage of a game situations: how late in the game it is, the score, the number of outs in the inning, and the runners on base. The beginning of the game (first inning, no outs, nobody on, tie game) is a lower leverage situation than starting the bottom of the 9th, because the team has fewer outs to go until the end of the game, giving them less chances to score.

Understanding the difference between high leverage and low leverage situations gives a much better measure of clutch hitting. Getting a hit in a high-leverage situation is clutch, and getting an extra-base hit in an extremely high-leverage situation is clutcher. Fangraphs has developed a stat (simply called “clutch”) that tells whether a player performs better in high-leverage situations than they do in neutral ones. In their description of the stat (see the writers note that a clutch score of .5 is above average, and a score of 1 or better is excellent, with that 1 representing 1 game that the player had essentially won for his team simply by performing better than expected in high leverage situations. The opposite is also true, that a player could be unclutch (-.5 being generally less clutch than average).

Is Being Clutch Good?

There is a general assumption in traditional baseball thinking that some hitters are better in clutch situations, and that these hitters should be commended for this. This has always rubbed me the wrong way. When looking at whether hitters are clutch, you’re comparing them to themselves in other situations. If someone does well in high-leverage situations, and we assume that this is a skill, don’t we have to ask, why don’t they chose to do that well in all situations? Are they lazy? If no one’s on base in a blow out, are they giving away at-bats? If so, isn’t that sort of selfish? What exactly are they saving their good hitting for? Do they have a limit of homers they are going to hit on the year and they’re saving them?

As you see, you get down a rabbit hole pretty quickly. Thinking about anyone trying to be clutch on purpose and succeeding doesn’t really say good things about them, because we expect that pro ballplayers should be trying to be their best all the time. The only way that being clutch would be a laudatory thing to be would be if it was unconscious. If the hitter had no choice about it, but somehow, unbeknownst to them, they happened to get more of their hits in big situations, that would probably be good. It’s hard to compliment them on something that they aren’t really trying to do, but all the same, they would probably help your team win a little more.

So I looked at all of the players since 2000 that have had at least 5000 plate appearances to see if there were any that were clutchy. I chose that cutoff because it’s pretty safe to say that these 134 hitters have enough of a track record that their clutchiness should be visible, and that they are pretty good hitters since teams kept running them out there. I identified 10 players that had an average clutch score of less than -.5, and these are really the only players I would feel even reasonably safe labeling as unclutch, despite what many Reds fans and broadcasters have argued. None of them are Reds, and one of them is Alex Rodriguez, and that makes me a little happy.

In contrast, I identified only one player that had an average clutch score higher than .5. To me, this makes him the only player in this millennium that I feel good about calling a clutch hitter. His name? Randy Winn. His yearly clutch score: .65. In second place was Ryan Howard at .47, so there’s a pretty big gap between Winn and his nearest rival for the clutch crown. As noted above, I’m not saying I think Winn tried to be clutch, or that anyone should try to be clutch, but it seems like there’s a reasonable chance that in some subconscious way, Randy Winn really couldn’t help himself and came through in the clutch.

What’s Clutch Worth?

To summarize, getting a clutch hit can make you a hero in the hearts of your team’s fans, but being a clutch hitter a) has very little to do with the stats broadcasters throw around like BA w/ RISP, b) wouldn’t really be a good attribute to have if it was something you were doing on purpose, and c) means that you’re Randy Winn.

But, if one of our young prospects, say Jesse Winker, happened to be the next Randy Winn in terms of his clutch-factor, what would that be worth? Winn enjoyed a 13 year career, and boasted a .284/.343./.416 line in the heart of the Steroid Era. He is 69th out of the 134 player sample in career Wins Above Replacement, a stat that does a good job at looking at overall value, but does not take into account clutchiness. Would you rather have the next Randy Winn than the next Pujols, Mauer, Jeter, Rolen, Ortiz, Cabrera, etc, etc, etc (all players on the list with more career WAR but less clutch)? I personally would not. Now, would you rather have him than the next Maglio Ordonez? That’s where it gets interesting. Ordonez was basically not at all clutch or uncluch, and had a slightly higher career WAR. Perhaps Winn’s clutch-factor gives him that extra umph, and puts him over the top. But really, that’s about all that clutch hitting can do over a career, and that’s for the rare guy who’s getting it done and not even meaning to.

I hope that this helps to clear up the issue of clutch hitting, just a little. I know that the debate will rage on, old-school vs. new and all that, but even the most ardent supporter of the value of good clutch hitting can’t claim that Randy Winn was really that great of a player, and he’s been the best clutch hitter of the millennium by a mile. Rather than focusing so much on what players do in certain specific situations, RISP, RISP with two outs, RISP in the day with one out and men on the corners, etc. it’s clearly better to just get good players and applaud them when they do well. Even though A-Rod has been one of the 10 least clutch hitters in the game, if it were the year 2000 I’d take him over Winn in a heartbeat. Someone should ask Thom Brennaman if he would.