Who Are Major League Baseball's Most Clutch Hitters?
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With the end of the 2013 MLB season and the start of the playoffs fast approaching, now is a good time to find out who's clutch.
The sabermetric community has spilled plenty of ink and used up more than its fair share of the boundless interweb to attempt to determine whether "clutch hitting"—that is, routinely coming up big in key spots—is something that actually exists or something that is more or less a theoretical concept concocted by those who would like to believe it exists.
While studies tend to lean toward the latter (i.e., there is no such thing as consistency in clutch hitting), the answer isn't easy to glean, no matter how deeply one dives into the research. But that's not why we're here today.
Our goal isn't to prove whether "clutchness" is or isn't a realistic ballpark barometer, but rather to identify those players who have come up clutch in the past. Realize, though, the results don't necessarily mean that these players who have been clutch will continue to be clutch going forward.
To figure out which hitters have shown a knack for getting it done in challenging situations in recent years, we're going to focus on a few different "clutch" statistics from the last five seasons combined (2009-2013) in order to provide a hefty enough sample size to weigh.
Let's start with an easy one.
Two Outs and Runners in Scoring Position
This is pretty self-explanatory. You're familiar with the situation. Here's a look at the top 10 performers in this split from 2009 through 2013, sorted by runs created, according to Baseball Reference's trusty split finder:
Off the bat, you should notice that this list is populated by plenty of star power, including Hunter Pence, Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre and Adrian Gonzalez. That's encouraging, since it stands to reason that good hitters should tend to be good at hitting in any situation, such as with two outs and runners in scoring position.
But while those names are big and their stats are even bigger, the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera is pretty freakin' special at making something happen when the margin for error is small (two outs) and the stakes are high (a runner at second and/or third).
What's also cool here is that Prince Fielder, Cabrera's teammate and the guy who hits cleanup after him in the Detroit lineup most of the time, is second best in baseball at his job.
Late and Close
This one is a little broader.
Basically, a "late and close" situation is defined by Baseball Reference as any plate appearance from the seventh inning on in which the batting team is either in a tie game, ahead by one run or has the potential tying run on deck.
That's raising the stakes a bit.
Here are the top 10 "late and close" performers from 2009 through this season, again sorted by runs created, according to Baseball Reference:
First off, there are a few repeat players, which is something to keep track of throughout. There is hitting talent galore in this split, too, with Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, Jose Bautista and Andrew McCutchen all among the best at contributing in the late innings of tight games.
But no one has been better than the Reds' Joey Votto, who has one of the best approaches and possesses among the best plate discipline in the majors, so it shouldn't be a shock to see him on top. As Votto proves here, as long as a batter is aware of the situation, he needn't always get a hit to come up big with the game on the line:
Now it gets a little more complex. Leverage is a creation to allow for game situations to be weighted and measured in a statistical manner.
Take this explanation of leverage (as well as high and low leverage) from Baseball Reference:
Within a game, there are plays that are more pivotal than others. We attempt to quantify these plays with a stat called leverage index (LI). LI looks at the possible changes in win probability in a give situation and situations where dramatic swings in win probability are possible (runner on second late in a tie game) have higher LI's than situations where there can be no large change in win probability (late innings of a 12-run blowout).
The stat is normalized so that on average the leverage is 1.00. In tense situations, the leverage is higher than 1.00 (up to about 10) and in low-tension situations the leverage is between 0 and 1.0.
If you didn't quite understand all of that, don't worry. In short, various instances that occur throughout a game have more or less leverage—or a higher or lower "clutch factor" tied to them—and such situations can be quantified.
Here are the top 10 hitters in high-leverage situations by runs created from 2009 through this year, according to Baseball Reference:
Once again, all sorts of familiar names dominate, including Hunter Pence, who was able to conjure up some clutch hitting last Oct. 22 in a win-or-go-home Game 7 of the NLCS against the Cardinals.
Perhaps it was only fate, or maybe it really did have something to do with Pence's propensity for the pick-'em-up poke. After all, he's now 3-for-3 in showing up in these top 10s.
Whatever it was, when Pence stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the third inning and San Francisco ahead 2-0, the Giants outfielder was hitting only .159 (7-for-44) in the 2012 postseason. Then, with a little clutch (and a lot of luck), Pence was able to put his bat on the ball—three times in one swing!—and break open a close contest:
The aptly named metric of "clutch" is a FanGraphs' specialty with the site's explanation as such:
This calculation measures how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment. It also compares a player against himself, so a player who hits .300 in high leverage situations when he’s an overall .300 hitter is not considered clutch.
To put this metric in context, anything north of a 2.0 rating is considered excellent, so keep that in mind as the top 10 most clutch hitters from 2009 through 2013, per FanGraphs, are unveiled:
Here, the list looks quite a bit different from the previous three, but there are still a few players we've seen before like the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez, who makes his third appearance in a top-10 clutch table, probably because he has a knack for doing stuff like this:
The Most Clutch of the Clutch
The point of running through these four separate clutch-related statistics was to figure out which players appeared more often than others. Those are the ones who have to be put in the discussion for the most clutch hitter in baseball.
You could glance back through the charts, but to save you the time, here's a quick rundown.
There are exactly 10 players who are in more than one top 10: Votto, Cabrera, Fielder, Pence, Gonzalez, Pujols, Bautista, McCutchen and two Phillies—Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.
Of those 10, the first five made it in three different top 10s, meaning Votto, Cabrera, Fielder, Pence and Gonzalez can all stake a pretty good claim for the title of baseball's most clutch hitter.
And wouldn't you know it, four of those players are on their way to playing baseball in October in about a week while the only one who isn't (Pence) can spend the next month polishing that world championship ring he earned just last year.
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