Define "clutch" in the terms of a baseball game.
Is it a two-out RBI single? An extra-innings pinch hit? Stealing second when the whole stadium knows you’re running? Starting a win-or-go-home playoff game on short rest? How about a walk-off home run?
For me, clutch is most closely tied to winning. If you come through when your team needs it the most, that is clutch.
It’s hard to define, but you generally know it when you see it. More often, you know it’s missing when you fail to see it.
For Mets fans, that’s been an all too frequent occurrence over the past two or three seasons. At least, it is perceived that way.
People seem to have little faith that when all the chips are pushed to the middle of the table that there’s a bat in the lineup that will come through. I’m guilty of this myself. I suppose it’s the cynic in me, colored by too many close losses and disappointments.
As fans paying big bucks for cheap seats, we demand success.
For every walk-off hit that gets us cheering, there's a dozen times as many instances with a Met striking out with a runner on third base.
Personally, I don’t buy into the whole "clutch hitter" trait. Players might perform slightly better in specific situations, but on the whole a good hitter is a good hitter. A bad hitter doesn’t suddenly become a world-beater simply because the go-ahead run is on third base.
Maybe a better indication is looking at what a player does when he is expected to do well. For me, that is summarized by getting a run home from third base with fewer than two outs.
Any base-hit scores a run and any deep fly-ball automatically scores a run. In addition, any medium fly-ball has the potential to score a run. There’s also the chance that a ground ball out could result in an RBI, should the ball be hit weakly or if the runner is going on contact.
Simply put, just getting bat on ball can sometimes be enough. However bad it looks, a bad check swing that dribbles the ball down the first base line is more productive than even the sweetest swing-and-miss.
David Wright hit .260, eight points above the team average, with runners in scoring position in 2010. Considering Wright is a career .305 hitter, though, is this really indicative of success? It tells me more about how poorly the team hit as a whole.
With fewer than two outs, he hit .274 with 50 RBI in 95 at-bats. Unfortunately for Wright, he also struck out 31 times and grounded into seven double-plays. In almost one-third of at-bats, he didn’t put the ball in play. That kills a team.
With a runner on third, Wright hit .364. He put the ball in play 76 percent of the time and drove in 64 percent of the runners in scoring position. To put this into perspective, the team average for putting the ball in play was 83 percent and the success rate was 59 percent.
However, the fact that he hit just .221 in the seventh inning or later with the Mets tied, ahead by one or with the tying run at least on deck would seem to negate his "clutch-ness."
A batting average for the final third of a game isn’t necessarily as important as RBI opportunities in this same time-frame, but it is nonetheless telling.
As James Stewart-Meudt pointed out, Wright has hit .269 in 491 at-bats since 2008 and .228 in 197 at-bats with runners in scoring position. That's not good at all. Conversely, Stewart-Meudt adds, Wright bats close to or over .300 with the bases empty, leading off an inning or with a runner on first.
While Wright has struggled, Angel Pagan has flourished. A fairly light-hitting outfielder who was valued just as much for his base-running and range in center field than his bat.
There aren’t enough good things I can say about Pagan’s 2010 season. He was the glue that held everything together, as bad as that "everything" happened to be.
A defensive wizard, Pagan also hit pretty well with ducks in the pond.
He hit .339 with runners in scoring position and a blistering .379 with fewer than two outs. He also hit .373 with runners on third base, including .407 with two outs.
Somewhere in the middle, lies everyone else. There are guys like Henry Blanco (2-for-27) who failed with runners in scoring positions completely and then there’s the guys like Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. They have two widely contrasting approaches at the plate, and even though they both missed time in 2010, they both struggled to hit with two outs.
Blame small sample sizes if you want, but they just didn’t hit well with two outs and men on base.
Reyes hit .224 with runners in scoring positions and .158 with a runner on third. Beltran hit .154 and .125 respectively.
It’s strange because both players were considerably better with fewer than two outs. I don’t have an answer as to why. Maybe it was the pressure of the situation. Maybe the infield was playing in to try and save a run, making it easier for a ball to get into the outfield. Maybe the pitcher was trying too hard to strike out the batter and avoid the big inning and left a pitch up in the zone.
Whatever it was, feel free to attribute it as you wish.
Similarly, try to explain Jason Bay.
Everyone agrees that he had a down year. A career .280 hitter, he batted just .259 in his first year with the Mets. The power numbers can be attributed to Citi Field, but with those wide outfield gaps, average should theoretically be up.
Still, as much as we know he slumped, he still hit .395 with a runner on third base. He was rubbish the entire season but at least he did well when he was expected to.
Whether you attribute clutch hitting to a noticeable upgrade in performance or a statistical anomaly, the fact is that runs help win ball games.
The outlook for the Mets pitching in 2011 looks to be pretty bleak, so now more than ever do the players need to manufacture runs.
Hit and run, steal bases, bunt for base hits, put pressure on outfielders by going first to third on a ball hit to right. Build a solid defensive team and get those runners in when the opportunity presents itself. Take your chances. Know the situation. Seize the moment.
We know the problems that Citi Field brings, so work around it.
Chicks may dig the longball, but everyone loves winning.