Last season the St. Louis Cardinals made a mockery of logic and reason by hitting a fairly unbelievable .330/.402/.463 with runners in scoring position with a 138 wRC+, a number that would have the 20th best individual player total in the league. By and large, this was written off as something of a fluke, an event with no hope of being predictive of events going forward or truly representative of any kind of special talent the team had. One exception that got discussed a great deal was the case of Allen Craig. Allen Craig has been a complete and utter monster hitting with runners in scoring position since he came into the league in 2010. Although the sample sizes for his splits are still small enough that there is a solid chance any differences between his hitting across different situation is a result of mere randomness, the numbers are compelling. Below is a chart showing his career splits with bases empty, men on base and runners in scoring position:
|Men on Base||9.1%||15.4%||.333||.392||.537||156|
|Runners in Scoring Position||10.8%||12.5%||.394||.451||.636||195|
The numbers above are pretty outstanding and the pattern was even more pronounced in 2013 when Craig hit a borderline obscene .454/.500/.638 with runners in scoring position. Regardless of what one believes about the predictive value of such information, it's pretty amazing stuff.
The whole Allen Craig phenomenon got me thinking about whether there was a "Bizarro Allen Craig" out there in the world of a baseball, a player whose performance dropped significantly with runners in scoring position and men on base. I was looking for a man with the mental fortitude of a wet Kleenex, cursed by baseball gods, and a sure bet to break out in inconsolable weeping at the mere mention of runners on base. After scouring the baseball universe I came across one man who fit the description to the tee. That man was Nate Jones.
Nate Jones is not exactly a household name, but perhaps he should be. Coming off a 1.0 WAR season in 2012 out of the White Sox bullpen Jones managed 2.0 WAR in 2013, 7th best among relievers league-wide. He struck out 89 batters in 78 innings and put up an impressive FIP of 2.64. One reason he is not better known is that he's not a closer and by and large closers are the only relievers that get the big time name recognition. That will probably change for Jones in the near future as he is the favorite to be the next closer for the White Sox in the wake of Addison Reed's departure. Another reason is for the lack of name recognition is the below-average 4.15 ERA he put up in 2013. ERA has some serious flaws but 4.15 is not a mark we expect from a supposedly elite reliever and as such Jones has not received a great deal of acclaim for his excellent performance last season.
There are two things that make the selection of Nate Jones as "Bizarro Allen Craig" a bit fishy on my part. The first is that he's a pitcher. Pitchers have mechanical adjustments to make with runners on base at times and so the explanation for their struggles with men on base is more likely to be rooted in something tangible than it is for hitters. The second issue is that he's a reliever, so the sample sizes are going to be small by definition. However, to believe that there can be a "Bizarro Allen Craig" is to suspend our disbelief regarding Craig's magical clutch powers and so using a reliever here does not require much more of a stretch than believing in the original.
Although the career of Nate Jones spans only two years and 149.2 innings, he has already laid claim to the title of "Bizarro Allen Craig" in an authoritative manner. The follow chart shows his career splits bases empty, men on base and runners in scoring position:
|Men on Base||10.3%||20.6%||.284||.366||.449||3.88|
|Runners in Scoring Position||12.5%||17.5%||.291||.382||.494||4.85|
Nate Jones ranges from a guy who turns opposing batters into Adeiny Hechavarria with bases empty to a pitcher who makes the opposition look like Matt Holliday with runners in scoring position. That's a pretty profound difference. These numbers help account for the gap between his ERA which has been 0.31 for his career and was an astronomical 1.51 last year.
It's pretty clear that Nate Jones is a very good pitcher, but if he doesn't perform better in key situations it's unlikely he'll be a closer for long. There is no truly persuasive reason to believe his struggles with men on base will be predictive, but it's a situation worth monitoring going forward. More likely than not, Jones will be an absolutely swell closer and the city of Chicago will come to appreciate a player who has been very impressive out of the limelight to this point. However, the possibility remains that Nate Jones is in fact the "Bizarro Allen Craig" and as such handing him the high leverage innings could be disastrous.
The Chicago White Sox don't look likely to be contenders in 2014, but they might not be doing themselves any favors by turning over their closer role to the cursed king of anti-clutch. To be fair, a sane person would probably replace the phrase "cursed king of anti-clutch" with "promising young player" which would definitely give that sentence a different feel. So far Nate Jones has flown under the radar, in part due to his struggles with runners in scoring position, but 2014 will be his chance to take center stage. Given his potential, talent, and the big WAR totals he has put up so far, he will probably be a success... probably.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs
Nick Ashbourne is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.