Clutch hitting (and pitching) exists, but it's not terribly easy to quantify. One methodology that exists for quantifying a player's ability to improve their skills under pressure (or fold like a card table) is Clutch, found at FanGraphs.
Clutch is a metric that's based on win expectancy, which basically boils down to the changes in the chance a team will win a baseball game, given the circumstances and the historical likelihood of winning the game under those circumstances. Clutch is derived from a few win expectancy-based statistics, like Win Probability Added (WPA) and Leverage Index (LI), and can be boiled down to this relatively-simple formula: (WPA / pLI) - WPA/LI.
There's a couple of phenomenal resources where you can get more information on WPA, LI, WPA/LI, but I vote that you start with Steve Slowinski's articles over at the FanGraphs Library. The articles for WPA, LI and WPA/LI are here, here and here. If you want to take it on faith that this metric is a good one (for now, at least), that's cool too. And here is the article on Clutch from the FG Library as well.
Before we finish with all this preface, there's a couple of important things to keep in mind when looking at Clutch. The first is that Clutch is scaled against a player's own performance. If you've got a .360 wOBA hitter who posts a .360 wOBA in pressure situations, that wouldn't lead to a high clutch score. But if you've got a true-talent .300 wOBA hitter who hits .330 under pressure, that player WOULD be considered "clutch" by this metric. Also, keep in mind that clutch hitting is, by all accounts, not considered a definitely repeatable skill. Clutch scores differ dramatically from season to season due to situations and small samples. This isn't a predictive stat, it's simply descriptive of what happened. Don't expect a player's clutch score to really inform what they might do later in the season.
Got all of that? Great.
Here's the top-10 (qualified) position player performers for the 2012 season, by the Clutch metric:
|Alexei Ramirez||White Sox||0.72||0.98||-0.59||1.32|
As you can see, Kyle Seager has a pretty epic lead in Clutch over the rest of the pack. A Clutch of, say, 2 is pretty excellent. A Clutch of 2.52 is really, really high. It's actually tied for 22nd among qualified hitters since 1974, which is as far back as my data set goes. And Seager's been very good in a vacuum, beyond just being good in clutch situations -- he's posted a 108 wRC+ on the season and better-than-average WAR scores (3.7 fWAR / 3.0 rWAR) for the Mariners.
Jimmy Rollins may have been killed recently for lack of hustle, but he's been as clutch as can be so far in 2012. He's posted his usual 103 wRC+, added value with his glove and feet (4.5 fWAR / 2.4 rWAR) and has been there when the Phillies needed him. Other notables on this list include Erick Aybar, who got off to a slow start, but has been hitting the cover off the ball for the last two of months, and Alexei Ramirez, who has been pretty awful with the stick this season (76 wRC+).
It's probably dumb luck, but it's a little odd that about half the leaderboard is filled by shortstops. Hrm.
And here's the bottom-10 position players by Clutch:
|Chris Johnson||- - -||-2.06||1.05||-0.09||-1.87|
While Seager is pushing the highest reaches of Clutch, Josh Reddick is charting new territory on the other side of the spectrum. Reddick is pushing the 10th-worst Clutch score among qualified hitters since '74. -2.0 is awful, so -2.84 is epic-awful. But, as you're probably aware, Reddick just knocked his 29th HR of the season, and sports both a pretty-good 114 wRC+. Howie Kendrick, Chris Johnson, and Aaron Hill all sport extremely low clutch scores as well, all at -1.87 or -1.84. Hill is having an excellent season (127 wRC+), and Kendrick is his usual solid-but-unspectacular self (96 wRC+). Johnson has been maligned for his inconsistency and poor defense, but his wRC+ on the season is not awful (106 wRC+).
Tigers fans probably see Delmon Young's place on this list and are nodding vigorously to themselves right now.
Pitchers and position players get the same credit when it comes to WPA, so their Clutch scores are scaled the same way. Here's the top-10 (qualified) pitchers by Clutch:
As you can see, no one is more clutch this year than Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson sees a massive disparity between his ERA (3.22) and his FIP (4.87), and has been worth 3.1 FDP-Wins on the season, due in part to the way his balls in play have been hit, and also to his ability to strand runners. Sounds clutch to me, though we'd be wise to ascribe much of that to luck. And to slightly diverge from the point of this article for a moment, Hellickson, in just two full seasons in the bigs, has racked up an astonishing 7.5 FDP-Wins. That's a good deal more than many starters accumulate in their entire careers. Pretty soon we'll have to examine how much of this is coming from good fortune, and how much is a repeatable skill.
Both Homer Bailey and Kyle Lohse are very close to Hellickson in Clutch, and both pitchers have ERAs that outpace their FIP scores. While Lohse is putting together a case for down-ballot Cy Young votes (not many, though, I hope), he may be vulturing all the luck away from another teammate (see below). Bailey is an interesting pitcher, as he gives up plenty of HR, and the difference between his FIP and ERA is nowhere near as vast as Lohse's or Hellickson's. His strand rate is only slightly above league-average, so perhaps he's been getting lucky (or good) at limiting the amount of runners on base when he gives up his inevitable home runs?
The bottom-10 (qualified) pitchers by Clutch are:
|Josh Beckett||- - -||-1.20||0.97||0.18||-1.42|
|Francisco Liriano||- - -||-1.98||0.97||-0.91||-1.13|
Funny, but Adam Wainwright has been entirely un-Clutch this season. You might think that it would show up in his win-loss record, but Waino is holding down a respectable 13 wins on the season. But perhaps it is odd that his FIP is over a run worse than his ERA? And his strand rate is an awful 67.6% on the season? In fact, looking at his FDP stats, we get the picture that Wainwright has lost 1.1 RA9-Wins on balls in play, and another 1.1 LOB-Wins on the season. The Cardinals ace has either been snakebitten by bad luck (more likely), or he's folded under the pressure when it mattered most. Given how vividly I remember the '06 NLCS, I'm gonna guess the former rather than the latter.
The rest of the list is a smattering of very-good and not-very-good pitchers, mostly from the American league. I'm surprised to see Verlander (often considered an ultimate competitor, and one who raises his fastball velocity in the late innings) here, but incredibly unsurprised to see Ricky Nolasco. Nolasco has long had a reputation for disappointment, and his 2012 season (4.42 ERA disguising a reasonable 3.91 FIP) is no exception.
Does anything else strike you about these Clutch leaderboards, as we wrap up the season? What are your thoughts on Clutch as a metric, and does it have any use to you? And would you be interested in hearing more about win expectancy / WPA / LI or getting a thorough explanation of these stats? Feel free to drop some comments below.