The term clutch is thrown around on a daily basis in sports. In football, a quarterback is clutch if he leads his team to a game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter while, in basketball, hitting a buzzer beater is the equivalent. But few are aware there is a statistic that quantifies clutch for baseball players. Before we get into that, however, we need to understand the definition of clutch and what it truly means.
From David Appelman of FanGraphs:
Clutch: A measurement of how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.
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To put this in perspective, if a player is a .330 hitter in high leverage situations when he's an overall .330 hitter, he's not considered clutch. A player has to outperform his usual numbers in high leverage situations to be labeled as such. With that being said, being clutch is not the same as being a good player, and vice versa. For example, a player who is a career .215 hitter but a .300 hitter in high leverage situations would be considered clutch by definition, but at the same time would not be considered a good baseball player. Being clutch does not mean coming through with the game on the line, at least not in baseball. It simply means performing well in similar situations relative to all others.
As much as we like predictive stats (read: FIP), clutch does not do a good job of foretelling the future; it only describes the past. Clutch scores vary among players from year to year, and there's really no consistency. For example, in 2013 Adrian Gonzalez finished second in clutch; this year, he ranks 110th. We still consider Gonzalez a good player, even if he is having a bit of a down year.
Here's how the stat is calculated:
Clutch = (WPA / pLI) - WPA/LI
For those who don't know what those abbreviations mean—I admit I needed to brush up on them—WPA is Win Probability Added, pLI is a player's average leverage index for all game events and WPA/LI is Context Neutral Wins. I've linked each to their own definition on FanGraphs in case you want to further understand them. Here is the rating scale:
This brings me to Casey McGehee of the Miami Marlins. After spending last season overseas in Japan, where, mind you, he put up great numbers, the Marlins signed McGehee to a one year, $1.1 million contract. Through 90 games, he has greatly exceeded expectations and his salary. He's hitting .319 with a .346 wOBA and a 120 wRC+, and achieving these numbers with just one home run to his credit. (Talk about playing with house money.) He was included in the final vote of the MLB All-Star Game, but was unfortunately left out. Despite his resurgence, what hasn't been mentioned anywhere is McGehee's ability to come through in high leverage situations.
Entering July 12, McGehee has the best clutch score in Major League Baseball. His score of 1.61 out-duels everyone, including Mike Trout who ranks second on the leaderboard. And as you can see from the scale above, McGehee's clutch rating falls right in between excellent and great. McGehee has always been a little above average when it comes to high leverage situations—he posted a 0.91 score in 2011 and 0.68 in 2012—but in 2014, he's a different beast.
Let's take a look at his 2014 overall statistics versus his statistics in high leverage situations.
His numbers skyrocket when faced with pressure. By the statistic, no player is more clutch. McGehee's ability to come through in big situations is a big reason why he ranks 55th in fWAR. To go from being a completely unwanted player in 2013, so much so that he had to play in a different country, to being in the top 60 of fWAR, is truly remarkable.
No one would make the argument that McGehee is one of the elite players of the game. The huge jump McGehee's score has taken this season is simply more proof that being clutch isn't predictive, which means he could keep this up throughout the whole year, or completely fall off; we just don't know. But for now, he's the last hitter you want at the plate if you're a pitcher when the pressure's on.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Justin Schultz is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @JSchu23.