The term 'clutch' has a stigma around it now. Nobody can say for certain that it doesn't exist, but most analysis points toward the fact that it probably doesn't exist. Especially over large enough sample sizes, which is kind of the measure of whether anything exists.
But that didn't stop the folks at FanGraphs from trying to quantify 'clutch.' It even comes with the caveat in its glossary that "[t]he majority of players in the league end up with Clutch scores between 1 and -1, with zero being neutral." That's a nice, politically correct way of saying 'clutch probably doesn't exist.' They even discuss it as something tied very closely to luck. With our current understanding, these are fair assessments.
Its basic premise, while simple, is actually constructed by some pretty complex sabermetric ideas. You take a specific player's past event. You then grab the win probability added of the actual outcome of that event and weight it against that event's leverage index. Then, you take the difference between that event and what we should have expected that specific player to accomplish in a more context-neutral environment.
Rewind 25 years -- before FanGraphs even existed I might add -- and the most clutch season ever able to be measured happened. The statistics used to measure clutch can go back only as far as 1974 so keep in mind that 'ever' in this case means 'in the past 41 seasons.'
In 1990, Danny Darwin became the most clutch player ever. Not Derek Jeter. Not Barry Bonds. Not Greg Maddux. It's Darwin, a pitcher for the Houston Astros. And it isn't really close. In Darwin's 1990 season, he yielded a 5.18 clutch score (clutchness? Clutch Above Expectation? Nevermind). The closest score held by a starting pitcher is Frank Tanana's 3.56 in 1978. Not close. The next closest reliever is Vicente Romo's 4.29 in 1974. Closer but still relatively distant. The best one by a batter is David Ortiz's 3.31 in 2005. Still impressive, yet laughably distant really.
Now, the last time I checked, Danny Darwin wasn't a household name. With due respect to the reader with the Darwin poster up in their childhood bedroom -- it was for the mustache, right? -- he was above average. Perhaps even Hall of Very Good-worthy. On the all-time WAR list at FanGraphs, Darwin currently sits 198th among pitchers. Right between Don Newcombe and Mike Witt. Ahead of Josh Beckett for the sake of recency.
So, I decided to pull up the MLB.tv archives and find real, live footage of this mad genius at work. After all, he had one of the most clutch seasons ever recorded. There has to be some unbelievable footage of this under-pressure-mastermind at work, right?
This was the only footage I could find. Darwin is just 'the guy who hit Henry Rodriguez and started a brawl.' Really? Not even a baseball replay. Darwin is the guy who started the brawl that resulted in Terry Collins getting his upper lip split open.
Moving on then, what made 1990 so clutch for Darwin? He pitched 162.2 innings while Dave Stewart pitched 267. From April to June, Darwin was a reliever. He was given four save situations and was successful twice. In his 31 appearances, he allowed 38 hits. However, over those 45 innings pitched, he allowed only a .267 OBP.
Darwin would go on to pitch another 117.2 innings over 17 starts and end the season with a 2.21 ERA and 2.99 FIP. While the FIP and ERA difference indicates something might have been going on, none of this has been dependent on leverage index. That is to say, none of this has shown why Darwin was so unbeatable during the most crucial points of a game.
Let's take a look at Darwin's 1990 by Baseball-Reference game logs and make some inferences. With runners in scoring position Darwin faced 155 batters. He struck out 27 of them. That's a strikeout percentage of 17.4. That's pretty good, but still, we're lacking some context. Nolan Ryan struck out 28.4 percent of batters that season. What makes Darwin so great?
Well, runners in scoring position isn't necessarily a 'clutch' environment. If your team is up by 10 runs and there are runners on 2nd and 3rd, is it really that high pressure? Let's ask it the way leverage would want us to: if those two runs scored, to what degree will the outcome of the game be impacted? So, we look deeper into the splits.
Baseball-Reference keeps a measure of 'Late & Close' situations. How did Darwin perform there? His strikeout rate goes to 16.2. That can't be right. His 101 tOPS+ even indicates that he was just barely worse than his normal performance. What gives, Darwin? Let's just go straight to 'High Leverage' then. In moments defined to be high leverage, Darwin posted a strikeout rate of 21.7. Definite improvement but that works out to one extra strikeout every 20 batters faced. What am I missing?
In my haste of revisionist history, I've missed a crucial bit of information. Darwin led the league in another category in 1990. Another one that got very little attention and still doesn't: walk rate. Darwin's walk rate in 1990 was 4.8 percent. His on-base percentage allowed in those high leverage situations was .188. His walk rate: 3.3 percent.
Sure his BABIP in those situation was also .188 and he got lucky way too much and he never really repeated his 1990 season ever again (even though he came close in 1996). And sure, his clutch prowess was probably reverse buoyed by the fact that he was really, extra terrible when his team was up by more than four runs and his OPS-against was .894 (that's pretty close to Bryce Harper's career OPS to put that into perspective). Sure, all those things are true, but I like to think that Darwin was ahead of his time. A bit Like Greg Maddux-lite.
Darwin cared about pitching into the strike zone. At least, mostly. Unless Henry Rodriguez was in the batter's box apparently. He never struck out guys like Nolan Ryan. He didn't need to. He was Danny Darwin: Captain Clutch.
Remember earlier when I pointed out that FanGraphs makes it clear that 'Clutch' scores are usually between 1 and -1? Well, despite being the most clutch player ever, Darwin's career Clutch rating was 0.15. By the time Darwin's career was over, he had more unclutch seasons than clutch. All his luck (read: unbelievably hard work ethic when the game was on the line) was used up in 1990, and his clutch score regressed to a totally reasonable number for a totally reasonable man with a totally reasonable mustache.
Danny Darwin, somewhere you're out there. I like to picture you grimacing. Perhaps because you never got a chance to pitch in the postseason. To show the world what clutch was all about. I salute you, your walk rate, and the fact that you had one of the weirdest/luckiest seasons I've ever found. Thank you.
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Michael Bradburn writes for Beyond the Box Score, MLB Daily Dish, BP Milwaukee and Bluebird Banter. You can follow him on Twitter at @mwbii or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.