Is there clutch? Or is it the reverse?

Pirates' view varied on whether hitting changes in tight situations

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Last season, Freddy Sanchez hit .386 with runners in scoring position. Only the Cardinals' Albert Pujols' .397 mark was higher in the league.
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It was a week ago today, fewer than 24 hours after the Pirates had put down a sizzling St. Louis rally in the ninth inning, that catcher Ronny Paulino reflected upon it and offered this surprising tidbit ...

"You know what the key was to that whole inning?" he said. "When David Eckstein got hit by that pitch."

Say what?

Hitting Eckstein -- not intentionally -- loaded the bases and, ultimately, forced closer Salomon Torres to pitch to Albert Pujols with a one-run lead.

"Doesn't matter," Paulino said. "Eckstein's the guy you don't want to face there."

Others agreed without hesitation, players and coaches alike.

"Can't let Eckstein beat you there," shortstop Jack Wilson said.

OK, so, just to be clear here: The Pirates are happy to duck a 5-foot-7 career .282 hitter to take on the sport's most imposing hitter?

And why, exactly, is this?

"Because," Wilson said. "Eckstein's clutch."

Man on second

On page 191 of the famed book, "Moneyball," Billy Beane, the innovative Oakland general manager and prime subject matter, barks at a television as he hears a broadcaster describe his Athletics as failing in the clutch.

"It's [expletive] luck," Beane says.

Those words resonate with some as gospel, mostly because they are so easy to support.

The numbers will show, the game's statistical-minded followers will say, that a hitter with a .280 career average will hit ... well, right around .280 in whatever anyone might define as a clutch situation.

Some use batting average with runners in scoring position. Some use a fairly new statistic called close-and-late, which measures average in the seventh inning or later with the score no more than a run apart. Some just count up RBIs.

Whatever the bar, it is true that the disparity of numbers is little different between clutch and non-clutch.

"It's obvious that some players perform better in clutch situations," said Dan Fox, author for the statistics-based journal Baseball Prospectus. "The question is whether that difference, as measured in a week, a month or a season, actually reflects an underlying ability to come through more often."

And the difference?

"What they've found is that while there may be a small clutch ability -- for example, hitters who can adjust their approach in different situations seem to have a small advantage -- that ability is dwarfed by the normal differences in overall performance. In other words, in the bigger scheme of things, it's the best players who do best in the clutch."

Take the cases of David Ortiz and Derek Jeter, the widely recognized kings of clutch.

Over the past three years, Ortiz has batted .296 in all situations, .331 with runners in scoring position. Jeter has batted .315 in all situations, .310 with runners in scoring position.

Some difference, but not much.

Still, every time Ortiz launches one of those extra-inning bombs for the Boston Red Sox, it leads "SportsCenter" and resonates far more in the psyche than anytime he might fail. And when Jeter wins Game 4 of the 2001 World Series with a home run, he gets dubbed Mr. November, never mind that he batted .148 for the series.

Oh, and Eckstein's clutch reputation? His average with runners in scoring position is .280, one point lower than his regular average.

The strongest anti-clutch argument on the Pirates' roster can be made by Freddy Sanchez.

He won the National League batting title with a .344 average last summer, and his .386 mark with runners in scoring position was the team's highest. Only Pujols' .397 mark was higher in the league.

Seems plenty clutch.

Not the case at all, he maintains.

"To me, it's pretty simple," Sanchez said. "If you're hot going into that clutch situation, you have a good chance. You're already feeling good. Obviously, there are times when a hitter can tense up, and there are some better mentally prepared than others. All I can say is that, for me, when I go up to the plate, it's not about the men on base. It's about how I'm feeling."

He rolled his eyes, remembering those four consecutive strikeouts in a game last week in Milwaukee.

"Trust me: If I'm feeling lousy at the plate like that, I'm not just going to walk up there with bases loaded and get a hit because I'm some great clutch hitter."

Runners at the corners

Still, come on ... no such thing as clutch?

What, then, of Reggie Jackson launching those three home runs in a World Series game?

What of Michael Jordan nailing that last-second jumper to sink Utah?

What of John Elway driving a stake through the heart of Cleveland?

What of Mario Lemieux burying that rebound behind Ed Belfour to raise the dome at the Igloo?

Those focusing on the numbers would lean toward the notion that those were elite athletes simply being themselves.

But those inside the games -- players, coaches and managers -- are almost universal in their belief in clutch.

Of those who feel otherwise, Pirates pitching coach Jim Colborn said, "Dead wrong. There is an element in certain people that allows them to focus at their peak and get into a zone when the situation is more important."

He cited, from his playing days, Joe Rudi, a career .264 hitter who had a reputation of elevating his level every postseason for the Athletics, at least as measured by the intangibles of timely hits and key defensive plays.

"Believe me: For all the great players in that lineup, Joe Rudi was not the one you wanted to face. He just had a knack."

Some players, the argument can be made, do become better in trying situations. But those cases -- and this is one area where statisticians and those inside the game tend to agree -- are much rarer than those where performance decreases.

In other words, the absence of clutch might be more prevalent than a rise to a clutch level. The athlete rises to the level of competition and, in doing so, maintains similar numbers. And the rest ... well, for every Joe Rudi, there are many more like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.

Bonds has a .300 career average and a home run every 12.9 at-bats. But in the playoffs, as the still-bitter baseball fans of Pittsburgh can attest, his drop-off is dramatic: His average in seven playoff appearances is .245, and the home runs come once every 16.7 at-bats.

Rodriguez is having a superhuman April, but that will do nothing to quell doubts about his clutch value. He has batted .306 in the regular season for his career, .280 in the playoffs. The home runs come once every 14.3 at-bats in the regular season, once every 22 at-bats in the playoffs.

As the level of the competition rises, it seems, they do not keep up.

The Pirates' Jason Bay never has known playoffs, but he batted .346 with runners in scoring position in 2005, then saw that drop nearly 100 points to .242 last season and to .133 in the early going this year. Surely, some clutch factor was involved.

Is he a believer?

"It's not so much a matter of raising your level in a clutch situation. It's a matter of keeping your level the same," Bay said. "Baseball is predicated on the idea that the people who are the most successful are the ones who do things the same way most consistently. It's not an emotion game like football or hockey, where you can go bust some skulls."

"The one thing you have to raise is your concentration level," Wilson said. "And that's because you can't be thinking about what's on the line. You can't be afraid of the situation. It's definitely a different thing."

Bob Walk, among the living Pirates to have participated in a playoff game, is very much a believer.

"There are some guys who are better hitters in tough situations, and the stats will show that, too," he said. "They take a different approach to the plate. They're maybe not thinking so much about themselves and trying to pull the ball or hit it out of the park."

And another thing ...

"The guys who are successful don't have that fear of failure. Some guys have that, believe me."

Bases loaded

There is no bigger proponent of clutch in the Pirates' clubhouse than the man in charge.

When his team wins, Jim Tracy invariably points to "big" hits that were delivered. When the team loses, he points to the lack of same. Even after the Pirates were blanked on three measly hits in their home opener April 9, Tracy lamented, "We had chances."

Tracy's view is reflected in how he forms his lineup, bucking the modern thinking that the highest on-base percentage players should be stacked at the top. Instead, he favors the more traditional approach of getting the runner on, moving him along and getting a "big" hit.

"Isn't that what makes teams good?" Tracy said when asked about his value of clutch. "It's what separates you from the pack, your ability to take the big at-bat. You don't expect somebody to hit 1.000 with runners in scoring position, but you have to get your share of hits in those situations. Look at the upper echelon of clubs, and that's what you look for. And if we can get to that point, we've got a chance to become a pretty decent team."

It could not hurt. The National League's highest average with runners in scoring position last season was the .286 of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they were one of the four playoff teams. The other three also ranked above the league average.

But then, so did ... the Pirates? Their .266 mark ranked seventh, even though they finished with the fewest runs and were nowhere near the playoffs.

The statistic that correlates most closely with scoring runs is on-base percentage ---- how many times a batter reaches base safely, whether by hit, walk or hit batsman -- and this is backed by every spreadsheet back to the late 19th century.

Last year, the Pirates' on-base percentage was .327, third lowest in the league. This year, it is .303, second lowest.

But then ... so is their .190 average with runners in scoring position, which might bolster Tracy's case.

"I can see both sides," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Obviously, the teams that get the most baserunners are going to score the most runs. But there's no question that there is clutch. Anyone who's played this game at any level can tell you it's a different approach you take to the plate with men on base."

Today

Game: Pirates (LHP Paul Maholm 0-2, 6.19) vs. Houston Astros (RHP Woody Williams 0-2, 6.55), 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7)

Key matchup: The Pirates vs. Williams in the early innings. They chased him after 4 2/3 in the 5-4 victory April 4, getting five runs on eight hits. Williams also might be bothered by a bruised right shin, the result of a line drive that struck him last Thursday.

Of note: The Astros, swept by the Pirates to open the season, have gone 9-6 since then. But they might be weary. They have spent 13 of the past 15 days on the road, including a rainout makeup last night in Philadelphia, and have lost three in a row.


Related articles

Minor-League Notebook: McCutchen finally warming up

Stats Geek: The next 9 will reveal real Pirates

 

MINOR-LEAGUE REPORT
Monday's results

INDIANAPOLIS (10-6) lost to Richmond, 6-2. LHP Sean Burnett (3-1, 4.35) allowed three runs and eight hits in 4 1/3 innings. He struck out none, walked five, hit a batter and threw 39 of 75 pitches for strikes. RHP Jesse Chavez (5.87) allowed a run, three hits and two walks in 1 2/3 innings. RHP Dan Kolb (0.00) pitched a scoreless inning with a walk. C Ryan Doumit (.426), named International League batter of the week yesterday, grounded out as a pinch-hitter in the ninth.

ALTOONA (7-7) lost to Bowie, 8-7. RHP Yoslan Herrera (0-1, 7.71) allowed seven runs and 10 hits in five innings. He struck out three and walked none. CF Andrew McCutchen (.213) went 3 for 4 with two doubles, a triple, a walk and four runs. 3B Neil Walker (.314) went 2 for 5 with a double and two RBIs.

LYNCHBURG (6-7) won at Kinston, 8-4. LHP Kyle Bloom (1-1, 3.45) allowed one run in five innings. 1B Steve Pearce (.265) hit his fourth and fifth home runs, and went 2 for 5 with three RBIs. SS Dan Schwartzbauer (.286) went 3 for 4 with a double.

HICKORY (7-8) lost at West Virginia, 16-5. RHP Mike Crotta (0-1, 6.23) allowed eight runs, five earned, in four innings. 2B Jim Negrych (.326) went 2 for 4 with an RBI.

 

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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