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Astros' Clutch Hitting

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Carlos Lee had an important double in last night's game; and without a doubt, he has been one of the Astros better hitters lately.  Lee hit .301 with a .954 OPS in June.  Shortly after Lee tied the game last night, Richard Justice's blog sang Lee's praises here.  Justice said:

If you're ranking baseball's best clutch hitters, he's on the very, very short list. He's a game-changer in every sense of the word. His two-run double in the bottom of the seventh got the Astros all the way back from a 6-1 deficit into a 6-6 tie.

While I have always considered Lee a good clutch hitter, I sincerely doubt that he is on a "very, very short list."  In any event, this spurred me to examine the Astros' clutch hitting.

Now, before I start the discussion, let me mention that the concept of clutch hitting as a "skill"  is controversial.  A body of research and opinion among sabermetric analysts concludes that clutch hitting doesn't exist, i.e., what appears to be clutch hitting is random variation).  Bill James says that the data is insufficient to conclude whether clutch hitting exists or not.  And I suspect a number of people agree with him (including me).  I'm not going to re-hash these arguments, but rather lay out some measures of clutch hitting so far this season, and take them as they are.

One of the questions in any comparison like this is "how do you define and measure clutch hitting?"  Bill James' web site says clutch hitting is like obscenity, "you know it when you see it."  And each person might define "clutch" situations differently.

Based on batting average with RISP and RISP/with 2 out, Carlos Lee has hit better in clutch situations in 2008.  His OPS with RISP and RISP/2 outs  is ..887 and .904, compared to his overall OPS of .866.  However, Carlos Lee has an OPS even better with the bases empty, .922, which makes you wonder about reaching many conclusions from the 08 stats.  That may be an anomaly, considering that his career OPS  with the bases empty is less than his overall OPS.  On a career basis, Lee's OPS with RISP and RISP/2 outs is .887 and .870, compared to a career OPS of .842.  While Lee does seem to lift his OPS in runner in scoring position situations, that doesn't mean he is on the short list of players you want to bat in that situation.  His upper .800's OPS in those situations still does not match the OPS of the elite players in either league who have a career OPS greater than .900.

Bill James' web site (billjamesonline.net; available by subscription) uses a different set of plate appearances to define "clutch," and the OPS for some of the Astros' hitters for that measure of clutch is shown below:

Berkman 1.039

Erstad 1.058

Lee 1.05

Pence .836

Tejada  .784

Wigginton  .800

Bourn .559

Matsui .659

Ausmus  .618

Hardball Times' player stats page shows both BA/RISP and a positive/negative clutch statistic.  The clutch statistic appears to be based on the run scoring value of hits and HRs with RISP versus the value in all plate appearances.

(BA/RISP)   (Clutch +/-)

Berkman  .351  -1.5

Lee .295  -3.2

Tejada .238  -4.9

Bourn  .140  -3.9

Pence .268  +1.3

Matsui .300 +0.8

Wigginton  .132  -6.4

Wow, Wiggy is terrible on this measure.  Though Berkman and Lee have negative clutch numbers, that doesn't mean you don't want them up in clutch situations.  This is a comparative clutch value, and in absolute terms they both hit well in RISP situations.

Finally, a completely different way of measuring clutch performance is Win Probability Added (WPA) at fangraphs.com.  This stat is based on the change in the team's probability of winning games after each of the batter's plate appearances.  Large shifts in WPA can occur at almost any point in a game, and it is a way of determining how many moments a hitter had which were pivotal to the outcome of games. 

In terms of WPA, Berkman has been the best in baseball this year.  Berkman is No. 1 in the majors so far with a 5.01 WPA.  Lee is 18th in the majors with a WPA of 2.02.  I don't know if 18th qualifies for "short list" as Richard Justice uses the term or not.

The top WPA hitters on the Astros, after Berkman and Lee: Ty Wigginton, 0.34; Matsui, 0.34; Loretta, 0.30; Erstad, 0.08.  The worst WPA hitters on the Astros: Quintero, -0.33; Towles, -0.36; Tejada, -0.56; Ausmus, -0.9; Bourn -1.76.

What to conclude...other than the fact that there are different ways to measure clutch?  If the Astros have faced a clutch situation, Berkman, Lee, and Erstad have been good players to bat.  Tejada has been a disappointment in those situations.  Bourn has been absolutely terrible in clutch situations, on virtually every measure.  Unfortunately, Bourn seems to face a lot of clutch situations from the lead off spot, later in games.  (Bourn faced the 5th most clutch situations on the team, according to Bill James' measure of clutch.)  The resutls are mixed on some other players.  Wigginton, in particular, appears very bad on some clutch measures, but decent on others.