The Dodgers’ Biggest Problem by Jeff Sullivan August 24, 2018 Almost two months ago, I talked about how the Mariners were on a record pace for team Clutch. This is never a fun statistic to explain, since it’s rooted in win probability, which is already complicated enough, but in short, Clutch measures whether a player or team has done better or worse than expected in higher-leverage situations. A player who knocks in the game-winning run will have a high Clutch score for the day. The opposite would be true of the pitcher. The stat is hard to explain in a paragraph, but it still manages to be intuitive, if that makes any sense. Since that post was written in early July, the Mariners have slumped and fallen well out of playoff position. Nevertheless, they’re still on pace to finish with the highest team Clutch score since 1974, which is as far back as our data goes. If you want to understand how exceptional the Mariners have been, you might consider this plot of all 30 team Clutch scores: The Mariners are way out in front, with five extra wins even just compared to the next-most clutch team. Clutch performance explains why the Mariners have been able to overachieve their underlying numbers. But, you know, let’s look at that same plot again. Let’s just change what we highlight. We can use this to talk about the Dodgers, too. Like the Mariners, the Dodgers presently find themselves several games removed from a playoff spot. Unlike the Mariners, the Dodgers were supposed to be good. The Dodgers were recently swept at home by the Cardinals, and you could call it a representative series. While all three games were competitive enough, the Dodgers were undone by poor clutch performance. In the first game of the series, which was Kenley Jansen’s return from the disabled list, Jansen allowed a pair of ninth-inning home runs. Just before, when the game was tied in the bottom of the eighth, Justin Turner struck out with one out and a runner on third. Cody Bellinger lined out with two out and runners on second and third. In the last game of the series, Jansen allowed a two-run ninth-inning homer. Just before, when the game was tied in the bottom of the eighth, Manny Machado grounded out with two out and the bases loaded. On the one hand, it’s not entirely fair to focus on individual half-innings, since the season is made up of so many of them. But as we know from leverage numbers, not every plate appearance is created the same. Some plate appearances mean far, far more than plate appearances earlier on, and when the stakes have been high this season, the Dodgers just haven’t looked like themselves. At least, they haven’t played like themselves. I mentioned earlier that the Mariners are on track for the highest team Clutch score since 1974. Here’s a table of the *bottom* team Clutch scores: Team Clutch, 1974 – 2018 Team Season Batting Pitching Total Games Total/162 Phillies 1984 -5.4 -7.3 -12.7 162 -12.7 Rockies 2001 -5.7 -7.0 -12.7 162 -12.7 Yankees 2017 -7.1 -4.9 -11.9 162 -11.9 Dodgers 2018 -6.9 -2.2 -9.1 128 -11.5 Padres 1994 -6.3 -1.8 -8.2 117 -11.3 Mets 1993 -2.4 -8.7 -11.2 162 -11.2 Braves 1989 -4.7 -6.4 -11.1 161 -11.1 Dodgers 1982 -6.1 -4.9 -11.0 162 -11.0 Orioles 1988 -2.6 -8.4 -11.0 161 -11.0 Orioles 1995 -4.7 -5.1 -9.8 144 -11.0 If the Dodgers were to keep this up, they’d finish with the fourth-worst Clutch score on record. Of course, given the extreme nature of where the Dodgers are, we wouldn’t expect them to remain quite so bad, but much of the season is already over. The Dodgers already have a team Clutch score of -9.1, even without extrapolating over 162 games. Only 26 teams have finished worse, over four and a half decades. The Dodgers and the Mariners have had kind of opposite seasons. This is why the Dodgers are where they are in the standings. They’re on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in. The Dodgers have baseball’s 14th-best winning percentage. Yet, they have baseball’s second-best rest-of-season team projection. They have baseball’s fourth-best current BaseRuns winning percentage, and they have baseball’s fifth-best current run differential. By almost every indicator, the Dodgers look like the super-team they were expected to be. They’re just not there in wins, because they haven’t shown up with the game on the line. Clutch hitting and clutch pitching — or the lack thereof — might well send the Dodgers home at the end of the regular season. It’s not like this is something that’s just in the Dodgers’ DNA. Just last season, the Dodgers finished with the seventh-highest team Clutch score in baseball. But every month this season has been a bad one, in Clutch terms. Here’s where the Dodgers’ monthly Clutch scores have ranked, in batting, pitching, and overall: Dodgers Monthly Clutch Rankings Month Batting Pitching Total April 25 13 22 May 23 24 24 June 25 7 20 July 21 17 20 August 29 30 30 This has been the most agonizing month yet — first, when Jansen was sidelined, and then when Jansen came back. This month in particular, the bullpen has been a liability, but what’s been less obvious is that the supposedly stacked lineup, too, has fallen short. The Dodgers’ lineup hasn’t been clutch in any single month. This year, the pitchers deserve some of the blame, but the lineup has been a nightmare when the stress level has risen. According to Baseball Reference, the Dodgers have a .768 OPS in low-leverage situations. In medium-leverage situations, that’s gone up to .803. But in high-leverage situations, the Dodgers have a combined OPS of .635. There’s a stat called tOPS+, that compares a player or team’s split performance to the player or team’s overall performance. The Dodgers have a high-leverage tOPS+ of 71, where 100 would be average. That’s the worst such tOPS+ in the majors. It doesn’t get any better when you examine all-time recorded history for context. Worst High-Leverage Hitting Team Year PA tOPS+ Giants 1953 1005 63 Phillies 1934 862 70 Dodgers 2018 1064 71 Tigers 1929 752 72 Athletics 1994 804 74 Cubs 1954 1067 75 Senators 1939 564 76 Cubs 1933 1041 77 Tigers 1940 570 77 Red Sox 1945 828 77 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference tOPS+ compares a team’s performance in a split to its overall performance. This clutch hitting has been historically bad. The worst baseball’s seen since 1953, by this measure. The Dodgers’ high-leverage tOPS+ last year was a perfectly normal 100. It’s not an easy thing to explain, but I guess you don’t really have to explain it. It just is — what’s already happened has already happened. Blame isn’t shared by everyone equally. Matt Kemp, for example, has a positive Clutch score. So does Enrique Hernandez. So did Logan Forsythe. But Joc Pederson‘s Clutch score is strongly negative. Cody Bellinger’s is the sixth-worst in baseball. Max Muncy‘s is the fifth-worst. Yasmani Grandal’s is the fourth-worst. It’s never simple to tell what might be signal and what might be noise in this area, but for the Dodgers, the damage has clearly already been done. With just a few more clutch hits at the right times, the current Dodgers would probably be in first place. It’s some consolation, and it isn’t. The silver lining is that it seems like the Dodgers should have a better record. It seems like the Dodgers haven’t actually come apart; the parts are still there of a National League super-roster. This doesn’t seem like a failure of ownership, or the front office, or the coaching staff. It’s a weird and almost inexplicable problem of timing. But it’s a problem, and a major problem, and it can’t be erased or undone. The Dodgers have been historically unclutch over the course of 128 games. There are only 34 more games to go, and they can’t afford to give up more ground. Because the Dodgers haven’t performed with the game on the line, it’s looking less and less likely they’ll play in the playoffs. Theirs are the players who haven’t hit well enough. Theirs are the players who haven’t pitched well enough. They’ve done well enough to look plenty strong overall, but they haven’t done well enough when it’s mattered. That partially helps to explain what sank a super-team in DC. It explains even better what’s been sinking a super-team in LA. It’s not too late, but it’s getting there fast. For the Dodgers, right now, the pressure is on. And they haven’t done well under pressure so far.