The Evolving Link Between Strikeouts and Clutch

It’s really easy for me to get sucked into our Clutch leaderboards. We spend so much time focusing on true-talent levels, because true talent is what’s mostly stable, but timing is a huge part of winning or losing, and just because it’s hard to predict doesn’t mean it can’t be analyzed later on. We have win-probability numbers since 1974. On a per-plate-appearance basis, the most clutch position player has been Jim Leyritz. The least has been Ron Kittle. The most clutch active position player has been Willie Bloomquist or, if you figure he’s about to retire, Eric Hosmer. The least has been Giancarlo Stanton. Doesn’t mean Willie Bloomquist has quietly been a better hitter than Giancarlo Stanton. It’s just, timing closes the gap. (It remains an enormous gap.)

Because of the Royals, I’ve thought about Clutch a lot lately. Good offensive timing was a critical part of their run to the playoffs and then to the title. And when you think of the Royals lineup, you also immediately think about strikeouts, and about how they don’t collect very many. It’s only natural to try to establish a link between one and the other. I’ve tried to glance at this before, but now I’m coming at it in a different way. And I’m also trying to investigate a different but related point. Question No. 1: is there a link between Clutch and strikeouts? Question No. 2: if there is, has it changed at all lately, with velocity and strikeouts on the rise?

I didn’t have to do anything too complicated. I looked at players over five-year windows, setting a minimum of 2,000 plate appearances. To make things equal, I took that and calculated each player’s Clutch per 600 PA, representing something like a full season. At that point it was just a matter of looking at the Clutch/600 and the strikeout rates. You’re familiar with the basic statistical ways of trying to show a relationship. That’s what you’ll see in the table. There’s the five-year window examined, then the correlation coefficient between Clutch/600 and K%. After that, the slope of the line, with K% on the y-axis. The last column is simply the slope divided by 10, to show the change in expected Clutch/600 score per 10 percentage points of K%.

That paragraph was uninteresting to read, because that paragraph was uninteresting to write. This is the thing that’s interesting:

Relationship Between Clutch/600 and K%
Seasons R Slope Slope/10
1976 – 1980 -0.21 -2.5 -0.25
1981 – 1985 -0.26 -3.2 -0.32
1986 – 1990 -0.29 -2.7 -0.27
1991 – 1995 -0.33 -3.8 -0.38
1996 – 2000 -0.28 -2.9 -0.29
2001 – 2005 -0.29 -3.2 -0.32
2006 – 2010 -0.37 -3.4 -0.34
2011 – 2015 -0.17 -1.6 -0.16

You might be more accustomed to seeing R-squared instead of just R. It tends to be R-squared that shows up on scatter plots, but R gets to show you direction. Granted, so does the slope. Anyway, here’s the first takeaway: there is a link between strikeout rate and clutch performance. It’s not too terribly strong, and you can go ahead and just mentally square those R figures to get a sense of what I mean, but this is picking something up. Generally speaking, as a player’s strikeout rate increases, his expected Clutch score decreases. The overall average is that, for each 10 points of K%, you get a change of about 0.3 Clutch/600, which is like three-tenths of a win. Small, but it kind of supports the Royals, who put a whole lineup of low-strikeout players together.

That helps establish one thing: contact ability can be good for your timing. Ever so slightly, low-strikeout hitters might be underrated, and high-strikeout hitters might be overrated. We’re talking little effects here, but we’re not talking about nothing. But then there’s the other question. How has the relationship changed, if at all? I’ve seen some people guess that contact might be more important these days, with so many pitchers throwing hard, and with strikeouts at an all-time high.

What the table shows is that, at least as Clutch goes, the relationship lately has been its weakest. Over the last five years, the link has been half as strong as it was in the five years before that, and the five years before that, and so on. You see eight progressive five-year windows. The link is fairly consistent, but it drops off in 2011 – 2015, with the second-weakest link being 1976 – 1980. A problem is I don’t actually know how to explain this. It might be simple, and I’m just being an idiot, but I prefer to think it’s complicated and in no way embarrassing that I don’t know what’s up. I’m not sure why strikeouts haven’t linked as well with Clutch lately. Maybe this is just randomness, and nothing to make anything of, but I have to report what the numbers say. Strikeouts and clutch performance: it appears that there’s something, but potentially less than there has been before. Huh.

As individual players in individual seasons go, I don’t think there’s much to worry about. The effect is small enough to be practically invisible, masked by other things. It gets more significant over several seasons, or when a team collects a number of low-strikeout or high-strikeout players. Then you’re adding effects on top of one another, and potentially talking about a win or two or three. The Royals had an extremely strikeout-averse lineup, so it makes sense they would have some Clutch benefit. But this shouldn’t explain all of it. Especially at a time when the link between Clutch and strikeouts is unusually weak. Even when we learn, sometimes we end with a shrug.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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I clicked on this title expecting the opposite conclusion, that a batter who is willing to swing for the fences and unfazed by the prospect of failure, would be mentally stronger in clutch situations.