The Giants And High-Leverage Dominance

The San Francisco Giants entered play Thursday with the best record in baseball at 38-21, a game ahead of their cross-bay rivals in Oakland and a full 3.5 games better than any other National League team. Given their recent history of World Series success, maybe this doesn’t stand out to you. If you know the team and have been following along, however, this seems more than a little surprising, because the Giants certainly don’t seem like the best team in baseball.

That’s not to disparage them – they’re a good team, to be sure, and their Pythagorean win-loss record of 36-23 doesn’t indicate that they’ve been benefitted too much from run distribution.

But that’s just based on run differential, and there’s certainly a lot of variance and good fortune that can go into how teams produce runs. For the Giants, well, being the clutchiest bunch of clutches who ever clutched is certainly helping.

The Colorado Rockies blog Purple Row wrote a bit about how the Giants have over-performed in high-leverage situations in the early parts of the season, a team-wide “skill” that doesn’t appear to be very repeatable outside of St. Louis. Chalking high-leverage performance up strictly to luck probably isn’t the best approach, but the degree to which San Francisco has outperformed every other National League team in high leverage situations at the dish is striking:

Team PA wOBA wRC+ BABIP BB% K% OPS
Orioles 252 0.364 129 0.362 9.9% 19.4% 0.838
Indians 287 0.361 137 0.330 8.4% 16.0% 0.834
Mariners 199 0.358 127 0.354 8.0% 22.6% 0.834
Athletics 289 0.347 123 0.296 10.7% 16.3% 0.804
Blue Jays 148 0.344 119 0.333 8.1% 20.9% 0.789
Giants 269 0.344 121 0.325 10.8% 20.1% 0.821
Tigers 179 0.343 117 0.300 10.1% 18.4% 0.796
White Sox 262 0.342 115 0.314 9.9% 26.0% 0.799
Marlins 275 0.341 117 0.337 12.7% 20.7% 0.781
Rockies 225 0.332 93 0.254 9.8% 20.4% 0.770
Reds 253 0.323 96 0.271 8.7% 19.8% 0.747
Twins 254 0.321 104 0.253 13.4% 22.4% 0.744
Pirates 312 0.321 106 0.302 8.7% 20.2% 0.725
Brewers 243 0.321 98 0.318 8.6% 23.0% 0.744
Royals 258 0.318 96 0.307 7.8% 20.5% 0.730
Rangers 207 0.313 88 0.299 11.1% 16.4% 0.730
Phillies 282 0.308 91 0.314 8.9% 20.6% 0.717
Diamondbacks 234 0.307 89 0.300 6.4% 19.7% 0.714
Yankees 217 0.305 89 0.322 9.2% 15.7% 0.695
Padres 222 0.301 92 0.228 11.3% 21.2% 0.683
Red Sox 340 0.297 84 0.286 13.5% 23.5% 0.675
Rays 280 0.295 89 0.271 10.4% 15.0% 0.669
Braves 243 0.295 84 0.312 7.4% 24.3% 0.680
Cardinals 276 0.278 77 0.250 9.1% 19.9% 0.629
Astros 200 0.271 68 0.266 7.0% 25.5% 0.601
Mets 317 0.265 67 0.262 11.4% 25.9% 0.606
Nationals 274 0.262 61 0.262 10.9% 23.7% 0.596
Dodgers 237 0.256 61 0.236 8.9% 21.5% 0.585
Cubs 257 0.246 48 0.226 10.9% 23.3% 0.553
Angels 223 0.239 50 0.220 9.9% 18.8% 0.545

While they rank tied for fifth overall in high leverage wOBA, they’re the top NL team and rank as above-average in terms of the number of high leverage plate appearances they’ve had. That is, not only have they been really good, they’ve done it over more situations than most.

The reason this stands out isn’t just that they’ve been good, though, but rather that on the whole they’re a completely average offense, ranking 16th in wOBA and sixth on the senior circuit. They’ve “saved” their best performance for when it matters, in so much as any team could possibly control that. Have a look at how their high leverage wOBA compares to their wOBA in other situations:

Team HighLev PA HighLev wOBA MedLev PA MedLev wOBA LowLev PA LowLev wOBA
Orioles 252 0.364 981 0.307 971 0.327
Indians 287 0.361 973 0.338 1042 0.292
Mariners 199 0.358 939 0.279 1044 0.303
Athletics 289 0.347 879 0.342 1177 0.330
Blue Jays 148 0.344 889 0.343 1264 0.346
Giants 269 0.344 876 0.340 1086 0.282
Tigers 179 0.343 845 0.321 1054 0.323
White Sox 262 0.342 977 0.328 1070 0.300
Marlins 275 0.341 844 0.310 1117 0.330
Rockies 225 0.332 921 0.372 1092 0.329
Reds 253 0.323 925 0.291 955 0.304
Brewers 243 0.321 922 0.325 1101 0.313
Pirates 312 0.321 986 0.320 980 0.306
Twins 254 0.321 899 0.304 1061 0.312
Royals 258 0.318 907 0.291 1069 0.288
Rangers 207 0.313 865 0.315 1150 0.320
Phillies 282 0.308 969 0.294 965 0.305
Diamondbacks 234 0.307 904 0.293 1186 0.326
Yankees 217 0.305 880 0.321 1134 0.305
Padres 222 0.301 927 0.274 1030 0.286
Red Sox 340 0.297 996 0.299 981 0.329
Braves 243 0.295 961 0.314 939 0.291
Rays 280 0.295 906 0.275 1126 0.326
Cardinals 276 0.278 934 0.322 1100 0.295
Astros 200 0.271 877 0.317 1167 0.309
Mets 317 0.265 998 0.309 1018 0.292
Nationals 274 0.262 847 0.340 1070 0.307
Dodgers 237 0.256 954 0.321 1164 0.332
Cubs 257 0.246 863 0.306 1010 0.295
Angels 223 0.239 847 0.337 1195 0.332

That’s a lot to sort through, so what we can do for a rough gauge is compare high leverage performance with low and medium leverage performance, simply looking at the percentage change when the heat gets turned up:

Team % of PA hiLev HiLev/LowLev HighLev/MedLev HighLev/Other
Mariners 9.1% 118.2% 128.3% 122.8%
Indians 12.5% 123.6% 106.8% 114.9%
Orioles 11.4% 111.3% 118.6% 114.9%
Giants 12.1% 122.0% 101.2% 111.7%
Royals 11.5% 110.4% 109.3% 109.9%
White Sox 11.3% 114.0% 104.3% 109.1%
Reds 11.9% 106.3% 111.0% 108.5%
Padres 10.2% 105.2% 109.9% 107.4%
Tigers 8.6% 106.2% 106.9% 106.5%
Marlins 12.3% 103.3% 110.0% 106.1%
Twins 11.5% 102.9% 105.6% 104.1%
Athletics 12.3% 105.2% 101.5% 103.5%
Phillies 12.7% 101.0% 104.8% 102.8%
Pirates 13.7% 104.9% 100.3% 102.6%
Brewers 10.7% 102.6% 98.8% 100.8%
Blue Jays 6.4% 99.4% 100.3% 99.8%
Diamondbacks 10.1% 94.2% 104.8% 98.5%
Rangers 9.3% 97.8% 99.4% 98.5%
Yankees 9.7% 100.0% 95.0% 97.8%
Braves 11.3% 101.4% 93.9% 97.5%
Rays 12.1% 90.5% 107.3% 97.3%
Rockies 10.1% 100.9% 89.2% 95.2%
Red Sox 14.7% 90.3% 99.3% 94.6%
Cardinals 11.9% 94.2% 86.3% 90.4%
Mets 13.6% 90.8% 85.8% 88.2%
Astros 8.9% 87.7% 85.5% 86.7%
Cubs 12.1% 83.4% 80.4% 82.0%
Nationals 12.5% 85.3% 77.1% 81.5%
Dodgers 10.1% 77.1% 79.8% 78.3%
Angels 9.8% 72.0% 70.9% 71.5%

The Giants are performing 11.7 percent better when the leverage is turned up, the biggest gain of any National League team. What’s more, they’ve saved their worst performances for when the leverage is the lowest, ranking only behind Cleveland in the gap between high and low leverage performance at 22 percent.

There are a few ways someone could classify that as “luck,” especially considering the largest “high versus low” gain over a full season in 2013 was just 16.4 percent (Kansas City), and they were the only team to top a 7.1 percent high leverage gain. Again in 2012, an 11.5 percent mark (Cincinnati) topped the list, and in 2011, two teams managed a double-digit percentage gain but none topped 13.9 percent (Milwaukee). In short, recent history suggests a team can’t sustain being 20 percent better in high leverage situations than low leverage ones, so the Giants are surely due to regress some.

How much has this benefited San Francisco on the offensive end? Well, that wOBA in high leverage situations has been worth 5.6 weighted runs above average, and their offense in other situations has been 9.7 runs below average. Inputting their wOBA in medium and low leverage situations in place of their .344 mark in high leverage spots, they would lose 6.7 weighted runs, enough to drop their Pythagorean win-loss record another half-win. That’s some rough back of the envelope math, but needless to say this unexpected performance in the clutch has probably added a win or so to their total based on math alone, but may have manifested itself in specific situations to help lead to more real wins. The fact that their projected winning percentage moving forward is just .524 rather than the .644 they’ve amassed so far gives reason to be skeptical they can keep this up.

To this point, the Giants haven’t been all that fortunate in terms of every player outperforming expectations in high leverage spots, but rather that their best bats have tended to come up in high leverage situations. Hunter Pence has been incredibly “clutch” with a .458 high leverage wOBA, and he leads the team with 32 such plate appearances. Pablo Sandoval has struggled and Brandon Belt hasn’t had nearly as many important appearances as you’d expect, but otherwise the distribution of these appearances has been favorable.

Name HighLev PA HighLev wOBA Overall wOBA
Hunter Pence 32 0.458 0.367
Pablo Sandoval 30 0.178 0.305
Brandon Crawford 28 0.279 0.313
Angel Pagan 24 0.307 0.349
Buster Posey 23 0.403 0.319
Michael Morse 23 0.399 0.393
Hector Sanchez 19 0.356 0.266
Brandon Belt 19 0.262 0.356
Brandon Hicks 18 0.541 0.297
Gregor Blanco 14 0.521 0.297
Joaquin Arias 9 0.111 0.163
Tyler Colvin 7 0.415 0.359
Juan Perez 7 0.145 0.193
Ehire Adrianza 6 0.178 0.169
Madison Bumgarner 4 0.529 0.299
Tim Lincecum 2 0.000 0.077
Matt Cain 1 0.892 0.275
Tim Hudson 1 0.000 0.096
Ryan Vogelsong 1 0.000 0.181
Jean Machi 1 0.000 0.000

In part as a result of this, Pence and Morse both rank in the top-10 in win probability added this season despite ranking 32nd and 18th, respectively, in wOBA.

It’s been more of the same on the pitching side, too, with the Giants locking things down when the leverage is cranked up:

Team HighLev ERA HighLev TBF HighLev BABIP HighLev FIP MedLev FIP LowLev FIP High/Low FIP
Red Sox 6.71 241 0.272 3.01 3.62 3.62 83.1%
Tigers 8.38 229 0.277 3.37 3.55 3.80 88.7%
Dodgers 6.97 287 0.280 3.53 3.61 3.87 91.2%
White Sox 9.41 247 0.293 3.92 4.17 4.24 92.5%
Phillies 7.53 303 0.263 3.93 3.91 4.23 92.9%
Giants 4.92 251 0.231 3.26 3.58 3.43 95.0%
Reds 8.11 234 0.208 3.64 4.28 3.77 96.6%
Braves 6.48 273 0.297 2.58 3.76 2.64 97.7%
Rockies 9.78 236 0.280 4.65 4.42 4.68 99.4%
Orioles 8.43 281 0.285 4.22 4.35 4.18 101.0%
Royals 8.28 225 0.307 4.06 4.03 3.95 102.8%
Athletics 7.52 250 0.264 3.62 3.50 3.51 103.1%
Yankees 7.01 250 0.253 4.13 3.35 3.98 103.8%
Astros 9.62 219 0.347 4.32 3.59 4.07 106.1%
Twins 10.83 228 0.320 3.99 3.91 3.75 106.4%
Nationals 8.41 186 0.365 3.39 3.29 3.17 106.9%
Rangers 10.67 212 0.286 4.36 4.09 3.90 111.8%
Rays 8.76 281 0.317 3.75 4.36 3.32 113.0%
Padres 5.84 229 0.211 3.40 4.16 2.99 113.7%
Pirates 7.71 326 0.273 4.90 3.81 4.26 115.0%
Angels 12.50 203 0.321 4.53 3.68 3.87 117.1%
Cardinals 8.55 319 0.305 3.63 3.33 3.08 117.9%
Blue Jays 10.05 255 0.263 4.88 3.62 4.11 118.7%
Mets 7.00 323 0.263 4.46 3.88 3.75 118.9%
Marlins 7.73 254 0.309 4.03 3.85 3.36 119.9%
Cubs 8.82 218 0.292 4.10 3.35 3.22 127.3%
Mariners 8.02 221 0.231 4.57 3.96 3.54 129.1%
Brewers 9.21 224 0.245 5.02 3.77 3.86 130.1%
Diamondbacks 9.89 226 0.282 5.11 4.37 3.61 141.6%
Indians 9.44 283 0.267 4.71 3.71 3.31 142.3%

Here, the Giants have the lowest high leverage ERA by nearly a full run, trimming their FIP by five percent from low leverage spots. This is a case where “luck” is harder to use as an explanation, because a manager’s bullpen usage plays a key role. Consider how starters and relievers differ, first:

Pitcher FIP pLI
Starter 3.86 0.98
Reliever 3.66 1.13

Relievers have lower FIPs than starters and tend to pitch in higher leverage situations, on average, which both make perfect sense, but the previous table clearly shows that pitchers struggle when the leverage is high. What we see with the Giants in particular is that Bruce Bochy has done well to get his best arms into the game when the situation calls for it:

Pitcher FIP gmLI HighLev TBF HighLev FIP
Sergio Romo 4.65 1.99 40 3.23
Santiago Casilla 3.29 1.74 44 3.81
Javier Lopez 4.56 1.41 7 0.66
Jeremy Affeldt 2.46 1.37 13 1.40
Jean Machi 2.05 1.33 26 2.10
Jake Dunning 7.56 0.82 n/a
Yusmeiro Petit 2.42 0.81 12 8.31
Juan Gutierrez 3.45 0.79 6 0.06
David Huff 4.31 0.62 6 3.66
George Kontos 1.51 0.52 n/a

You can quibble with Romo’s usage some but he also has a multi-year track record to suggest he’s beter than he’s performed so far this season. And despite Casilla’s struggles with FIP in the clutch, he’s posted a 2.25 ERA in those spots. Like on the hitting side, the result is several Giants among the leaders in win probability added, with Machi, Casilla and Romo ranking 10th, 17th and 20th, respectively despite none of them ranking in the top-30 for FIP overall.

For the season so far, the Giants have been involved in the single game with the highest average leverage index, three of the top-50, eight of the top-100 and 17 of the 276 games that have had an average leveraged index of 1.5 or greater, not a disproportionate share at any cutoff.

Source: FanGraphs
In those games, however, they’re respectively 1-0, 2-1, 4-4 and 9-8, and they’re 13-14 in games with an above-average leverage index over the course of the game. That is to say, while their aggregate numbers in high-leverage spots are extreme, they haven’t made a difference in the highest-leverage games (they’re also 12-9 in one-run games, only 10th in the league). Instead, you get early-inning dominance when the leverage remains high (they have four first-inning home runs when the leverage is above 1.5 and are 17-2 when leading after one) and a bullpen that locks things down if the leverage ratchets up later (they’re 31-0 when leading entering the ninth).

None of this is to say they won’t be regressing over the last two-thirds of the season, because they almost surely will. Players and teams can’t just turn things up when their adrenaline rises, otherwise Brett Lawrie would be batting 1.000. Luckily for the Giants, the wins they’ve already achieved are in the bank, and regression can’t change their record to date. Even with some regression factored in, they remain the NL West favorites by roughly four games. And, of course, should the race come down to a high leverage final week, the Giants would be untouchable.

We hoped you liked reading The Giants And High-Leverage Dominance by Blake Murphy!

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Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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George
Guest
George

How bad have the Angels been in high leverage? Could almost do another article to explain how they’re still a top 10 team so far despite their struggles in high leverage situations

Gregorio
Guest
Gregorio

As a Halos fan, I was seeing the same thing. They seem like they are in the middle of the pack in terms of opportunities in HighLev situations but they are horrible.

It would be interesting to see the pitching broken down into Starters and Relievers. My hypothesis is that our bullpen is miserable in highlev situations.

GREAT article though, well done Blake.