Most of the discussions surrounding the Cincinnati Reds during the past calendar year has centered around what to do with an aging core of players that are careening toward free agency on a club with little chance of competing. That’s the right type of conversation to have in the Reds’ situation – a situation in which Joey Votto had a historically great season on a last place team. We’ve known for a while what the Reds should do, and they’ve already started the rebuild by trading Aroldis Chapman and Todd Frazier. There is unquestionably more to be done, and more that will be done. There’s another interesting angle to their 2015 season, however, and it’s an issue that turned a season that was expected to be not-so-great into the second-worst record in baseball: the issue of clutch hitting.
“Clutch” — as we are discussing it today — is the measure of how well a player or team performs in high leverage situations vs. context-neutral situations. I implore the interested reader to examine the full rundown on our glossary page, but what we’re really talking about is the importance of the situations in which players produce or don’t produce. There has been some evidence that a “clutch skill” might exist – that some players are simply better in certain situations than others – but there is usually a lot of variability for players from year-to-year, and any true skill is likely to have a small impact.
Take, for example, Josh Reddick: he had a Clutch rating of -3.89 in 2012, the worst since Bob Bailor in 1984 (-3.84). That means he was responsible for “losing” his team almost four games due to his performance in high leverage situations. The next year (2013), Reddick had a Clutch rating of just -0.18, or right about average. Poor fortune, bad timing – these things happen, and sometimes they happen an extreme number of times in the same year. Because of this, Clutch isn’t really predictive, and is much better utilized as an indicator of what has already happened.
That brings us to the Reds, and measuring team-wide Clutch statistics. There are two versions of Clutch for teams: pitching Clutch and batting Clutch. The Reds were actually above average when it came to pitching Clutch, sitting just below the middle of the pack with a 1.16 rating. For comparison, the Oakland A’s were the worst Clutch pitching team in 2015 at -6.05; this is one of the reasons why they were so terrible in one-run games, and it’s the main reason why they were the biggest underperformer in recent BaseRuns history.
However, on the other side of the ball, the Reds were historically terrible in Clutch situations. How terrible? Let’s just cut straight to the chase — here are the 15 worst Clutch hitting teams since 1974 (the first year we have Clutch data available):
Ok, so the Reds were bad in Clutch hitting situations. Really, really, bad. Like losing over eight games because of a lack of situational hitting bad. Also of note: the 2015 Houston Astros, who were also historically terrible in clutch hitting situations. The Astros didn’t do well in clutch pitching situations either (they ranked 27th in the majors at -3.60), so it’s fairly astounding that they were able to make it to the playoffs at all in 2015 given that they underperformed their Base Runs record by 11 wins. The Reds one-upped them on the offensive side, however, and it’s pretty eye-opening when we start delving into the individual numbers for Cincinnati. Take a look at the position players on the Reds who had at least 100 plate appearances this past season, along with their individual Clutch hitting rating:
|Ivan De Jesus||222||-0.58|
We have Eugenio Suarez, who managed to post a positive Clutch hitting rating this past season in 398 plate appearances, and then… well, that’s it. Reds hitters not only were the worst Clutch hitting team on record because basically every player on the team turned in poor performances in high leverage situations compared to their performance in context neutral ones, but also because of the magnitude of some of those performances. Cincinnati had four of the bottom 40 players in baseball for worst clutch hitting: Jay Bruce (9th-worst), Todd Frazier (20th), Marlon Byrd (21st), and Tucker Barnhart (37th). It’s difficult to even meet win/loss record expectations — never mind exceed them — when many of your main players are accounting for negative win totals due to their lack of timely hits. We should also keep in mind that Clutch measures a player against himself, not league average, so these Reds hitters were awful during important moments when compared to themselves in context neutral ones.
There’s a deeper aspect to why the Reds rated so poorly in Clutch offensive situations: they had a lot of opportunities to do so. As a team, the Reds had the sixth-most plate appearances in high leverage moments during 2015 (708 PAs): Todd Frazier and Jay Bruce alone had 88 and 87 plate appearances in high leverage situations (third and fifth-most in baseball, respectively), and the latter managed only an 11 wRC+ during those trips to the plate. A large sample was provided to the Reds to dictate which way their Clutch hitting performance would go, and it invariably went in one direction (the wrong one) during 2015.
One final interesting point about the Reds in 2015: they put up almost identical Clutch hitting numbers in the first half and second half of the season. Take a look at the first and second half Clutch hitting numbers for the bottom 10 overall teams this season:
|Team||1st Half Clutch||2nd Half Clutch||Overall Clutch|
Why is this interesting? Because — as Jeff Sullivan pointed out last September — the relationship between first and second half team Clutch numbers is zero. Zilch. When Jeff ran linear regressions of the first and second half Clutch numbers, he got R-squareds of 0.00. A team’s first half performance in high leverage situations vs. context neutral situations doesn’t at all dictate their second half performance in those categories. Still the Reds replicated their first half performance. They were remarkably consistent in a measurement that is inherently inconsistent.
The good news for the Reds is two-fold: they should have a much stronger farm system heading into the next few years, and Clutch numbers are not at all predictive. 2015 was an ugly aberration for Cincinnati in terms of Clutch hitting, one that is not any more probable of occurring after this season than for any other team. That’s probably a small consolation for a team that just traded two of its biggest stars and finished with the second-worst record in baseball, but it’s something. And, as with the Oakland Athletics, that something — in the form of the likelihood that this type of nightmare won’t happen next year — will feel like a victory.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.