The Mariners Are Trying to Be the Clutchiest Team on Record

The Rays lost a one-run decision in Miami Monday night, and it didn’t matter. I’m sure it mattered to the Marlins, and I’m sure it mattered to the Rays, but it didn’t really matter in the standings. Not as far as the playoff race is concerned. In the hunt for the AL’s second wild card, the Rays are in fourth place, but they’re separated from the first-place Mariners by 11.5 games. The Angels are 11 games back, and the A’s are the nearest competition, at eight behind. Nothing is actually yet set in stone, but it feels like we know the AL’s five playoff teams before we even reach the Fourth of July.

In some other universe, not much is different, except for everything. In this other universe, teams have win-loss records that match their run differentials. If you arrange by Pythagorean records, the Mariners still hold the second wild card, but they’re only one up on the Angels. They’re two up on the A’s, and they’re two and a half up on the Rays.

And then there’s the universe where everything goes according to BaseRuns. The inputs are the same as they are here, but the outputs simply make more sense. If you arrange by BaseRuns records, the Rays take over the lead for the second wild card. They’re a half-game up on the Mariners, and then there’s a little more room before the A’s and the Angels. According to the only standings that matter to us, the Rays are out of it. Basically everyone behind the Mariners is out of it. According to what you’d expect would have happened, there would be a tight race. In those other universes, there’s stress. There’s a far greater degree of uncertainty.

Not so. The Mariners have found a separator. They’ve pulled well away from all of their wild-card competition, and they’ve done so by being the clutchiest bunch of clutches that ever clutched.

I don’t say that as if it’s a good thing, nor do I say that as if it’s a bad thing. It simply is; it is the explanation of what’s taken place. Jay Jaffe first talked about this a few weeks ago, when he evaluated the Mariners against the Astros. Jay brought up our team Clutch statistic. I’m going to make further use of our team Clutch statistic. This is a statistic that’s rooted in win probability, and it essentially compares how a team has done to how that team would have been expected to do in a context-neutral environment. That sounds horrible, and this is never fun to try to explain. So let’s put it this way: A high Clutch score means a team has been clutch. A low Clutch score means the opposite.

You don’t have to fully grasp the statistic to use it. At least, that’s my approach. This season, the Mariners have the highest team Clutch score in either league. That much is almost a given, so let’s stretch this out. We have win-probability information going back to 1974. We have it for hitting, and we have it for pitching, so in the following table, you see the top ten teams in combined Clutch per 162 games played:

Team Clutch, 1974 – 2018
Team Season Batting Pitching Total Games Total/162
Mariners 2018 4.5 3.5 7.9 85 15.1
Angels 2008 7.4 7.3 14.6 162 14.6
Rangers 2016 8.2 4.6 12.7 162 12.7
Giants 2012 4.8 7.4 12.2 162 12.2
Athletics 2006 4.4 7.7 12.1 162 12.1
Orioles 1981 1.4 6.1 7.5 105 11.6
Twins 1994 5.3 2.6 7.8 113 11.2
Diamondbacks 2011 4.4 6.6 11.0 162 11.0
Orioles 1977 6.2 4.5 10.8 161 10.8
Reds 2004 6.3 4.5 10.8 162 10.8

This year’s Mariners, up in first place. This doesn’t mean the Mariners have been the most clutch team since at least 1974 — ideally, I wouldn’t be comparing a partial season against other full ones. The most clutch team has been the 2008 Angels. Just know that the Mariners have played so far as if they’re going to be the most clutch team. They’re on pace to be the most clutch team. As with any extreme data point, you have to expect some future regression toward normalcy, but this is why the Mariners are where they are. They’ve been a perfectly adequate team, but they’ve *won* like a great team. Only three other clubs currently have better records, and those are the Red Sox, Yankees, and Astros.

We can dig to explain the Clutch a little bit. What has allowed the Mariners to be so clutch? Put another way, where’s the evidence that the team has been so timely? I went to the splits to isolate low, medium, and high-leverage situations. For each, for every team, I calculated the wOBA differential — that is, the difference between wOBA for and wOBA against. Here’s the low-leverage landscape:

In low-leverage situations, the Mariners find themselves in 21st place, with a differential of -.018 points. That is, they’ve allowed a wOBA that’s .018 points higher than their own. I was able to calculate all this information for every team going back to 2002, and, since 2002, this would place the Mariners in the 21st percentile. When the stakes haven’t been high, the Mariners have been outplayed. Moving on now to medium-leverage situations:

Now the Mariners show up in sixth place, with a differential of .031 points. Since 2002, that would place them in the 89th percentile. When the stakes have gotten higher, the Mariners have turned the tables. And, at last, we can look at the high-leverage spots:

The Mariners aren’t in first — that honor currently belongs to the Braves. But they’re in second, with a differential of .090. Since 2002, that would place them in the 99th percentile. In the most critical of all situations, the Mariners have been dominant. You don’t have to always outplay your opponent; you just have to outplay your opponent when the game might be on the line. There are fewer of those situations, making the prospect a little bit easier.

There’s not a whole lot you can do to encourage more clutch hitting. Clutch pitching, at least, feels partially under control, since Edwin Diaz is a great closer, and great closers make a number of high-leverage appearances. Diaz is one of the primary reasons behind the Mariners’ surge, but even his dominance occasionally requires a spot of good fortune:

There’s hardly any difference there between a game-ending fly out and a walk-off loss. I don’t mean to take anything away from Diaz, because he’s actually been almost unhittable. But, lots of teams have great closers. Few teams have ever looked so clutch.

There’s still another way of visualizing the Mariners’ season. For this last plot, we’re going all the way back to 1900, which is as far back as anyone should ever need to go. On the y-axis, team winning percentage. On the x-axis, team run differential per game. The Mariners are the yellow dot.

Again, this is comparing a partial season against full ones. I know that’s not the proper thing to do. But it’s also by far the easiest way to generate these numbers, and this is just to give you a frame of reference, anyway. The Mariners have a winning percentage of .635. According to the line of best fit for all this, the Mariners would be expected to have a winning percentage of .526. The Mariners, therefore, are overachieving by .109. That’s the greatest such difference in the sample, which numbers more than 2,500 teams. If the Mariners were to keep this up, they’d be the greatest run-differential overachiever ever, by a considerable margin over the 1955 Athletics.

The likelihood, of course, is that the Mariners can’t keep this up, not like this. They’ve done something historic over 85 games, but they still have to play another 77. Chances are, they’re going to look like a more normal baseball team. But the Mariners are also already in such a position that it would take a kind of collapse for them to miss out on the wild card. And I can’t very well completely dismiss the chance they’ll overtake the first-place Astros, who are up just a half-game. Stranger things have happened. The Mariners have won all the games that they’ve won, and they deserve credit for winning them. It wasn’t random chance that made them play better in the clutch. That was all human players, doing human things against human opponents. There’s a difference between randomness and unsustainability. The other wild-card teams don’t deserve to be closer to the Mariners than they are. That’s not how statistics work.

The Mariners, so far, have won like a juggernaut. They’re not considered to be on the same level with the other juggernauts, for good and convincing reasons. Those teams have done things the Mariners haven’t matched. Yet the Mariners have done enough to put themselves in excellent playoff position, and you could argue this is the ideal kind of team for a fan base — a team on a 103-win pace that you get to call an underdog. No one should expect the Mariners to keep playing like they’ve played. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter. In the hunt for the playoff spot the Mariners occupy, clutch play has made all the difference.

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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5 years ago

Go M’s go!