The Most Important Thing About Clutch

Last week, I wrote about the Dodgers. Not too long before that, I wrote about the Mariners. Both teams were and are still out of the playoff picture, but they’ve gotten to where they are in opposite ways. The Mariners are 74-57, but they have a BaseRuns estimated record of 64-67. The Dodgers are 70-61, but they have a BaseRuns estimated record of 78-53. The Mariners are four games better than the Dodgers in the actual standings. In the alternate standings, the gap is 14 games in the other direction. What on Earth must have happened over these five or so months? The Mariners have been clutch. The Dodgers have not.

We have our own clutch metric, as you know, that’s rooted in win probability. It’s called Clutch, and you can read a little about it here. In the interest of moving this post forward, here is an up-to-the-minute Clutch score landscape for all of MLB:

The Mariners are in first by a mile. The Dodgers are bringing up the rear. They’re not the only clutch and unclutch teams, but they’re the most *extreme* clutch and unclutch teams. The difference here is about 20 wins, based on timing alone. Timing has allowed the Mariners to look pretty strong. Timing has also caused the Dodgers to look surprisingly vulnerable.

Whenever I write about clutch performance, some of the same questions come up. The big one: Is clutch performance real? Now, for those of you who have been around for a while, nothing to follow is going to surprise you. I’ve written about this in the past, and my results today don’t look any different. But I thought this would be a good time to display all the data again. Clutch performances do happen. Obviously, clutch performances do happen, and they can add up over time. But, historically, it all just seems so random. You should never count on a team to be clutch.

We have win-probability data going back to 1974, so, we have Clutch scores going back to 1974, as well. There’s Clutch for team batting, there’s Clutch for team pitching, and if you combine them, there’s Clutch for teams overall. It stands to reason, I think, that if Clutch is a real skill, we should see it hold up over time. So, does it hold up over time? We can look at batting Clutch first, looking at teams in consecutive years:

There’s next to nothing there. If there were absolutely no relationship, we’d expect an R2 of 0.00. Instead, we get 0.01, with a best-fit line that has a very, very slightly positive slope. If you wanted to be extremely generous, you could say that batting Clutch has a slight tendency to repeat. Truthfully, though, this is a scatter. There’s no meaningful signal to be observed. What if we look at the same plot, but for pitching Clutch instead?

More of the same. Slightly positive best-fit line, yet a near-zero correlation. There’s nothing to bank on; there’s not really anything predictive. Unsurprisingly, this is what you get when you look at the combined total Clutch scores:

Clutch teams in one year haven’t gone on to remain clutch teams the next. Unclutch teams in one year haven’t gone on to remain unclutch teams the next. Obviously, some teams have repeated, but others also haven’t, which is what you’d expect if this were perfectly random. Half the time, a clutch team in year one would be expected to again be a clutch team in year two. That’s just how probability works.

Above, we looked at how Clutch holds up between seasons. There’s nothing significant, no strong pattern to be found. But what about the argument that certain individual seasons, certain individual clubhouses, just have something special going on? What if we looked at Clutch within seasons, splitting the first and second halves? I got all that information with the help of FanGraphs wizard Sean Dolinar. Here’s a plot of first- and second-half batting Clutch:

Nothing. No relationship. Clutch lineups early haven’t gone on to be clutch lineups late. The best-fit line is essentially flat. A team like this year’s Mariners is an anomaly. Here’s a plot of first- and second-half pitching Clutch:

Nothing, again. There’s just…look, there aren’t that many different ways for me to say “nope.” You know a random scatter plot when you see one. So just to finish it out, here’s a plot of first- and second-half total Clutch:

Nope. Nothing predictive. You can play like a clutch team, and if you do so, you’ll squeeze out some extra wins, but just because a team has been clutch doesn’t mean that team will *stay* clutch. The most clutch first half on record belongs to the 2016 Rangers, at +10.0. In the second half, they wound up at +2.8. Good! In second place there are the 2008 Angels, and they were also significantly clutch in both halves. But in third and fourth are the 1986 Red Sox and 1979 Astros, respectively. They both had below-average second-half Clutch scores. The least clutch first half belongs to the 1998 Mariners, at -10.0. In the second half, they wound up at +0.8.

I told you earlier you wouldn’t see anything new. If you’ve ever read much about clutch performance, it always seems to end up in the same place. But while I’m not blazing any new trails here, it does feel worthwhile to go over this all again every few years, just for the purpose of issuing reminders. This year, the Mariners have been clutch, and the Dodgers have not. Both of those statements are true, and their own players are the ones responsible for the timing of their own performances. But as far as the last month is concerned, or as far as next season is concerned, it’s practically irrelevant. There’s no historical reason to believe it’s a trait. It’s all just a collection of things that have happened. Things at important times that have wound up deciding ballgames.

This isn’t an entirely settled area. Some traits, like contact hitting, seem like they might allow a lineup to be a little more clutch. And we’ve seen some seemingly sustainably clutch teams in the past, like the recent Orioles, or the recent Royals, or the less recent Angels. You can always dig deeper, and maybe, in isolated instances, there really can be something special taking place. But if you’re not sure, if you’re not absolutely certain, history strongly suggests what you ought to believe. You ought to believe in the talent, more than you ever ought to believe in the timing.

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

Can you add a predictor variable of projected RP WAR? That’s always given as a reason for high clutch values.

Jetsy Extrano
5 years ago
Reply to  Forrest

Or scatterplot RP Clutch for half1 / half2?