The Royals Were Historically Clutch (Obviously)

The Royals — the 2015 MLB champion Royals — were historically clutch. If you paid even any attention at all, you probably don’t learn anything from that sentence. It’s so obviously true it might as well be left unsaid, like “that pizza was delicious” or “I wish we didn’t get lost.” Being clutch became the Royals’ whole thing, all the way through erasing a ninth-inning deficit in the last game they played. But, look: I’ve got data. I’m going to give it to you. You can’t stop me from doing this. By the time you’re reading this post, it’s already done.

Somewhere around the middle of September, I wrote a post for JABO talking about how the Cardinals had been historically clutch. For the Cardinals, the strength had been run prevention, above and beyond what one would’ve expected just from their already strong overall performance. Right here, I’m going to follow a similar template, since now that everything’s over, it feels worthwhile to consider the final numbers. The Cardinals, at one point, looked like the clutchiest team in the league. They ultimately surrendered their lead. (note: pretty unclutch of them) (second note: typical Royals)

At the center of this is our Clutch statistic. It’s not the easiest thing to explain in a sentence or two, but it works as a measure of good timing. Players and teams that do better than usual at important times will have strong Clutch scores. Players and teams that do worse than usual at important times will have weak Clutch scores. You can go to the leaderboards and look at player Clutch, and you can also look at team batting Clutch and team pitching Clutch, which you can further break down to starting Clutch and relieving Clutch.

In the table that follows, the top 10 overall most clutch teams since 1974, which is as far back as we provide information. I’m showing just the top 10 by overall Clutch, but just to provide more information, I’ve included the component Clutch scores so you can see how the various teams compare. In case this needs to be said, and making everything all the sillier: these are regular-season numbers, only. We don’t have team playoff Clutch. So as good as the Royals look here, this doesn’t even take into consideration their miracle title run. Onward:

Top 10 Clutch Teams, 1974 – 2015
Team Season Batting Starting Relieving Total
Angels 2008 7.3 2.8 4.3 14.5
Athletics 2006 4.5 3.9 4.4 12.7
Giants 2012 5.2 2.4 5.0 12.6
Royals 2015 6.9 1.0 3.3 11.2
Cardinals 2015 0.4 4.7 6.0 11.1
Diamondbacks 2007 2.8 3.2 5.0 11.1
Reds 2004 6.3 3.1 1.5 10.9
Orioles 1977 6.2 4.7 -0.2 10.7
Padres 1989 3.5 -0.1 6.7 10.1
White Sox 1990 8.1 -0.3 2.1 9.9

This covers 42 years of baseball. Most of them didn’t even include a work stoppage. This year’s Royals show up in fourth place, beating this year’s Cardinals by the narrowest of possible margins. The clutch strength, as seen here, was the Royals’ high-leverage hitting, but they did well in all categories. The Cardinals were a different kind of team — all their over-performance took place on the mound. The Royals spread it everywhere, even to the opposing defenders when October rolled around.

The first-place 2008 Angels didn’t win the World Series. The second-place 2006 Athletics didn’t win the World Series. The 2012 Giants did, so they might be the Royals’ main competition for being the most overall clutch team we have on record, but while those Giants might have the regular season in their favor, the Royals have what they just did in the playoffs, to tip the scales. The Giants trailed just one time in sweeping the World Series, and that was by one run in Game 4. On the other hand, those Giants erased a 2-0 NLDS deficit. They erased a 3-1 NLCS deficit. They had a good run. So did the Royals. No point in trying to see whose run was more good.

As a fan, this is how you want to see a clutch season end. The Royals’ success in the playoffs was just an extension of their success in the summer, so the fans will forever get to believe that these Royals had another gear. The fans will forever get to believe that these Royals were unique, which is what you always want to believe about your team, and since the numbers are all locked in there’s no changing this. There’s no slow-motion replay review to determine that the Royals slid into the championship and lost contact with it for a split-second. Cardinals fans don’t much care anymore that the team was clutch during the season, because it abandoned them when it mattered. It didn’t hold up. For the Royals, it held up, and it held up the whole way, until there was no time left for regression to the mean. It can be said, now: the Royals were an incredibly clutch baseball team. You can’t say they weren’t.

You can easily say they won’t be again. At least, you can easily argue it. I averaged the top 25 teams in all four Clutch categories, then I averaged those same teams the next season. Results:

Top 25, batting Clutch

  • Year X: 6.4
  • Year X+1: 1.7

Top 25, starting Clutch

  • Year X: 4.2
  • Year X+1: 0.6

Top 25, relieving Clutch

  • Year X: 5.5
  • Year X+1: 0.0

Top 25, overall Clutch

  • Year X: 9.9
  • Year X+1: -0.2

I guess you could say there’s a little evidence the hitting Clutch keeps up somewhat, but it’s limited. And the other stuff disappears. The top 25 most overall Clutch teams were league-average the following season, which very strongly suggests this is an ephemeral thing. In probably just a few weeks, we’ll get our first 2016 team projections, and the Royals will be projected to go something like 83-79 or whatever, and the argument will be “they won’t be that clutch again.” The argument will have statistical support. I doubt our pages will list the 2016 Royals as AL Central favorites. So goes the baseball math.

But every team is different, right? Every player is different, and every team is different, and maybe, just maybe, there’s something special about the Royals. Even if it turns out there isn’t, down the road, there was in 2015, or at least that’s what the records will show. In some ways, clutch performance is like a race against time — you want to win it all before the clutch runs out. Fans who want to believe in this stuff can never feel truly secure in their position until the players are hugging in the infield. The Royals players all hugged. The last word of the story’s been written.





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.

19 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
tz
6 years ago

Of course, if you add up the Clutch of all the Royals pitchers, you get a total of -0.4 (or -2.1 if you leave out Jeremy Guthrie)

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=pit&lg=all&qual=0&type=3&season=2015&month=0&season1=2015&ind=0&team=7&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=13,d

So how did the Royals pitchers get a positive 4.3 Clutch in total? Simple – the best pitchers on that staff (the pen) got used in the highest leverage situations. That’s a component of how team-level Clutch is more than the sum of its parts.

tz
6 years ago
Reply to  tz

As for the 2015 MLB leaders in batting Clutch, it was a repeat title:

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=0&type=3&season=2014&month=0&season1=2014&ind=0&team=0,ts&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=11,d

There have been different analyses done showing that offensive clutch tends to favor left-handed hitters, high contact/low K guys, and tends to be worst for three-true outcome types. So while the Clutch stat does good job of describing the benefit of timing, nobody should assume that the value itself is 100% attributable to luck.

Ernie Camacho
6 years ago
Reply to  tz

I believe the clutch stat only measures players against themselves and isn’t really a simple counting stat, so summing up the individual player scores doesn’t get you anything useful.

As much as Jeff cites the clutch stat, I think it’s about time for a more lengthy FGs post explaining what exactly it shows. The glossary isn’t terribly helpful. There seems to be a lot of confusion what this stat really means and how much bullpen strategy and composition can really influence it.

tz
6 years ago
Reply to  Ernie Camacho

Absolutely true on the clutch stat. I was basically trying to illustrate the point you made – the pitchers’ total “clutch” wasn’t because they individually pitched better in high-leverage situations, just that the better pitchers were actually being used in high-leverage situations

This really shows up when you look at the MLB totals for pitcher clutch. Once teams starting stacking better pitchers in their bullpens in the late 1990’s or so, pitching clutch has always been positive.

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=pit&lg=all&qual=0&type=3&season=2015&month=0&season1=2000&ind=0&team=0,ss&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0