CSN's Patrick Mooney writes that Dale Sveum is unhappy about the Cubs performance in so-called clutch situations,
“You hate to keep beating it up, because the players hear it. But the bottom line is when you hit .220 with men in scoring position, in those close games you just can’t add on. You get people out there, and you lose by two, you lose by one. The ‘cyber’ people don’t say it’s a big, big stat. But it’s a big stat. It’s timely hitting that’s going to end up winning a lot of games for you.”
Though I use advanced metrics in my analysis all the time, I don't know if I'd label myself a "cyber" person (Dale obviously meant to say "saber"). But there is a semantics issue here. RISP is obviously important to everyone, including "saber guys". But when it comes to statistical analysis, they are only concerned with measuring that which can be controlled by the individual player. Everyone agrees hitting with RISP is important, the debate comes when you ask people whether you can do anything about it.
Despite leaning toward the side of advanced metrics, I do try to keep an open mind about old school baseball wisdom. So I asked myself, can RISP be improved?
Why, yes. Of course it can.
Here are my solutions:
- Get better baseball players that hit better all of the time, not just with RISP. This, however, is primarily controlled by the front office.
- Get on base more. Ok, well, this doesn't fix the problem, but it lessens the impact of it. There are roughly 40 plate appearances per game. Even if you hit .220 with runners in scoring position, you're better off if you're getting on base 14 times (35% of the time), then you are getting on base just 12 times (30% of the time). That's two potential extra chances for your team to get that hit with runners on. Even if it's just that 22% chance in each situation it's still better than not having those extra chances at all. Again, this is partially controlled by the front office. They need to get better OBP guys, but the coaching staff has some impact here, though the greater impact may come from the minor league development staff -- and at least there is good news coming on that front.
But let's address the question of trying to do this with the current personnel. Is that possible? Well, in trying to keep an open mind here, I'll say maybe.
- Do some players stay more focused while others tighten up in pressure situations? Given human nature, I think that's likely but we're talking about professional ballplayers, so the range probably isn't as large as it is in the general population. Let me give you an analogy of what I mean. Perhaps we can make a loose comparison of choking in the clutch to stage fright. They at least both involve trying to perform in a high pressure situation. But here's the thing, you don't expect actors to experience stage fright -- at least not to the degree that you or I might. There may be some variance from one actor to the next, but in general you have to believe most actors are reasonably comfortable performing on stage. I don't think Matt Damon performs better on stage than Ben Affleck because he deals with stage fright better. Matt Damon performs better because he is a better actor. Similarly, while we may realize from our own point of view that, "Well, yeah, this is a pressure situation, I can see a ballplayer tightening up". But, like the actors, these players are professionals who work and thrive in this sort of situations. Are some players more comfortable and relaxed in pressure situations? Probably. But I suspect that the degree of variance from one ballplayer to the other in that regard is minimal and not a large factor in the RISP equation. The simple factor of being a better hitter in general is the more important factor.
- What about approach? Can players affect their performance with RISP because of a better approach? Again, I do think this is likely. A player who makes contact at a high rate, for example, is more likely to drive in a runner home from 3B with less than two outs than a player with a low contact rate. The question then is, "Can a player change his approach with runners on base?" To some degree yes, but it isn't easy to change your approach from one at-bat to the next, much less from pitch to pitch. You can ask Adam Dunn to shorten up and try to make contact with a man on 3rd, but he isn't ever going to do it as well as say, Mark Grace. And who is to say that it would be desirable for Dunn to even try? It stands to reason that the short-stroke, contact oriented version of Adam Dunn is an abysmal hitter anyway (think about it, would he even be an MLB level player with that approach if he used it all the time? So why would he ask him to be that hitter in an important situation?) Much as we don't care to admit it, he may be better off with his normal approach of trying to hit the ball hard somewhere -- or not at all. Again, it may just come down to talent. A more talented/versatile hitter can probably alter his approach on the fly and have success, but in general, why would you ask an average hitter to become something entirely different than what made him a major league player to begin with? Even more to the point -- why would you expect fringe ballplayers to have consistent success in any situation -- RISP or not?
So while I believe there may be some control over how a player performs with RISP in how he manages stress or whether he can tailor his approach to the given situation, I believe it is a lot less than we might think. The same goes for being able to improve that particular "skill" of hitting with men on base by improving approach. There may be some wiggle room, but at some point, unless the hitter is gifted and versatile to begin with, you need to have some balance or you risk taking away from that player's strength as a hitter.
Maybe Dale Sveum can squeeze blood out of a turnip here and re-tool his lineup into a run-producing, RBI machine. But I doubt it.
The easier said than done solution is to just get better hitters. You can at least try and diversify your lineup with hitters of different talents and, preferably some combination of those talents. Get guys who get on base; get better baserunners who are more capable of advancing an extra base once they're on; get some hitters who make more consistent contact, and some who might make less frequent -- but harder -- contact that is more likely to result in an extra base hit. In other words, give the Cubs the MLB equivalent of the lineups we see in Daytona, Tennessee, and Boise.
Give Dale Sveum a better lineup and my guess is that the RISP problem will disappear. Better yet, combine that with good pitching and defense and you'll have a lot less close games to worry about in the first place.
Filed under: Analysis