Since this is a weekend day and we generally slow down the pace a bit, I'm taking a different approach to the game thread today. I will add any bullets and the lineup as we go along. I also think it is appropriate to cover a very common in-game topic for many fans: what many refer to as clutch hitting. I will refer to it as hitting in high leverage situations (explanation below). As happens often, I was inspired by our readers. I read a conversation last night here in the comments section that made me curious. I often get curious when statements are made on observation because things like selective bias or heavier weight on recent observation can sometimes cloud reality.
The topic was clutch hitting, specifically that of Starlin Castro. Castro had a bad game yesterday with men on base and a conclusion was drawn based on his overall ability in these kinds of situations in close games.
I feel like these are good times to bring in statistics because they never miss an at-bat and they don't have favorite players. So let's take a look at the numbers.
But before we do, I want to remind that I don't believe in clutch hitting as a general rule. It isn't a reliable way to evaluate a hitter because as I have said, over time, given a large enough sample size, "clutch" averages tend to even out with overall averages. Yet it is a subject that comes up from time to time and when it comes to clutch hitting, there often exists smaller myths within the larger one. Statistics employ what is call a Leverage Index and divide game situations into low, medium, and high leverage situations. Here is the Leverage Index as defined by Baseball Reference.
Within a game, there are plays that are more pivotal than others. We attempt to quantify these plays with a stat called leverage index (LI). LI looks at the possible changes in win probability in a give situation and situations where dramatic swings in win probability are possible (runner on second late in a tie game) have higher LI's than situations where there can be no large change in win probability (late innings of a 12-run blowout).
The stat is normalized so that on average the leverage is 1.00. In tense situations, the leverage is higher than 1.00 (up to about 10) and in low-tension situations the leverage is between 0 and 1.0.
So, in a nutshell, low leverage situations are those in which the game is not in the balance, i,e. blowouts. Medium leverage is your average everyday game situation, and high leverage are high pressure situations when the game hangs in the balance, especially two out situations where the pressure focuses more squarely on that particular hitter.
For simplicity's sake, I will just look at low leverage situations and high leverage ones in addition. In other words, who are the players who have performed best "when it doesn't matter" and who have performed best "in the clutch".
So who are the team's best hitters in each situation? To get the best combination of sample size with the most players possible, let's take a look at all current Cubs players who have at least 150 plate appearances. We'll use batting average since that is readily accessible to everyone, but we will also look at metrics which cover the players all around ability on offense: I will use OPS because most are familiar and wOBA, which is my favorite all-around offensive metric.
Okay, let's go around the lineup by position number. The metrics are listed in the following order: Average/OPS/wOBA, For their overall numbers, just click on the players' names.
- Low Leverage: .256/.726/.320
- High Leverage: .179/.519/.238
Castillo has had a similar season to last year if we go just by low leverage situations but has really struggled in high leverage situations. That is quite a drop-off. It may not surprise you that Castillo presses and becomes less selective with the game on the line, but would you believe he has not walked one single time in a high leverage situation? To put it simply, you do not have to throw Castillo a strike when you are in a jam and every pitcher in baseball knows it.
- Low Leverage: .269/.841/.370
- High Leverage: .220/.816/.332
A drop-off for Rizzo but not a huge one. Don't take too much stock in his low batting average in high leverage situations. He is still a good performer in the clutch but he obviously gets pitched around. His walk rate jumps from 10.5% to 15.7% when the game is on the line. He also hits for a lot more power, so the selectivity pays off with pitches he can drive. His ISO jumps up to .244 in pressure situations (compared to .208 in low pressure).
- Low Leverage: .235/.605/.269
- High Leverage: .200/.488/.198
Bonifacio is not particularly good in low or high leverage. He does a great majority of his damage in medium leverage, which sort of makes sense as his role is as a table setter to ignite the offense early in the game and inning.
- Low Leverage: .211/.664/.296
- High Leverage: .314/.993/.434
No Cubs player has been better "in the clutch" this year. Valbuena's numbers get better the more the game is on the line. His walk rate is an astounding 25% in high leverage situations. He simply doesn't get himself out in those situations, getting on base nearly half the time when the pressuer is on (.479 OBP). Remember when this was the most frustrating thing about him two years ago? Part of this is that things even out over time, but part of this is due to Valbuena's intelligent approach and knowing the situation.
- Low Leverage: .264/.708/.314
- High Leverage: .298/.814/.349
This goes contrary to what many believe and a good example of why the eye test can fail us and how selective bias can come into play. Castro is significantly better in high leverage situations. He no longer goes chasing when the pressure is on as his walk and K rate has stayed pretty constant between low and high leverage situations. Like Rizzo, the selectivity has manifested itself in bigger power numbers in high leverage (.170 ISO in high leverage, .112 in low). This shows a maturing approach on his part and one reason why he trails Rizzo by just one RBI this year.
- Low Leverage: .341/.879/.388
- High Leverage: .222/.582/.263
I like Ruggiano so this one was a little disappointing for me but looking at things like his walk rate, we can see he does exhibit some patience. There is a drop in his BABIP, but it is still high at .333 in high leverage situations. The biggest thing we see with Ruggiano in high leverage situations is a spike in his strikeout rate, which jumps to nearly 35% from 23% when the pressure is on, so perhaps he does press a little bit and expands his zone to some degree.
- Low Leverage: .216/.603/.267
- High Leverage: .200/.494/.21
This one passes the eye test. Lake visibly presses and expands the zone in high leverage situations and it is reflected in his numbers. The walks go down, the Ks go up -- but let's face it. Lake has struggled in all situations this year, it's just more pronounced in high leverage situations. He presses and pitchers take advantage of it.
- Low Leverage: .260/.806/.342
- High Leverage: .250/.775/.352
Coghlan is a good hitter this season in all situations but we do see a more selective approach in high leverage situations. His walk rate rises from 7.4% to 16.7%, though the willingness to work deeper counts has also resulted in a big spike in his K rate, which mitigates some of the benefits. Coghlan is more likely to try and get on base and leave it to the next guy then to drive in the runs himself -- and that has a lot of value when you have guys like Castro, Rizzo, and Valbena coming up behind you.
- Low Leverage: .195/.568/.258
- High Leverage: .205/.604/.258
We don't really see a significant statistical difference here. Schierholtz, like Lake, has struggled in any situation this year. One curious trend is that Schierholtz becomes less selective (BB rate drops from 6.9% to 2.4%) but makes more contact (K rate drops from 27.8% to 9.8%) and-- specifically, hard contact -- as we can infer from a spike in his ISO (up to .179 from .102). It would seem that pitchers go right after Schierholtz rather than pitch around him and he has made them pay occasionally, but not nearly often enough to dissuade them from continuing that aggressive approach.
So the conclusion here is that the Cubs hitters who best seem to rise to the occasion this year have been Luis Valbuena and Starlin Castro while the biggest drop offs come from Justin Ruggiano and Welington Castillo.
Taking a deeper look, we can see that Anthony Rizzo does well considering he seems to get pitched around quite a bit -- or at least pitchers are approaching him with caution, as they well should. To his credit, Rizzo has remained selective and has still managed to do quite a bit of damage anyway. Coghlan also becomes much more selective when the game is tight. We also see that Castro seems to be maturing in game situations and staying selective rather than let the pitcher get himself out, but he could still learn a little bit about that from Valbuena and Coghlan, though his role is different than that of Coghlan.
Odds and Ends
- This is more than just a bullet probably but the Cubs sent down Neil Ramirez to Iowa and the initial reaction was: Are they stretching him out? The answer turns out to be no as of right now. It is more about resting him after he had some shoulder issues last year. Like the Arodys Vizcaino situation, it's easier to control a pitcher's appearances and innings in the minors. 2014 doesn't mean a whole lot and it is difficult to rely on anyone other than Ramirez and Hector Rondon this year, so the Cubs removed the temptation by removing Ramirez from the roster. I think it is a wise move when you think about the long term. The Cubs called up Blake Parker to take his spot.
- The Giants have acquired Jake Peavy in exchange for two pitching prospects: Edwin Escobar and Heath Hembree. Escobar, a LHP, is the better prospect of the two. You may remember him when we talked about the Giants last year in a potential Matt Garza deal. Escobar, though, has slipped a bit in terms of his K rate, walk rate, and overall performance, so his stock is a bit down. Some consider him a fringe starter now. Hembree is a reliever with good size and a mid 90s fastball.
- Bonifacio 2B
- Alcantara CF
- Rizzo 1B
- Castro SS
- Valbuena 3B
- Coghlan LF
- Castillo C
- Sweeney RF
- Arrieta P