Looking to take your mind off of, um, current events?

Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs has a new post up about Allen Craig. As you undoubtedly know by now, the Cardinals’ first baseman/outfielder is in the midst of a couple years of outstanding (unprecedented, really) hitting with runners in scoring position. Craig, to be sure, has been an excellent hitter overall, but he’s been particularly effective when runners are at second and third.

His accomplishments fuel the debate about whether hitters are “clutch” — meaning, not just that they hit well in high leverage situations, but that they hit better than they normally do in those spots. Research shows that few hitters can sustain hitting above their normal rate for long. For example, Tony Perez had a line of .279/.341/.463 over his career. With RISP in all cases, he hit .284/.364./470. With RISP and two outs, he hit .258/.352/.430.

Turns out that the qualities (eye-hand coordination, pitch recognition, focus, discipline, handling pressure, etc.) that made a hitter like Pete Rose or Joe Morgan great were evident all the time, not just with RISP. And that’s the case for the vast, vast, vast majority of players. That’s not to say you can’t find players with higher average with RISP than overall, but you’d expect that with a normal statistical distribution. When you flip a coin 1000 times, it rarely ends up heads 500 times.

So what to make of Allen Craig? Is he just at the extreme tail end of the Bell Curve, or has he mastered clutchiness? Sullivan’s post systematically goes through possible explanations for Craig’s profound RISP split, including quotes from Craig himself. Sullivan’s conclusion eventually is standard stats stuff:

This is the part I hate writing: Allen Craig has a really interesting career split. It’s my belief that, over time, things will balance out. That’s such a stereotypical analyst perspective, but the fact is that most things regress, and regression spoils a lot of would-be fascinating stories. Craig, for his part, denies his approach changes much depending on the situation. The guy who gave Craig his contract doesn’t think there’s more to good hitting than good hitting. The only reason to believe something’s different is what the numbers say, and the numbers are based on limited samples. And so on and so forth — you know this part by heart.

But take the time to read through the entire piece to better understand the argument, how he reaches his conclusion, and the uncertainty around it. For those of you who are skeptics of the modern theories about this, you can at least better appreciate how it’s approached.

Please — before you comment — this is a thread about the Sullivan article. I’d appreciate it if you don’t skip reading it and just post one-sentence snarky opinions on clutchiness. (We all know that the place for one-sentence snark is the recap or game thread.) If you’re going to comment on this thread, please read the article and give it some thought.

It beats rehashing the base running mistakes.

Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky’s Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve’s thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.

Join the conversation! 19 Comments

  1. Steve, did you watch this video yet? I just love these debates between Reynolds and Kenny. And by love I mean I hate Harold Reynolds..


    • @Chris Wilson: Harold Reynolds is brain dead. He was presented with the stats and all he could focus on was the RBIs.

    • @Chris Wilson: Harold “We talkin’ about driving in RUNS” Reynolds.

      I’m sorry. He sounded so much like Allen Iverson in his famous “We talkin’ about PRACTICE” presser. Could watch on repeat all day, despite his blatant ignorance.

  2. Maybe philosophy is a component, and maybe his strengths as a hitter is part of it too.

    I was thinking about this point wrt to the cards as a team during the game monday. The trend over the last 10-20 years has been to pitch hitter away and more off-speed with RISP. Perhaps this grew out of the steroid era, when letting a juicer pull a ball was a bad idea. The reason doesn’t matter much.

    Looking at the infamous 7th inning Monday, the cards have more than a few hitters who like to go opposite field. Deslcalso, Beltran, and Craig all hit balls opposite field and if I recall the line out to bruce was an opposite field stroke too. Jay’s grounder to votto was pulled.

    What I am getting at is that when pitchers get careful with RISP and do not go inside as often, they may be inadvertantly pitching to the cardinals strength, and craig’s strength in particular.

    It may be process, but it may be a game of rock/paper/scissors that favors craig and the cardinals more often than expected. No may ever have an answer.

    • @Lost and Found: This is right in line with what I was going to post.

      In all of the discussions of clutch hitting that I’ve seen, I’ve never seen anyone get into pitch types and locations. That’s definitely the next phase of analysis to me.

      If a player does well on a certain pitch, say a fastball down and away, and that pitch gets thrown more in high leverage situations, it would make sense that his numbers would be better. Not because he’s a clutch hitter, but because he’s getting the pitch that he wants.

  3. Good stuff, Steve. Thanks for sharing it. Can’t even more analysis be done on Craig’s RISP split to unpack it? It is a remarkable blip in the meantime. Wait and see is such an unsatisfying response.

  4. There must be some psychological factor involved with it, to the extent with pitchers it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I used to be staggered by how often guys got walked in front of Barry Bonds, although maybe it was my imagination. The pitchers seemed to get so worried about facing Bonds that they locked up and were awful against the guy in front of him. (Kind of like Parra and Hoover looked the other night.)

    Maybe this year, Craig’s reputation has had the same effect, whereby a slight tension in the pitcher flattens out breaking pitches and takes some hair off fastballs. Or perhaps the same tension comes up normally in all pitchers in these situations, but Craig’s skill set is abnormally adapted to take advantage of it.

    The part of about his being worse with only a guy on first is sure hard to explain, other than a curious randomness.

    I’d drill him the next time he comes up with a guy on second, then say “I was just trying to pitch him in, and it got away a bit.”

  5. I think a more interesting comparison wrt the Reds and Cardinals would be to look at the overall hitting approach of their batters. How many pitches do they go through in an at-bat, how often do they swing at the first pitch, how often do they work with full counts and so forth. I feel like this is a big issue for the Reds but I do not have any statistics to back it up. Just watching them they look like they flail and flail.

    • I think a more interesting comparison wrt the Reds and Cardinals would be to look at the overall hitting approach of their batters.How many pitches do they go through in an at-bat, how often do they swing at the first pitch, how often do they work with full counts and so forth.I feel like this is a big issue for the Reds but I do not have any statistics to back it up.Just watching them they look like they flail and flail.

      Looking at batting statistics for both teams the Cardinals are first in the NL in wRC+ and OPS and have the second lowest K rate. The Reds, however are 6th and 5th in wRC+ and OPS respectively and have the 11th lowest K rate (e.g. strike out the 5th most). The stat the Reds lead in is walks but this is probably due to outliers like Votto and Choo.

      Looking at plate discipline numbers the four that stand out when comparing the two team’s NL rank are:

      Swing % Inside Strike Zone: Reds 2/Cards 7 – i.e. the Cardinals are more choosy with pitches inside the strike zone.

      Contact % Inside the Strike Zone: Cards 1/Reds 14th – this is huge and probably correlated with the one above. The Cards will take a strike and wait for something the like, whereas the Reds are up there hacking.

      Contact % Outside the Strike Zone: Cards 3/Reds 13 – the Cards are better at spoiling off pitches and getting the bat on balls outside the strike zone.

      Overall Contact %: Cards 1/Reds 13 !!!

      This is by no means an all inclusive statistical analysis but it definitely shows the Cards are more patient at the plate and get the bat on the ball better. Ironically the two cardinals-esque hitters in the Reds lineup, are our two most consistent OBP guys and biggest offensive threats – Votto and Choo. The two people that basically do not follow the Baker/Jacoby school of batting.

    • @Jason1972: It would be worth the time to look for differences in approach that appear in team-wide statistics. The main difficulty in doing that with the Reds is that they have two hitters (Votto and Choo) who are such extreme outliers from the rest of the team in their approach. When you look at the Reds’ overall team numbers (like swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone, swinging at first pitches, etc.) the Reds have two elite guys and then the rest. The team overall comes out in the middle of the pack because of all the AB that those two hitters have.

  6. Very good article. For me its the apporch the Cardnial hitters take. They grind out at bats, they rarley swing at the first pitch. They seem to be able to read the pitcher. Where as wth the Reds hitters outside of JV and Choo they swing at the first pitch a lot, they dont grind out at bats which would help them get a better read on the pitcher they face. A lot of it is on Dusty. Its his hitting philosphy.

  7. For the Reds sake lets hope he regresses to the mean.

    Steve, thank you for this link BTW. I appreciate not only this one, but all of them.

    I like the comment on the article:

    “The guy on 2nd is stealing signs” lol

  8. Just looked up a few numbers I’m supprised Jeff doesn’t point out…

    BABIP (career total, career RISP): .343, .404
    LD%: 23.6, 25.1
    HR/FB: 14.7, 18.0

    As Jeff notes, the conclusion to the story is still uncertain, and given that Craig just surpassed 400 PA with RISP, there’s still a chance this is all just a crazy outlier. I think the above numbers would support that theory. Despite a minimal difference in LD%, Craig’s BABIP and HR/FB numbers are elevated with RISP. Both metrics are good at measuring random fluctuation.

    Still a fascinating study, and far from an open and shut case.

  9. A couple of things will help a hitter. The main one is with runners ISP, which I think is a stat of opportunity and situation … I’d gamble that a lot of teams are having to pull their infields in. Any hitter will see his BA go up when that happens.

    As well, the idea that he isn’t revving up his swing and still producing HR … I harken back to the HR that Frazier hit a year ago when he threw his bat at the ball. The torquing up of a swing is what Brandon Phillips does … and usually, he’s too damned off-balance to hit the ball anyplace.

    Craig keeps his feet in the batters box. He isn’t flailing away with his bat in the dirt.

    That’s a system approach. Most of the Cardinals hitters are balanced at the plate. They can see the ball better when they’re not waving the bat around, jiggling their arms, tugging at their helmets.

  10. Off topic but I figured it’s newsworthy enough: Today’s Lineup

    Choo 8
    Phillips 4
    Votto 3
    Bruce 9
    Ludwick 7
    Frazier 5
    Cozart 6
    Hanigan 2
    Bailey 1

  11. I think St. Louis teaches it’s hitters to shrink the strike zone down to a zone where the batter likes his pitches. It is called the offensive strike zone. With pitch counts of 0 and 1 strikes on the batter, the batter is focused on his favorable zone. They teach patience, to wait for that pitch in your zone. And when the batter gets that one pitch they drive it. Now when the count gets to 2 strikes, they go moreso back to normal.
    The Reds approach seems to be, if the pitch is close to the plate swing away as hard as you can, no matter what the count is.

  12. Situational aspects in sports can be practiced. Jordan use to practice hitting the last second shot in a game all the time. Thus, he was pretty “clutch”. From what I remember, everyone who played little league, during practice, while coaches would hit us balls, he would give us situations and see how we would respond, either complimenting us or correcting us if needed.

    Hitting with RISP can and should be practice. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be good at it. But, like everything else, it would be more likely you would be good at it, less tense, etc.

    One thing I think should/could be considered is how Chris Welsh said the locker room looked loose before a game. I never did like that phrase, feel loose. I always felt like you should come to a game and to the locker room with an attitude of professionalism, get your work done, play as a team, etc. Loose made me think of easy-going. I don’t think anyone should be going to work like that. These guys are working. When I go to work, the last thing I am thinking is being loose and easy-going. I have work to do and need to get it done. I have to plan what I need to do, how to get it done, what adjustments I need to make, etc., as well as work all day long at doing that. If I was loose going to work, I would be thinking that whatever happens happens, that all I can do is to go with the flow. While that may be true, there are still things you can do as a baseball player. Like trying to determine what are you going to do if they pitch you toward your weaknesses? What am I going to do against this pitcher? This hitter? Etc. You plan your day and be ready to even make adjustments during the day, to be able to perform at your best.

    Like what many of us said, I have to question what the clubhouse environment is like.

  13. What bugs me about the RISP talk, especially from Thom, is that they never look beyond 1 season generally speaking. For instance, last night’s trivia question must have had something to do with leaders in BA w/RISP in a single season and George Brett was 1 and Tony Gwynn was 2 and Thom went on and on about how those are Hall of Fame guys and that sure wasn’t luck, not when they are HoF games, etc, etc. I’m not sure what PA threshold Fox used, but using 80 PA, the actual leader is Oscar Gamble who hit .477 in 1979.
    But focusing on George Brett. If he was so good he could hit .469 w/RISP in 1980, and BA w/RISP is a repeatable skill, why did he do it only once? For his career, he was a .303 batter w/RISP. In fact, other than his 1980 season, he was a sub .300 batter w/RISP (.298). Why? Did he suddenly suck? Did he stop caring about RISP? Thom won’t say I’m sure.
    Taking what’s been said above, if you are a patient, disciplined hitter and do not chase balls,you force a pitcher to throw you strikes. With bases empty, a pitcher can keep staying away from the zone of dangerous hitters, but when runners are on a pitcher is more likely to throw a 2-0 pitch into the strike zone, not wanting to walk a hitter. Reds batters, tend to swing at borderline pitches early in the count, leading to fewer “hitter’s counts.”

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About Steve Mancuso

Steve grew up in Cincinnati as a die-hard fan of Sparky's Big Red Machine. After 25 years living outside of Ohio, mostly in Ann Arbor, he returned to the Queen City in 2004. He has resumed a first-person love affair with the Cincinnati Reds and is a season ticket holder at Great American Ball Park. The only place to find Steve's thoughts of more than 140 characters is Redleg Nation. Follow his tweets @spmancuso.


Baseball - General, Joey Votto is Perfect