Judging the Royals

Do clutch players exist? Yes, but probably not the way you think

George Brett was known for being a clutch player.
George Brett was known for being a clutch player. The Associated Press

There are people who believe there’s no such thing as a clutch player and that’s OK. I believe I’m somehow going to lose weight without exercising more or eating less, so who am I to scoff?

If you’re looking for a player who consistently does better than average under pressure, you might have a hard time finding one, but if you’re looking for a player who consistently does worse than average under pressure there are plenty of candidates.

So that gets us to the definition of “clutch.”

Royals manager Ned Yost and I recently talked about clutch players and I ventured the opinion that being clutch mainly consisted of staying the same. The movies show us clutch players doing something fantastic like hitting a home run that somehow sets off a fireworks display, but in real life being clutch is not raising your game to another level; it’s taking the same consistent approach whether it’s spring training or the playoffs.

Ned said that explanation was dead on and that leads me to a story.

Through a somewhat bizarre set of circumstances I took batting practice with George Brett once a week the winter before he retired. Rumors that George hung it up because it was it was so depressing to watch me try to hit a baseball are almost completely untrue — but it might have had something to do with it.

Anyway, George and I talked about the meaning of clutch and he said some guys could not forget it was the World Series and the tying run was on second, but when he was going good, he could. In other words, George didn’t try to raise his game; he took a World Series at-bat just like he’d take a spring training at-bat.

Go to Baseball-Reference and look up Brett’s “Clutch Stats” and you’ll see they range from .290 to .311; pretty close to his lifetime average of .305. And as Orel Hershiser once said: if you can stay the same and everyone around you plays worse, it will look like you raised your game.

Paulo Orlando, Cheslor Cuthbert and the lineup

This season Paulo Orlando has hit .436 when batting seventh, .387 when batting eighth and .396 when batting ninth. When a guy is killing it batting down in the order sometimes you want to leave that guy just where he is.

It’s tempting to move a hot hitter up in the order, but the hitter might be hot because he’s hitting at the bottom of the lineup. Some hitters feel less pressure to produce: “Hey, I’m hitting eighth, anything I do at the plate is gravy.”

Move that hitter up in the order and he might start to feel the pressure: “I’m batting leadoff, I’ve got to produce.” When a hitter succumbs to that pressure and begins to chase pitches or over-swing, players say he “got a nosebleed” — he couldn’t hit that high in the order.

But if a guy keeps crushing it hitting seventh, sooner or later his manager is going to find out if he can do the same thing hitting higher in the order. And so far Paulo Orlando is showing he can; Paulo’s only had 27 plate appearances batting leadoff, but so far he’s hitting .400 in that role.

And Cheslor Cuthbert has shown the same ability to hit higher in the order; .287 hitting seventh, .288 hitting eighth, .333 hitting ninth and .302 hitting second. So far both Orlando and Cuthbert have shown the ability to stay steady hitting higher in the order.

Paulo Orlando reflects on four-hit game against Twins 

But batting order is only one factor

Now that we can all go on Baseball-Reference and get some fairly esoteric numbers (and God bless those guys for putting them together) there’s a disturbing tendency to point to a single stat in order to prove something and I know, because I just did it.

I just talked about a hitter’s spot in the lineup, but ignored every other factor; like who the heck was pitching to that hitter when he put up those numbers. If Nolan Ryan in his prime was pitching to you when you batted leadoff you might look like you couldn’t handle hitting first; if I was pitching to you when you batted leadoff — assuming I could get the ball over the plate — you’d look like the second coming of Rickey Henderson.

Dig a little deeper into Orlando and Cuthbert’s stats and you’ll see both of them have a lower batting average than normal when they have a runner in scoring position and two outs. So hitting higher in the order doesn’t seem to affect them, but put an RBI in scoring position and they probably chase pitches in an effort to drive that run in.

So when someone throws out a number, be aware of all the other factors that matter: how good was the defense, how fast was the infield grass, what was the weather like, who was hitting in front of the batter, who was hitting behind him, etc., etc., etc..

So what have we learned?

Being clutch is not raising your game, it’s staying consistent, you shouldn’t look at one stat and think it proves something, and until I stop hitting the soft serve ice cream in the press box, I have no chance of losing weight.

Not a bad morning’s work.

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