All About Clutch

Amongst the several great win probability statistics kept here is one simply titled ‘clutch.’ The number measures how well players perform in previously defined clutch situations relative to how they would have performed in a context-neutral environment. It has confused some and come into question from others recently so I thought I would take this time to break it down and try to clear up any confusion or doubts.

The stat is calculated by subtracting the WPA/LI from the WPA/pLI. Now, WPA/LI is an already calculated measure freely available all throughout this site. WPA/pLI, however, would have to be manually calculated by dividing the overall WPA by the average leverage index. As an example let’s use Pat Burrell and his current numbers. Burrell has the third best clutch score in the game at 1.35. He has a WPA/LI of 2.51, a WPA of 4.08, and a pLI of 1.06.

4.08/1.06 = 3.85 and 3.85-2.51 = 1.34. The 1.34 vs. 1.35 is nothing more than a rounding discrepancy. This measures how much better Burrell performed in high leverage situations than all others. If he posted a .900 OPS in crucial plate appearances but an equal OPS in all others, he is not considered clutch. And why should he be? Sure, he posted great numbers in high LI game states but he did not raise his game at all.

This brings me to the first major point: Clutch has different definitions and to understand this statistic we need to be on the same page. No matter how important the media makes clutch performance out to be, it does not refer to performing well with the game on the line. Instead, it refers to performing well in these types of situations relative to all others. The statistic can be summed up by the question, “Does the player raise his game in important situations?” If not, he is not clutch, no matter how great his numbers are in high leverage plate appearances.

The second major point is that being clutch or not being clutch is NOT the same as being good or not being good. You do not need to raise your game in crucial situations to be a great player and those who do raise their games are not necessarily the most talented. A player with a .200 BA that hits .300 in crucial situations is, and should be, considered more clutch than someone with a .333 BA in all situations. The .333 is a better BA but it is not clutch because it did not constitute a raising of the game.

As I pointed out this morning, just 3 of the 33 NL MVP winners from 1974-2007 finished in the top ten in clutch. Barry Bonds, who won the award from 2001-2004, had clutch scores ranging from -0.49 to -1.14 from 2001-2003, and I better not hear anybody discuss those seasons not being insanely productive. His negative clutch score just means that he did not post a 1.980 OPS (exaggeration) in high leverage situations. His high leverage OPS was likely higher than everyone else’s but this statistic works to measure a player against himself since, after all, clutch refers to raising your individual game, no matter how high that game generally turns out.

I hope this clears up some confusion but I have a feeling the vast differences in definitions of this skill/phenomenon/whatever you call it will continue to generate confusion. The media has relied on clutch to the point that we are now mistaking it for good or bad performance. This is incorrect. Clutch means raising your game, not being a good player.

Print This Post

Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.