Clutch and Anti-Clutch

After the Swanson Miracle Homer, I posted a list of the top single-game WPA performances in Braves history. Dansby’s walk-off homer had a WPA (WPA, or Win Probability Added, is the winning probability after you come to the plate minus the winning probability before you come to the plate) of 0.89, and when you total up the rest of his at-bats in the game, his aggregate WPA was 0.861, which was the 27th best performance in Braves history. That single play, the two-out 2 run homer in the bottom of the 9th, is darn close to the best you can do, but I haven’t yet found a way to search individual play WPAs, so per-game WPAs are the best I can call up easily. As you can imagine, though, the top performances are dominated by walk-off hits with teams behind with two outs. The single best aggregate WPA in Braves history is this game in which Hank Aaron not only hit a 3 run homer with one out in the bottom of the 11th and the Braves trailing by 2 (note that that play is only worth 0.68 because there was only one out) but also:

  1. Doubled in Ralph Garr from 1st when trailing 3-1 in the 8th (0.24)
  2. Doubled with one out in the bottom of the 10th with the Braves down 1 run (0.17)

When added to a few earlier more-or-less irrelevant at-bats, this leads to an aggregate WPA of 1.159. That’s really good! (There are only 96 player-games of over 1.0 in MLB history.) He not only near-Dansbyed at the end of the game, but he hit a double which kept the Braves hopes alive in the at-bat before as well. In Braves history, only eight players have had game WPAs in excess of 1, the most recent being Jason Heyward’s performance in this game in which he not only had a bases-loaded two out single in the bottom of the 9th scoring the tying and winning run (0.73) but also walked leading off the bottom of the 8th trailing by a run (0.10) and drew a bases-loaded 2 out walk in the bottom of the 3rd in a tie game (0.12). What’s interesting about this to me is that WPA is so situation-dependent: it’s less what you do than when you do it. A walk to lead off a late inning is almost as important a walk that brings in a go-ahead run early.

The best aggregate WPA performance in baseball history is 1.503 by Art Shamsky in this game. Art hit homers in the 8th, 10th and 11th innings; his team was trailing every time he hit one; two of them tied the game and one gave the Reds the lead. Next time you hear someone talk about clutch performances in the late innings, just bring up Art Shamsky.

This got me naturally thinking about the worst WPA performances in Braves and MLB history.  The worst single game WPA ever is by Jewel Ens for the Pirates against the Giants in this game from 1922.  You may be mad at Ender, or Austin, or whomever for coming to the plate when you need a hit and not coming through, but Jewel’s game on this day was, well, not a jewel.  He went 0-9 to start (it was an 18 inning game.)  He struck out with bases loaded and nobody out in the bottom of the 9th trailing by 2. (-0.17)  He flew out with the winning run on second and one out in the 11th. (-0.09) He flew out with two outs and the winning run on second in the 13th. (-0.11) He hit into an inning-ending double play in the bottom of the 15th with the bases loaded (-0.34).  Finally, he struck out representing the tying run with no outs in the bottom of the 18th. (-0.08)   Ouch…. or you can just start calling Ender Enser.

The worst-ever Braves WPA day was by Charlie Pick, 0-11 in the famous 1-1 26 inning tie game in 1920. But obviously, a lot of people had multiple chances to win that game and nobody did particularly well. But the second-worst performance (-0.672) was by none other than Dale Murphy in this game from 1977. Most of that (-0.55) came when he grounded into a double play to end the game with bases loaded and the Braves trailing by 1. (I think that’s almost the worst possible single-play WPA. You’re trailing, but your probability of winning is greater than 50 percent, and then after the play your probability is 0. The only thing worse would be to hit into a triple play to end a game with the bases loaded down by 1.) But he also grounded out leading off the bottom of the 8th, trailing by 1 (-0.08) and grounded out earlier in the game with a runner in scoring position.

Author: JonathanF

Alive since 1956. Braves fan since 1966. The first ten years were pretty much wasted. Exiled to Yankees/Mets territory in 1974 --- bearable only with TBS followed by MLB.TV.

68 thoughts on “Clutch and Anti-Clutch”

  1. No JD? Is there some special numerical hell for someone who fails twice in consecutive innings in a post season game, bases loaded in each case, when we are behind by one run?

    To the tumbrel with him!

  2. I did not include postseason games in the lists, blazon. That JD performance, however, is only the 8th worst in Braves postseason history. The worst, by a fair margin, was Ron Gant in Game 4 of the 1993 NLCS. He ended the game by grounding into a DP trailing by 1 with the tying run on 2nd. (-.34). Twice earlier, he struck out with the tying run on 2nd to end an inning.

  3. Out of misplaced kindness I failed to mention the nadir of his two at bats. In both innings it was not essential to hit a homer, an XBH, even a single to level the scores. Any pitch put in play would have done that, even a double play. Quite beyond him apparently.

  4. Love it, thanks Jonathan. I’ve always thought WPA should figure strongly in MVP consideration, as it does a pretty good job of combining the two disparate schools of thought among the voters — individual production combined with team outcome.

  5. @2 thanks.

    Watched the Rays beat the Yanks in NY yesterday. Britton blew it. Quite fancy the Rays.

    Also saw the end of the Marlins/Mets game. Diaz blew the lead in the 8th, back on in the ninth with some pretty amazing heat and location. For a remarkably slight guy in terms of his weight, height and build he touches 100 almost nonchalantly. Someone homered in the bottom of the innings, Mets win.

  6. The idea of “clutch”, or it’s evil twin “choking”, has always interested me. I’m still not sure how much it really exists in a sport like MLB.

    There was a writer at Fangraphs (Dave Cameron maybe?) who used to toss out the idea of clutch entirely. His rationale was that any player who has performed well enough to make it to the majors had long ago proved his ability to perform under intense pressure. Another way to put it being if a player really was prone to choking in big pressure situations, said player would’ve never cut it on his high school varsity team, much less every level on the path to the majors. So world-class athletes aren’t clutch or chokers, they just are.

    I find it a convincing argument, but it’s hard to shake the notion that some players do have a harder time in the spotlight. I feel like I’ve seen it. Go watch the clips of Jose Mesa in the 1997 World Series. He wanted to be anywhere but that mound.

    I think I believe there are no players who can consistently perform BETTER in high leverage situations, but I do believe there are players, even at the highest level, that are more prone to let the moment get the better of them.

  7. @9: I agree with you completely, MikeM. I don’t think there’s any such thing a clutch performer, ie someone whose performance reliably rises in high leverage situations. There are two reasons that many people think there is. The first is the statistical illusion of salience: we do not treat every at-bat under the same conditions equally — we overweight the outlying outcomes, thereby overestimating both “clutchiness” and “chokiness.” The second is that we feel the pressure and project our nervousness to the player — as you say, these are professional athletes who only managed to advance as far as they have because they could overcome the pressure. But our projection causes us to treat any good performance as doubly amazing, when it’s only normally amazing (for them.)

    That said, there are clearly situations so big that players have never been in anything remotely like it before and might perform poorly under stress levels they had never seen before. So yes, there can be poor performance under those circumstances. I’m not sure how I’d go about demonstrating that, though. What I definitely do not believe is that performance under pressure is a matter of character, at least not for these athletes. And the real problem is that it is often treated that way, for both good and ill.

  8. My general feeling on clutchness is pretty much what JonathanF said: I think it’s quite likely to exist, but at a magnitude which makes it extremely difficult to identify and isolate above general noise.

    Just as Dr. Johnson said that a hanging tended to focus the mind wonderfully, I believe that the intensity of big games, like the playoffs, can help some characters get “in the zone.” When it seemed like John Smoltz fed off that, I think it was likely because he really did feed off of it. I really don’t know why someone like Orlando Hernandez was mediocre during the regular season and superb during the playoffs (4.13 ERA in 1314 regular season innings, 2.55 ERA in 106 postseason innings), but I have trouble believing that it was completely random.

    (Or, hell, take Mo: his regular season stats, 2.21 ERA in 1283.2 innings pitched, make him one of the best pitchers of all time. But he gave up THREE TIMES AS MANY EARNED RUNS in the regular season as he did in the postseason.

    His postseason numbers, again, for the cheap seats: 141 innings with a 0.70 ERA.

    Why was he so much better in the playoffs, facing better hitters, on average, than he would have faced in the regular season? I dunno, but it’s hard for me to believe that there was not some degree to which he well and truly rose to the occasion.)

    Certainly, if there are any baseball players who truly cannot handle the big moments, they have been long since weeded out before they reach the show. So any clutchness effect is likely to be minor rather than major. But I don’t believe it doesn’t exist.

  9. Thom Brennanman , my jo, Thom
    when we were first acquaint
    your bonnie voice was pure, Thom
    resembling a Saint
    but now in Kansas City, Thom
    they shudder at your word
    all feel had you not meant it, Thom
    the thought would not occurred.

  10. @16

    Could be. KC was listed on the ESPN website when the news broke.

    Incidental though isn’t it?

    Also, found it interesting it made the NBC National news the same evening.

  11. @14: I have no doubt that there are some players who are less focused at some times than others. Focus is hard! Without trying to psychoanalyze Mo or El Duque, when you play for a really good team that’s going to make the playoffs, it’s certainly possible that you have a few outings where you aren’t focused… at least not playoff-focused.

    You see this even more often in batters. I think lots of batters have lackadaisaical at bats at times in meaningless situations. Even where they’re telling themselves not to ever give up an at-bat, the fact that they have to tell themselves that tells you something. Thus, doing better in a stress situation, judged against the average situation, will make a lot of people look better because the average situation will have well under average focus.

  12. Marcella Ozuna with the Joe Simpsoniest piece of going-the-other-way seeing-eye-single I ever saw.

  13. What is up with Chip and this John Sterling “thuhh” the last week or so? Chip, if you ever look in, here’s one vote against.

  14. And Johan doesn’t get cheated on center field this time. Hell yes, beat ’em silly!

  15. This right now is supposed to be one of the (metaphorical this season) 60 we win, given we’re in Philly’s bullpen in the third and Fried is on the mound with a lead.

  16. I listen to the radio guys while I watch the game. I haven’t heard Chip call a full game in I don’t know how many years.

  17. While Fried was laboring a bit in the fourth, Chip seemed to think he was giving us a news flash when he told us that Fried would have to complete five to have a chance to qualify for the win.

    So that’s the kind of invaluable information you’re missing, Alex.

    UPDATE: And they’re now basically arguing that a major league third baseman shouldn’t be expected to make the play on that Duvall standard-issue slow roller (by arguing that it should be a hit for Duvall). So they’re on a roll tonight.

  18. I hope this gets Johan back where he needs to be. Boy that’s good to see.

    @43, thanks for catching me up – now I think I can safely avoid him for another five years or so.

  19. I never listen to the TV broadcast. Chip’s a nice guy but there’s so much fluff and inane chatter on the TV broadcast. The radio broadcast is much more authentic.

  20. The Phillies’ number 1 prospect, Alex Bohm, is being charged with three errors this inning on what should be three infield singles and one error on a ball he threw away.

    Anyhow, I’m awful tore up about it.

  21. They should all three be errors, honestly. The only one there’s any kind of argument on is the first one (which is the one Chip and Jeff were complaining about), but I’m gonna have a serious problem if we’re gonna stop expecting major league third basemen to throw out folks with the speed of Adam Duvall on medium slow-rollers. On the second one, Bohm literally fielded it cleanly then dropped it down his leg, causing him to not have time to get Riley. That one’s definitely an error.

  22. Also I love that the Braves organist is playing DuckTales for Gosselin.

  23. Christian! Attaboy, rook!

    The Braves have gotten three different crappily hit singles into a gaping defensive hole on the right side, which is just lovely.

  24. @56

    And now the organist plays Brahms’ “Lullaby” for Andrew Knapp. He’s on his game tonight.

  25. Fine inning by Luke there. Threw strikes and no drama. When was the last time he had a clean sheet?

    @61, man, that’s awesome.

  26. To his credit, Snitker chose to start Fried tonight as originally scheduled, rather than kick his start further down the road, forcing some wobbly piece of detritus to attempt to wheeze his way through four innings. If Fried were to start on normal rest in the remainder of the season — every fifth DAY rather than every fifth GAME — he would receive one more start than he would otherwise. (This would mean he starts Wednesday, giving the Braves a fighting chance against Gerrit Cole. To not start him then would mean that he must make one start on short rest at some point in order to have seven more starts.) Given the 6-0 record when Fried pitches, every effort must be made to maximize Maximus’ work.


    We ruled the roost last night.

    On the Hill. There was no way they could hit our guy. He overwhelms them and they know it. We have two aces now for the new year, Divisional opponent’s plans already must be in some confusion.

    Hitting. Up and down the order, permutate as you will. We are nothing if not flexible. Last week’s horror at bats transformed into contact and production. Our catcher reborn – hitting third, with power. Our DH back to his job and happy to be no more chasing a ball in a field. Our new lead off man – where will he hit in September?

    And then our tail. Scorned and derided mere days ago there they were- HITTING! A pretty sight if ever there was. Cancel the rental cars. Our rookie, the load of his first hit already now off his back. And the first line drive that got by him to the wall! We are just so pleased to have him up.

    That will be enough for one evening, one game. Build on this, we could be back in business.

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