Tigers Clutch Needs Repair


As Garret Craig noted here today, the Tigers are the best team in baseball according to measures like “run differential” but have not excelled at turning runs into wins. This means good performance when it doesn’t count, but bad performance when it does – they’ve been weak in clutch situations. Who should get the blame?

Jul 20, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Detroit Tigers left fielder Andy Dirks (12) interacts with fans before the game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won 6-5. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Most explanations to this point have centered on the Tigers weak bullpen. The bullpen might not be great, but it isn’t awful either. In terms of WPA and WPA/LI the ‘pen has been a net positive – solely due to good relief pitching after the All-Star break. Not a big net positive, but – at least since the break – the Tigers bullpen has been in the same league as those of other playoff contenders. If the Tigers ‘pen is as good as it has looked lately, the bullpen is a strength rather than a problem of any sort. If it isn’t – meaning that we should pay attention to how guys like Phil Coke pitched in the first three months too – it’s relatively weak but still not responsible for the Tigers inability to perform in the clutch.

Tigers starting pitchers and position players share the blame. The Tigers aggregate “clutch” statistics from Fangraphs are -2.26 from position players and -2.71 from starters. Add those together and you get a team that would underperform it’s Pythagorean Record by 5 games, more or less. That, not coincidentally, is exactly what has happened. So… how can the Tigers starters be pitching poorly in the clutch? Basically what that means is that Tigers starters are pitching better in non-competitive games – their .657 OPS allowed in low-leverage situations is the best in the AL by a significant margin, but their .725 OPS allowed in high-leverage situations is decidedly middle-of-the-road. It’s not all “balls in play” either, the Tigers rotation has a 3.07 FIP in low-leverage situations compared to a 3.52 FIP in high-leverage situations.

For an illustrative example, take Anibal Sanchez: Overall this year, Sanchez has allowed opposing batters a .603 OPS – which is extraordinary. His 2.58 ERA is also, of course, stellar. However… his OPS allowed in tie games is .757.

Many Tigers hitters are also struggling in high-leverage situations, which as Garret alluded to is a primary reason for the Tigers struggles in close games and extra innings. There is more than one big offender here – which is to say, guys who have been hitting much worse in clutch situations than they do otherwise. One of them is Miguel Cabrera – surprisingly enough. It’s hard to blame Miggy for that, opposing pitchers don’t throw him a lot of strikes when the game is on the line, but that strategy has not been entirely ineffective. Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder are not to blame, something which may surprise you, and the fact that they have hit well in the clutch – particularly of late – means that the “walk Cabrera” strategy isn’t as effective as Cabrera’s own numbers would suggest. The culprits are guys at the top of the order (Jackson and Hunter) and the bottom (Dirks, Infante and a number of reserves). All have been roughly equally bad in the clutch, relative to their “non-clutch” performances. Dirks has been the worst of the four overall by a wide margin, so Dirks predictably has the team’s lowest Win Probability Added (in his case, subtracted).

It’s worth bearing in mind that very few players with long careers have had any kind of identifiable ability or inability to hit in high leverage situations. More work has been done on this (by enterprises like Baseball Prospectus) when it comes to finding guys that have a “plus” skill in the clutch than looking for guys that can’t do it, though. As a general rule, high leverage situations are slightly different in terms of the batter-pitcher battle. Pitchers may gear their stuff up a bit and will be less likely to throw pitches in the zone. It’s hard to imagine a guy that is going to be uniquely good in such situations, great hitters are just going to take a lot of walks – which don’t greatly impact OPS. On the other hand, it isn’t hard to imagine a guy that struggles in those situations – a guy who changes his approach in exactly the wrong direction out of over-eagerness. It’s possible that certain Tigers hitters could fall into this category: there is a large gap between Omar Infante’s career WPA and WPA/LI for example. The same is true for Torii Hunter and (though his career has been short) Andy Dirks. The opposite, perhaps coincidentally, is true for Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder – two of the Tigers best clutch hitters in 2013.

If you believe that the baseball world isn’t full of guys that are predictably able to mash in high-leverage situations, but is full of guys who are predictable able to make outs in high-leverage situations there is reason to put some genuine blame here on Hunter and Infante (enough to question how much value they’re actually adding with their bats) and to question whether Andy Dirks should have a large role on the team now and in the future, but a discussion of that will have to be left for tomorrow.

COMING SOON: “The Tigers Dirks Problem”