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Washington Nationals win in spite of blown opportunities

Batting average with runners in scoring position? "Clutch" hitting? Situational hitting? Whatever you want to call it, the Nats really struggled to capitalize on their opportunities Sunday. They held on to win 1-0 and took three out of four from the Mets, but we're going to talk about the elephant in the room anyway.

Bryce Harper got himself out in a crucial plate appearance in the fifth inning of Sunday's game.  He wasn't the only one.
Bryce Harper got himself out in a crucial plate appearance in the fifth inning of Sunday's game. He wasn't the only one.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Since I'm about to blast the Nats offense for basically vomiting all over themselves in the fifth and sixth innings with two prime run-scoring situations, I'm going to lead with this.  "Clutch" is neither a measurable nor repeatable skill.  I'd simply say that it doesn't exist, but it doesn't bother me when people praise a player for coming up with a "clutch" hit after the fact.  However, the fact that a player has come through in a big situation before certainly doesn't have any more predictive value for whether he'll do so the next time he comes up in that situation than his performance in all situations.

I'll direct you to someone else from the Natosphere (I hate that term... why am I using it?) who did a little more research in that area prior to last season.  Frank did a lot more research on the subject than I'm going to do today.  He compared team batting average and wOBA with RISP to their performance in those categories in all situations over a three year span.  There didn't seem to be much (if any) correlation to a team consistently outperforming their overall production in RISP situations over that three year span.  I think he summarized his findings pretty well early in the article......

Essentially, the idea is that treating BA/RSP as something other than just good hitting is wrong.  Batting is batting, whether there are guys on base or not.  Teams don’t just hit well when a guy is on base - they just hit well.

Batting Average with Runners in Scoring Position is........... noise. If a team consistently puts runners on base and hits well in other situations, they're likely to do so with runners in scoring position as well as the sample size increases.

I'll use one example of my own.  After his performance in 2012 and 2013, I'm sure that a lot of people would believe that the player below may have been the best "clutch" hitter in baseball.

*I'll stop using air quotes.  At this point, I think they're implied

2010 38 8 .258 .368 .387 1 14 6 7 1 1
2011 68 18 .316 .388 .667 5 31 8 12 2 3
2012 149 50 .400 .450 .680 8 74 17 17 7 5
2013 152 59 .454 .500 .638 4 83 13 15 5 6
2014 134 25 .216 .306 .319 3 35 13 35 2 5
2015 10 2 .250 .400 .250 0 1 1 3 0 0
Total 551 162 .347 .415 .550 21 238 58 89 17 20

Allen Craig was the clutchiest of all clutchy guys in clutch situations in 2012 and 2013.  He miraculously went from being a really good hitter (.311/.364/.488) to being a first ballot Hall of Famer and the best hitter (by a wide margin) in baseball if a man was on second base in those seasons.  Cardinal fans would have had you believe it was a repeatable skill (I'll vouch for hearing quite a few of them quote his numbers like it was).  Craig's absolute collapse from an excellent hitter to a sub-replacement level player occurred last season, but at least he was still great in the clutch, right? Nope... His .216/.306/.319 line with runners in scoring position looked pretty darned similar to his .216/.279/.315 overall line.

That's the point.  When people hear and use the term "Small Sample Size," what they're referring to is that a larger sample size is liable to eventually regress a player's numbers towards his expected performance.  In Craig's case, he was a really good hitter for several years who happened to perform at a ridiculous level with runners in scoring position for two seasons.  His 2010 (.246/.298/.412 overall) and 2011 (.315/.362/.555 overall) numbers with runners in scoring position were a lot more similar to his overall production in those seasons.... just like in 2014.

What should we expect from batters with runners in scoring position?

I will concede that I do think that there could be such a thing as a hitter who doesn't perform well in pressure situations, but I also think that most of those players have been weeded out before they reach the major leagues. If a player can't handle the pressure of batting in crucial game situations, there are probably other things that make them too nervous to perform as well... things such as playing in front of large crowds.  Still, some hitters could get a little more nervous when the tension is high and the pressure is on.

To be honest, though, hitters should probably perform slightly better in these situations than they ordinarily do.  Why?

  1. The pitcher is generally throwing from the stretch rather than the windup (occasional exception with the bases loaded).  Many pitchers lose a tick off their fastball when pitching from the stretch.  Very few pitchers feel as comfortable working from the stretch as they do working from a full windup... If they felt more comfortable working from the stretch, they'd never use a full windup.
  2. Particularly with a runner on third base and less than two outs, we often see hitters face a drawn in infield.  You would expect this to be a bit of a nightmare for defenses in terms of BABIP.  Bloops have a better chance of getting over an infielder's head.  The infielders don't have as much range on balls that aren't hit right at them.  Good contact that isn't right at an infielder is far more likely to end up being a hit.
  3. Hey... If I'm going to say that hitters can succumb to the moment, so can pitchers.  There's more pressure on the pitcher than there is on the hitter.  A wild pitch could score a run.  In many situations (ahem, Sunday's game), an out could score a run.  Pressure goes both ways.

So with, say, runners on the corners and nobody out in a one run game, a hitter will often be facing a pitcher throwing from the stretch (plus for the hitter) with the infielders drawn in (plus for the hitter).  Both of these are things that should improve the run environment for the offense.  We saw that situation in the fifth inning of Sunday's game......

Episodes in FAIL: The Nats fifth inning

With the Nats leading 1-0 in the top of the fifth inning, they got consecutive hits from Denard Span and Yunel Escobar to start things off.  Then it got really ugly......

Jayson Werth began the fail with runners on the corners and nobody out.  Neither the Mets broadcast nor the Nats broadcast really showed the defense behind the pitcher during the at bat, so I can't say for sure that the infield was in.  It's kind of irrelevant anyway.  Werth could have hit into a double play and it still would have at least gotten the job done and scored Span from third.

Instead, Werth started the at bat with an Ian Desmond special.  He was totally geared up for the fastball, and started to swing almost as soon as the pitch left Dillon Gee's hand.  It was a slider well out of the zone away, and it was a really ugly looking hack.  Werth then fouled off a sinker that was well off the plate inside.  He followed that up by watching strike three, the only pitch that Gee threw to any of these three hitters that was clearly in the zone.  Again, a double play would have scored a run there.

The Mets broadcast showed Harper talking to himself in the dugout after this at bat.  The Mets were clearly pitching around him, but Harper got the green light on the 3-0 pitch.  I'm totally fine with Harper getting the green light when the count's 3-0, but he has to make sure that if he does swing, he's swinging at his pitch.  This pitch was a cutter that Pitchf/x has right on the corner and almost at the top of the zone.  Harper got jammed and popped the pitch up about five feet behind second base.  With as far off the plate as the first three pitches were, I doubt Gee gets the call there.  Even if he does, he's probably not giving Harper anything better than that on 3-1.

The umpire may have dictated how this at bat went a bit, which is irritating.  That first pitch (a run back fastball about six inches off the plate) was a called strike. It went downhill from there.  After the first called strike, Zim couldn't hold up on a slider with some pretty nasty movement down and away.  He then chased a letter high fastball to end the threat.

This all started with Werth having an absolutely terrible plate appearance.  In a situation where the Nats could have traded two outs for a run, he went up there and chased two pitches well off the plate and then stared at a pretty well located fastball in the zone.  Harper probably tried to force things a little too much (yay, cliche!) on the 3-0 pitch.  Zim might have had that first called strike affect the rest of the at bat.  If that first pitch isn't called a strike, is he so eager to try and chase that next pitch that started close to the same spot?  Probably not.

Episode 2: The Sixth Inning

After threatening in the fifth, the Nats came right back in the sixth to get their first three runners on.  Ian Desmond started the inning with a walk.  Danny Espinosa doubled off of a leaping Michael Cuddyer's glove.  Jose Lobaton had a nice plate appearance to work a walk and load the bases with (again!) nobody out.

Before I get into the at bats, let's bring some game theory into the equation.  Doug Fister was at 76 pitches through five innings and was rolling along with a 1-0 lead.  He'd allowed just four hits (two in the first inning) without walking a batter and had retired eight of the past nine hitters he'd faced.  The Nats did have a shot to break open a 1-0 ballgame here, though, and long man Tanner Roark hadn't pitched since Tuesday.  The question that Matt Williams has to ask himself here is twofold....

  1. How many more outs can I get out of Fister?
  2. Is the tradeoff of playing for the big inning here more important than getting those (X) amount of extra outs out of Fister?

With Fister at 76 pitches, the most outs that Williams should have been expecting from Fister at this point in the game was six more.  He was on a fifteen pitch per inning pace at that point, which would have put his expected pitch count around 106 if he went on to complete the seventh inning.  Also, with Fister's spot batting with nobody out in the fifth, the expectation would be that his spot in the order would likely come up again in the seventh inning anyway (it did), at which point Williams would pinch hit for him.  With the Mets going to lefty Alex Torres, I probably would have patted Fister on the back and thanked him for pitching a good game, sending either Tyler Moore or Michael Taylor to the plate.  Hindsight is 20/20, but.......

Me, from the game thread.....

Real question... I avoided it in here, but was with some people on twitter

Fister doesn’t have a real high pitch count, but bases loaded, nobody out, tight game. Anyone else in here consider pinch hitting for him and trusting the bullpen to get four innings?

Back to our regularly scheduled programming........

Fister did remain in the game to face lefty Alex Torres.  The sad thing is that, of the six plate appearances I'm showing to you, this is probably the best of the bunch.  Fister battled, but went down swinging on a 2-2 fastball.  At least he didn't ground into a double play and the best contact hitter on the team (with speed!) came up in a situation where an out could still score a run......

Yeah... That didn't work so well either.  This is probably the biggest "tip your cap" at bat of the game.  Torres was nasty and near the zone.  Span got burned on a backup slider that didn't break back to the plate with a 1-2 count.  In truth, I was a bit surprised the 0-2 pitch that he took wasn't called a strike.

Escobar got behind 1-2 with Torres working the edges before Torres just blew some 96 MPH cheese by him.

Looking back at the sixth inning, I actually have to give Torres an awful lot of credit.  Honestly, the biggest mistake by the Nats in that inning (if it was a mistake... I can see both sides) was letting Fister hit with the bases loaded and nobody out.  Torres was filthy, he executed, and he was around the zone.  Unfortunately, he just blew the Nats hitters away.  In the fifth inning, Gee threw one clear strike and one borderline strike (total) to retire three hitters without allowing a run to score from third base.

Screaming about Batting Average with RISP/The sky is falling

I'm not doing that.  If you want to hear those numbers quoted, head to Nats twitter.  You'll hear plenty about it.  I've already said I don't think it's a particularly valid stat, and it's one that will likely normalize quite a bit as the sample size increases.  My issue is with those fifth and sixth inning performances Sunday (this isn't predictive about future AB).  Specifically in the fifth inning, the Nats put on a clinic on how to have a poor plate appearance.

In those two innings, the Nats had seven plate appearances with a runner on third base.  They walked once (Lobaton), popped out on the infield once (Harper), and struck out five times. Removing the situations with two outs from the equation, the Nats came to the plate in five plate appearances where an out with contact made was likely to score a run and only put the ball in play once on a 3-0 pitch that Harper wasn't going to do anything with.

At the end of the day, the Nats did hang on for their second straight 1-0 win, so I'm just complaining about something that didn't affect the outcome of the game anyway.... this time.

H/T to Brooks Baseball for the Pitchf/x data