Looking at Royals Hitters And Their Performance in “Clutch” Situations

Safe to say, one of the biggest struggles for the Royals so far this season has been hitting with runners in scoring position.

That was primarily highlighted today by Josh Keiser of the KC Sports Network podcast “One Royals Way,” as he brought up some sobering stats today regarding the Royals’ ability to produce runs with runners on the basepaths.

I am not necessarily going to focus too much on the Royals’ RISP stats in this post. That has been something that has been beaten to death by Royals Twitter over the past 24 hours, though that is to be expected with a club that is 4-12 and already down 3-0 to the Rangers on Monday night.

Rather, I wanted to take a look at how Royals hitters perform in “clutch” situations, and not just this year, but over the past two seasons. I was curious to see if production in this category matched the “dreariness” Royals fans have seen in the area of RISP production, and if negative “clutch” was also a trend in 2022.

Now, what is “clutch”, how is it necessarily different from traditional RISP metrics, and what can Royals fans take away from “clutch” data from Royals hitters over the past two seasons?

Let’s answer those questions, and see how “clutch” metrics from Royals hitters are similar (and perhaps different) from what Royals fans have seen from RISP data both in 2022 and 2023.

What is “Clutch” And How Is It Measured?

“Clutch” is a common stat that can be found in Fangraphs’ win probability metrics on a game-by-game basis.

In this 2010 article from Fangraphs, Piper Slowinski gives a thorough definition of “clutch”, which can be seen in the snippet from the article below:

The key piece with this definition is “how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations” than they would do in a “context neutral environment.”

So basically, when talking about how “clutch” a player has been, the metric is basically referring to how a player has performed in high-pressure situations in comparison to situations that really don’t have much if any, pressure attached.

Now the big separator with “clutch” data is that it can be applied to not just hitters but pitchers as well.

Pitchers certainly face high-pressure situations as well, and “clutch” data can be particularly helpful when it comes to gauging how certain pitchers fare in more “difficult” situations during games. “Clutch” data not surprisingly is more utilized in the analysis of relievers, especially since their goal is to pitch in higher leverage situations more frequently than starting pitchers.

As a win probability metric, “clutch” is basically measured on a “runs in comparison to average” basis, with zero being the average. The more positive a “clutch” number is? The more clutch that player is. The deeper the number is into the negatives? Basically, that player has failed to come through in pressure-packed situations.

“Clutch” can be a complicated metric, especially for casual baseball fans.

As chronicled by Jeff Sullivan’s “The Most Important Thing About Clutch” piece on Fangraphs, it’s not necessarily an indicator of future performance from a team or player. Just because a player or team has been more productive in “clutch” situations in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a “clutch” attribute where they will continue to come through in those “high pressure” situations.

Here’s an important tidbit from Sullivan’s piece that essentially summarizes his findings on clutch during the 2018 season:

…If you’ve ever read much about clutch performance, it always seems to end up in the same place. But while I’m not blazing any new trails here, it does feel worthwhile to go over this all again every few years, just for the purpose of issuing reminders. This year, the Mariners have been clutch, and the Dodgers have not. Both of those statements are true, and their own players are the ones responsible for the timing of their own performances. But as far as the last month is concerned, or as far as next season is concerned, it’s practically irrelevant. There’s no historical reason to believe it’s a trait. It’s all just a collection of things that have happened. Things at important times that have wound up deciding ballgames.

“The Most Important Thing About Clutch” by Jeff Sullivan; Fangraphs; August 27th, 2018

Therefore, as it relates to “clutch” data regarding Royals players in this piece, it is important to not view this data as a “trait” of this group of Royals hitters over the past two years. Just because a Royals hitter is not “clutch” now doesn’t necessarily mean that they will continue to not be “clutch” in the future (though the data has produced some interesting trends for certain players, which I will analyze in a bit).

Nonetheless, based on how rough this start to the season has been for Royals hitters, it is important data to analyze nonetheless to see if it can be connected with the Royals’ struggles in 2023.

The “Clutch” Data on Royals Hitters

As of Monday, April 17th, the Royals’ had the sixth-lowest “clutch” in baseball, as they sat 1.01 runs below the average mark. Here’s a look at how the Royals fare compared to other teams, based on “clutch”, according to Fangraphs.

Amazingly, there have been five teams that have been worse than the Royals in “clutch” situations this year: the Giants (-2.08), the Phillies (-1.22), the Astros (-1.16), the Mets (-1.07), and the Cubs (-1.06). The Mets and Cubs are the only teams in that group that have winning records.

Vice versa, all the teams that rank in the Top-Six in “clutch” (Toronto, Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Texas, and Cleveland) have winning records. Therefore, “clutch” has a more positive correlation with winning than losing, based on this early sample in 2023.

Now, let’s take a look at Royals hitters on an individual basis and how they have fared in the area of “clutch” so far, as of April 17th.

Salvador Perez, who has one of the highest batting averages with RISP, also has one of the highest “clutch” numbers on this year’s squad. Furthermore, Vinnie Pasquantino, Nicky Lopez, Kyle Isbel, and even MJ Melendez have produced “positive” clutch run numbers so far this season (though very minuscule thus far).

Nate Eaton has the highest “clutch” number of the group, but his sample size is the smallest of this group, so it has to be taken with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, 7 of the 13 qualified Royals hitters have been below average in terms of “clutch” this season. Michael Massey (-0.11), Matt Duffy (-0.18), Hunter Dozier (-0.21), Edward Olivares (-0.30), and Bobby Witt, Jr. (-0.60) are the worst offenders so far through 16 games.

Massey, Dozier, and even Witt aren’t necessarily surprising, as their RISP struggles have been well-documented by Royals fans as of late.

On the other hand, Duffy and Olivares are the more surprising ones, since they are performing decently despite their lackluster metrics in “clutch” situations.

Olivares has cooled down after a hot start, but his .367 xwOBA hints that he’s run into some batted-ball unluckiness. As for Duffy, he is hitting .364, and he already collected one single on Monday night (albeit against Dane Dunning, not deGrom, who left after four innings for no particular reason).

Of course, this is a small sample of just 16 games.

How do Royals hitters look when taking into consideration 2022 numbers into play?

Here’s a look at Royals hitters, ranked by “clutch”, spanning back to last season, via Fangraphs.

Since 2022, Salvy has by far been the Royals’ most “clutch” player, as he has been 2.24 runs above average, according to Fangraphs’ “clutch” metric. Past veterans Carlos Santana and Whit Merrifield were also rated as the third and second-best Royals hitters in the two-year sample on a “clutch” end, despite 2022 being a down season for both players.

On the other hand, the worst five Royals hitters since 2022, based on “clutch”? Michael A. Taylor, Melendez, Kyle Isbel, Dozier, and Witt. Nick Pratto posted the sixth-worst mark at -0.58, and this is despite hitting a game-winning walk-off home run last year against the Red Sox.

Witt’s “clutch” is particularly alarming, as he has been 2.52 runs below average in “clutch” situations since the start of the 2022 season.

That is not necessarily a good sign for a guy who’s been batting primarily in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot in the batting order all season long in 2023 and is expected to be the “cornerstone” of this Royals lineup for years to come.

What Can We Takeaway From the Royals’ “Clutch” Data?

So, based on the past two seasons of data, we haven’t seen a whole lot of run production from Witt or even Melendez, in “clutch” situations.

That isn’t a positive early development for both players, especially considering how this offense needs both of them in the short and long term to be successful in this area, as Matthew Lamar of Royals Review talked about today in a post.

Now for comparison, we have seen Salvy clearly become the Royals’ go-to guy in “clutch” situations over the past two years. However, has that always been the case for Salvy throughout his MLB career?

Let’s take a look at how he fared in “clutch” each season since he debuted in 2011.

As Royals fans can see, Salvy has accumulated a runs-above-average total of 5.28 in the category of “clutch”. That mark is pretty impressive, especially considering “clutch” can be a difficult stat to project for a player on an annual basis.

However, he did have five seasons in which he posted negative run marks in “clutch”, which included his first two seasons in 2011 and 2012. Also, his second-to-worst “clutch” total came in 2015, when the Royals won their second World Series title.

Also for fun, I decided to take a look at Whit Merrifield and see how his “clutch” metrics fared over the course of his career with the Royals (he debuted in 2016). Here’s how he looked, via Fangraphs:

No one in Kansas City will consider Whit for a spot in the Royals Hall of Fame, especially with his best years coming during one of the worst periods in Royals baseball history. That said, he only had one season where he was below average in the area of “clutch”, which ironically was his first All-Star season.

Surprisingly, his best season in “clutch” came in 2022, a season in which he posted a 88 wRC+, the worst mark of his career (as of now).

Thus, “clutch” can sometimes correlate with overall success. However, in the cases of Salvy and Whit, that hasn’t always been the case over the course of their respective careers.

Lastly, how does “clutch” correlate with players who have performed poorly in Royals’ Blue?

Let’s take a look at the “clutch” metrics of Dozier, who has been one of the Royals’ worst players on an fWAR end since 2021.

Dozier has not just been bad overall, but he has been particularly bad in “clutch” situations, as he has accumulated a 2.24 runs-below-average mark in his seven-year career. He has only had one season in which he posted a positive “clutch” number, which also came in his breakout 2019 campaign which pretty much helped him earn an extension prior to the 2021 season.

Overall, the examples of Salvy, Whit, and Doz could be interesting benchmarks in the long run for MJ, Witt, and perhaps even Vinnie, who also is sporting a negative “clutch” of -0.31, as of Monday.

The Royals’ top three hitters in the batting order (primarily) this year have combined to produce 3.65 runs below the league average in “clutch” since 2022. Additionally, if one adds Massey, Pratto, and Isbel to that mix, that “clutch” number plummets to 5.52 runs below average.

I think it’s safe to say that the Royals’ “core” of young hitters has failed to produce in high-pressure situations over the past two years, and that explains the Royals’ woes not just with runners in scoring position, but on the hitting end overall.

Will this trend continue? One has to think that as this young group of Royals hitters, especially Witt, MJ, and Vinnie, get more at-bats, they will get more comfortable and confident in high-pressure situations. That will lead to more run production in “clutch” situations over time, and consequently, more runs as well.

But if it doesn’t?

Then JJ Picollo will need to find hitters who can help reverse this trend in high-pressure situations, even if it may require some tough trades of some popular Royals players in order to do so.

Photo Credit: Ed Zurga/Associated Press


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