Monday, April 10, 2006

2006 Indians Need to Eliminate Choking Label but Change Little Else

In an often replicated exercise, it has been shown that the Cleveland Indians run differential should have put them ahead of the Chicago White Sox in 2005 in the AL central division, as they allowed about the same number of runs but the Indians scored about 50 more. Much has consequently been said about the Cleveland Indians’ inability to get the “big hit” in the “clutch situation” in 2005, going only 22-36 in 1 run games. The White Sox, on the other hand, made the best of their base-runners, and with a strong bullpen were able to win the close games, going 35-19 in 1 run games, and 9-0 in 1 run games against the Indians. The Indians finished only 6 games behind Chicago for the division and would have won had either of these teams posted 1 run game winning percentages close to .500, as one would expect.

Looking broadly at the statistics, it appears this assessment of the Indians season is justified enough. The team as a whole batted .271 on the year, good for 6th in mlb. Their team slugging was .453, 3rd in the mlb. With runners in scoring position, their average dropped down to .259, only 23rd in mlb in these situations. And their diminished slugging percentage of .414 with risp ranked 16th in baseball. The stats were similarly bad with the runners in scoring position and 2 outs and in bases loaded situations, where the team only batted .241. These numbers would suggest as the situation got more important, the Indians’ hitters performed worse.

That said, it’s hard enough to define what (if anything) clutch hitting is exactly, so it’s harder still to measure it. While examining every individual hitting situation in a season would probably be best, I think a case could be made that a good measure of a team’s clutch hitting ability would be their ability to get runners home from scoring position. This should combine the ability of the team to get hits with runners in scoring position with their ability to make productive outs when needed, as most people would probably agree that a sac fly to win a game against a tough reliever would count as a clutch at bat.

One stat that has been developed for examining the important hitting spots in a game is the stat “close and late”. These are stats for at bats occurring in the seventh inning or later with the batting team ahead by one, tied, or has the tying run on base, at bat, or on deck. The Indians in 2005 batted .261 in these situations, closer to their team average of .271.

I think though perhaps pure batting statistics may not be the best measure of a team’s clutchness so much as the results that happened, ie how many runs scored. I’m not trying to argue whether it is better to make a productive out versus get a base hit in these situations, but it should be evident how efficient a team was during a given season at driving in runners in scoring position by dividing a team’s rbi total in these spots by the number of at bats the team had. The Indians’ rbi/ab-risp in 2005 was 0.3783 which puts them at 14th, right in the middle pack of mlb teams.

Looking at the White Sox for comparison, they had an identical team avg with risp as the Indians did, with (in fact) a lower slugging percentage. Those numbers should be more expected for Chicago however, since they scored 49 less runs than Cleveland. Chicago was a little more efficient in terms of rbi/ab-risp, finishing at 10th in baseball at 0.3953. This is a noticeable difference, but I don’t think in any way does it show that Indians were significantly less clutch than the White Sox in 2005. If anything, both teams struggling in important spots in terms of hitting. And in terms of close and late situations, the White Sox only managed a .247 number.

The other side of the argument for the close game success of the White Sox in 2005 was due to their strong bullpen arms. Looking at the stats though, by almost every measure the Indians in 2005 had the strongest bullpen in baseball. Their relievers’ WHIP ranked 1st with Chicago a distant 9th and their era ranked 1st with Chicago 4th. While both teams had very good bullpens, Cleveland had the better of the two, enough so that any difference shown between the two in trends of choking at the plate should have been negated.

If the Indians did indeed choke at the plate in the tough spots, the White Sox were nearly just as guilty. On the pitching side, without a doubt, blown leads from the bullpen were not the problem as the Indians had shutdown relievers who also had a good W-L record of 22-18 (White Sox were a little better at 24-19). As far as baseball statistics have come, there is no dependable one so far for predicting the success of teams in close games. Common sense suggests clutch hitting and bullpen pitching should help, but the White Sox in 2005 managed to excel at 1 run games compared to the Indians without significant advantages in either of these stats.

I suspect the vast difference in 1 run game records was most simply and chiefly an example of a small statistical sample size showing a lot of noise and no real explanation. If the 2005 season was replayed 100 times, the Indians would probably take the AL Central in the majority of those seasons, with a few statistical anomalies like the actual season in 2005 standing apart from the norm.

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