How not to hit in the clutch: The 2008 Atlanta Braves

The 2008 Atlanta Braves are not a bad team.  They’re currently third in the NL East, 2.5 games behind the Marlins, and fourth in the Wild Card race, 2.5 games behind the Cardinals.

The Braves are better than both of the leaders for those playoff spots.  Only the Chicago Cubs have a better Pythagorean record, which regardless of its futility in predicting the Braves’ performance this year or the Diamondbacks’ last year, is still a better predictor of future performance than a team’s actual record.  Scoring runs and preventing runs are still the heart of the game of baseball, and the Braves are good at both.

In the National League, only the Cubs, D-Backs, and Phillies are consistently scoring more runs than the Braves this season, and no NL team is preventing runs as well as the Braves are.  When you account for the injuries to the Braves’ pitching staff, you have to like their chances to keep preventing runs all season.

So why don’t the Braves have the second-best record in the NL, even though the underlying data suggests they’re the second-best team?  If you’ve been watching at all this season, the answer comes to you fairly quickly: they can’t win one-run games.

What makes a team good in one-run games?

One of the usual indicators for teams outperforming Pythagoras is a strong performance in one-run games.  The Diamondbacks led the league with a .615 win percentage in such games a year ago and won the NL West despite being outscored for the season.  They were 12 games over .500 in one-run games and 15-9 in 2-run games.

As Chris Jaffe explained in a great THT article last year, the D-Backs had one of the key ingredients to success in one-run games (relative to other games): a strong bullpen.  However, he explained, that wasn’t the end of the story.  Their top four relievers were great, but their mop-up guys were terrible.  In close games (when they used the good relievers), they did well, but when they were already losing badly, they got creamed even more.  As a result, their Pythagorean record was totally skewed.

It’s pretty easy to look at a team’s performance and see if they have a good bullpen, but what else can help a team in one-run games?  The best answer is a consistent offense.  Later in Jaffe’s article, he uses an example that goes like this:

If Team A scores five runs each game while Team B alternates between scoring 10, and zero, A will win more games.

When the opposition is scoring 4.5 runs per game, Team A is going to do much better.  With a terrible pitching staff, I suppose it would be a different story, but in general, consistently good offense is better than erratically good offense.

What are the Braves doing wrong?

The bullpen example doesn’t exactly hold up for the Braves this year.  Chris Resop has really been the only dud on the staff, which sports the sixth-best relief ERA in the league at 3.44, solidly better than average.  Resop was designated over the weekend, and even he didn’t have a full loss’ worth of WPA (-.452).  If anything, the bullpen would seem to be helping the team’s cause in close games, and the pitching staff collectively has delivered +.385 in clutch performance WPA.  Clearly they’re not the problem.

Consistent hitting has been a problem for the Braves, on the other hand, but it’s not such a big problem that it would lead to the team’s current 2-14 record in one-run games.  Measuring consistency as the standard deviation of runs scored divided by runs scored per game, the Braves rank14th of 16 teams in this category, with only the Padres and Dodgers behind them.  Still, they’re not incredibly far from the league average (six tenths of a standard deviation), and they’re 8th in runs scored per game.  I’m not sure the Braves’ inconsistencies are a big enough problem to warrant a .125 winning percentage.

The Braves’ issue has simply been an inability to hit in the clutch, as vague as that may sound.  Most research on clutch hitting as an innate ability has come up with one of two conclusions:

  1. Clutch hitting simply does not exist as a determinable skill.
  2. The measurable skill of clutch hitting is so small in the scheme of things that it is outweighed by the effects of random chance.

There’s no other research I’m aware of to support that a specific player’s clutch performance, much less an entire team’s, can be explained by an innate “clutch” or “anti-clutch” ability.  Essentially, it’s based on luck, and the Braves have had terrible luck this year.  They’re 4 games below their Pythagorean record simply because the offense breaks down in key situations.

An example: Jeff Francoeur has WPA of -1.403 and WPA/LI of -.325, leaving -1.078 to be explained by either clutchiness or his leverage-weighted performance.  His pLI (average leverage faced) is 1.03, so the Expected Clutch of his leverage-weighted performance is -.011.  That leaves -1.066 in actual Clutch Performance.  Since we’re going to assume he doesn’t have an innate “choke” ability, that’s a win lost to bad luck based on Jeff’s plate appearances alone.

All of those numbers can be found on the stats page, by the way (although the numbers I’m using are updated through yesterday’s game).  They are, in order, WPA, WPA/LI, Clutch (FanGraphs’ name for it, not mine, since it’s not entirely “clutch”), then my own stat contributions of EC (Expected Clutch) and CP (Clutch Performance).

The following five Braves make up about 90% of the team’s total in negative CP (WPA, WPA/LI, EC, CP):

  1. Jeff Francoeur: -1.403/-.325/-.011/-1.066
  2. Brian McCann: +.413/+1.338/+.011/-.936
  3. Yunel Escobar: -.252/+.318/-.017/-.553
  4. Mark Kotsay: -.234/+.317/-.007/-.544
  5. Chipper Jones: +1.592/+2.232/-.107/-.533

That’s over 3.5 of the four “lost wins” based on five players, and as far as I can tell, it’s all simply bad luck.  The concept of regression to the mean suggests that this clutch futility is not sustainable (thankfully), but at the same time, there’s no getting back those 14 close losses.

Where the Braves’ start ranks historically

If the Braves keep up their current pace in one-run games, they’ll finish 6-43, which is a .122 winning percentage and is 37 games below .500.  No team since 1901 has finished more than 25 games below .500 in one-run games.  The 1975 Astros finished 16-41 (.452) in one-run games and 64-97 (.398) overall, which was 25 games under .500.  The 1935 Braves were 7-31 (.184) for the lowest one-run win percentage, but they were 38-115 (.248) overall and 31-84 (.270) in all other games.  Their pace is unprecedented, but it likely won’t continue.

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