It barely took Daniel Descalso 150 major league plate appearances to earn a nickname. Thanks to his late inning heroics (as noted in recent Joe Strauss articles at STL-Today) which include nine game-tying or go-ahead hits in the seventh inning or later, a .368 AVG and 11 RBIs with two outs and runners in scoring position, and a .367 AVG in late and close situations (when plate appearance occurs in seventh inning or later with tied score, batting team ahead by one, or having the tying run in the on deck circle), Tony La Russa has dubbed Descalso “D-Money.”
Overall, Descalso’s offensive production (.280 wOBA) has been pretty underwhelming, but his few hits have come at undeniably opportune times. He’s delivered with the game on the line often enough that his teammates now cheer from the dugout by rubbing their fingers together in a gesture that alludes to his nickname (as seen in the embedded video above), suggesting that his performance is as dependable as cashing a check at the bank. Fans and media have joined the chorus, lauding Descalso for his accomplishments in high pressure situations.
At the Book Blog, MGL called attention to comments Rick Horton made on the May 23rd broadcast:
“In the last 10 years or so, there have been a lot of sabermetric statistics that have come into vogue. A lot of them I don’t like. The one I do like, however, is batting average late in the game with runners in scoring position. That tells you what a player can do in the clutch.”
Horton went on to assert:
“This is the guy you want up in this situation.”
Of course, MGL scoffed at Horton’s claim since Descalso ranks last on the Cardinals in wOBA (.280) when compared against others with at least 80 plate appearances. That list includes a group of players not exactly known for their hitting abilities: Yadier Molina (.344), Nick Punto (.335), Tyler Greene (.321), and Ryan Theriot (.317).
This observation highlights a popular divide between baseball traditionalists and new school saber-minded types. What’s becoming increasingly more apparent is that some of the cause for division may be the result of simple misunderstanding. Do certain players possess an uncanny ability to consistently deliver in high pressure situations? Almost any traditionalist will answer this question affirmatively. They’ve seen, heard, and read about too many anecdotes to believe otherwise. But it’s not so easy for sabermetricians, and here’s where the argument usually finds a belligerent tone.
On a local radio show in Saint Louis this week, the hosts mocked the sabermetric community for not believing in clutch performance. I understand this misconception. If I would have heard Horton’s comments (and not just read about them later), it would have been difficult to restrain my inner snark from tweeting about the broadcaster’s glaring incompetence. But that type of condescending attitude doesn’t bridge the gap between these two schools of thought; it only yields more hostility. You see, it’s not that clutch hitting doesn’t exist. It’s just that research has shown it to be so rare and insignificant that it’s probably not worth getting all worked up about.
While we cannot be sure about which statistic Horton was referring to, one reader (at The Book Blog) believed that it was “close and late” situations. Assuming that to be true, another readerastutely observed that there were at least two other Cardinals’ hitters that had higher batting averages in those situations at the time: Matt Holiday (.417, 10/24) and Albert Pujols (.400, 10/25). Perhaps the easiest thing to quibble about with such statistics is the small sample sizes in which they occur. When based on only a handful of at-bats, numbers are bound to be inflated (or deflated) by luck. One of the reasons it’s so difficult to quantify clutchness is because the “skill” requires so large of a sample size to “normalize,” players never achieve it.
A study conducted in The Book (Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin, 2007) utilized data from all major league games between 1960-1992 and 2000-2004. All players with at least 100 clutch plate appearances and 400 non-clutch plate appearances were included; the average player had 200 clutch plate appearances and 2,450 non-clutch plate appearances. Clutch was defined as any eighth inning or later situation in which the batting team trailed by one, two, or three runs. A couple of years ago at The Book Blog, Tango called attention to Andrew Dolphin’s findings on page 105:
About one in six players increases his inherent “OBP skill” by eight points or more in high-pressure situations; a comparable number of players decreases it by eight points or more.
Dolphin proceeded by suggesting that, in general, players’ performances in high pressure situations should approximate their usual contributions. Tango puts it like this:
To conclude: yes, clutch skill exists. No, it’s not that big a deal (at best, half as wide as than the platoon advantage). Correct, teams should not rely on clutch skill in their decision-making process, other than as a tie-breaker.
Fans (and Rick Horton) of any given team should not prefer to have a far less accomplished batter up in clutch situations just because he’s seemed to have a knack for coming through in the past. In that sense, Descalso is not “the guy” for whom we should be clamoring, unless it’s in comparison to other comparable hitters like Theriot, Punto, or Greene. I think this goes without saying, but Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, and Colby Rasmus would all be far superior options with the game on the line, and that’s true regardless of how they have performed in the clutch so far in 2011.
I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Horton. According to his Twitter feed, he’s been making an earnest attempt to learn more about sabermetrics. That is commendable given that too many broadcasters/analysts settle in to the comfort of traditional baseball talk. Why wouldn’t they? It rings true to what they’ve heard most of their lives and it plays well to the common fan. I don’t know if Horton will continue making attempts to incorporate advanced metrics into his banter with Dan or Al, but as a Cardinals fan who might be subjected to his broadcasts for many years to come, I sure hope so. By my estimation, this is still somewhat of a bold endeavor for today’s broadcaster and I find it refreshing that Horton is willing to introduce sabermetric stats into his commentary, even at the risk of sounding foolish to those in the audience more familiar with the concepts/methodology behind advanced metrics. My hope is that saber-minded Cardinals fans will endure occasions when Horton inaccurately presents sabermetric ideas. Perhaps we could even go through the trouble of contacting him on Twitter in an attempt to provide better insight into the stats to which he refers. People’s position against sabermetrics will only harden when confronted by arrogant condescension. Horton has expressed an open mind toward our community. Let’s not waste the chance to educate someone genuinely interested by racing to point out error.
After all, if Horton’s intent was to call attention to Descalso’s high leverage performance thus far in 2011, he made an accurate observation. FanGraphs defines clutch by how much better/worse a player performs in high leverage situations (when the game is on the line) than overall. That is, a typically great hitter that continues producing at his usually high level even with the game on the line would not be considered clutch because this is what we expect from the player anyway. This stat is useful because it compares players against their own norms. Each year, only a few players end up having clutch performances in the extreme sense of the term. Yet, thus far in 2011, Daniel Descalso has been one of those players. Anything over 1.00 is considered an extreme clutch performance. Below is a graph where you can find the most extreme clutch performances thus far in 2011; their overall offensive production in terms of wOBA was included for comparison’s sake.
As you can see, Descalso has been the most extreme clutch performer thus far in 2011, verifying Horton’s analysis to a certain degree. But, then again, in terms of overall productivity, his wOBA would rank last on the list if it weren’t for Felix Pie. Part of his success or failure – whichever way you want to look at it – can be attributed to pure luck. He’s either been ridiculously fortunate when the game was on the line or terribly unfortunate when nothing was particularly at stake.
My concern is that this post comes off as another saber-minded blogger’s argument against the validity of clutch performance. While that is true to a certain degree, I’d rather call attention to the prevailing myth that sabermetricians don’t believe in clutch performance. Of course they do. It happens every year. In St. Louis, we’ve been fortunate enough to witness the greatest clutch performance of the first third of the 2011 season. But based on empirical studies to date, there’s very little reason for us to expect Descalso’s heroism to continue.
In one of the Strauss articles I linked to earlier, Descalso said this of himself:
“I just try to put together the same at-bat every time I go up there,” Descalso said last week. “I’m not getting caught up in the situation or hitting the ball a long way. If I hit it hard, that’s all I can do.”
This makes sense as Descalso is still trying to prove that he belongs in the big leagues. I doubt very much that he is trying any less to succeed in early innings with no one on base. But he hasn’t… at least not very much. Instead, his hits have come at the tail end of heated competitions when the team needed them most. No, we wouldn’t have expected it. And no, we can’t expect it to continue. But that doesn’t take any of the fun out of the fact that it did happen. Like it or not, it’s part of the historical narrative of the early part of the 2011 season, and thank goodness it is. Milwaukee has found their stride lately winning eight of their last ten games, and now only sit 2.5 games back of the Cardinals. It’s fair to wonder how much closer that gap would be without the unlikely performance of Daniel Descalso.
Back in 2004, Joe Sheehan put it like this for Baseball Prospectus:
The idea that players’ abilities do not change in the clutch is one of those things that gets the anti-stathead crowd riled up, gets them talking about pocket protectors and people who take the fun out of the game. I don’t buy it; the fun is the game, in the performances and the competition and the talent that we get to watch.
When you have that, who needs a myth?
Just because Daniel Descalso can’t be expected to hit above and beyond his usual capabilities in future high leverage situations doesn’t leave me marveling at his performance any less. To a certain extent, it’s made watching the Cardinals all the more remarkable this year. I don’t anticipate that D-Money will have the winning hit against the Giants today, but if that were to occur, it’d make the game all the more fantastical.