Pitchers Can Be Clutch, Too!
While there's usually much chatter about clutch batting and whether it exists or doesn't exist, it seems as though clutch pitching doesn't get nearly as much attention as it should. If you believe batters step it up a notch when the game is on the line, it'd be only natural that pitchers also know when the game is on the line and would try a little harder in those situations, too.
There are lots of stats to measure how "lucky" a pitcher is, such as batting average on balls in play and left on base percentage. There's also ERA estimators such as FIP, which take into account walks, strikeouts, and home runs and then estimate what a pitcher's ERA should have been. But the problem is, none of these stats take into account how important a situation is in a game and that's where Leverage Index comes in to play.
Leverage Index measures the importance of a particular situation based on the game state (inning, score, runners, outs) of a game. It ranges from 0 to 10.9, with 1 being an average situation and 10.9 being the most important situation possible.
So let's look at which players have had the most and least success in high-leverage situations (LI of 2 or more) the past six years by looking at the difference in FIP between high-leverage situations and all other situations. I chose FIP because ERA doesn't really work for starting pitchers when looking at high-leverage situations and FIP is a better measure of a pitcher's overall skill. To qualify for this study, pitchers must have pitched a minimum of 50 high-leverage innings.
The "Clutch" Starters:
Name (other LI)(high LI) Dif Brad Penny 4.02 2.78 1.24 Jake Peavy 3.67 2.44 1.23 Chris Carpenter 3.72 2.75 0.97 Jeff Suppan 4.81 3.92 0.88 Jason Marquis 5.21 4.47 0.74 Dontrelle Willis 4.13 3.41 0.73 Jason Johnson 4.69 4.03 0.66 Victor Zambrano 5.30 4.64 0.66 Mike Maroth 5.13 4.48 0.65 Matt Morris 4.36 3.72 0.64
Topping the list is Brad Penny, followed by 2007 Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and then 2005 Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter. These three pitchers over the past five years have done exceptionally well in high-leverage situations. The real difference maker for Peavy is that he's allowed just a single home run in over 69 high-leverage innings.
The "Un-Clutch" Starters:
Name (other LI)(high LI) Dif Odalis Perez 4.17 5.76 -1.59 Jeff Weaver 4.43 5.93 -1.50 Kyle Lohse 4.66 5.86 -1.19 John Lackey 3.79 4.87 -1.08 Jason Schmidt 3.41 4.42 -1.01 Roy Oswalt 3.34 4.27 -0.93 Jose Contreras 4.46 5.37 -0.90 Jamie Moyer 4.73 5.56 -0.83 Tim Wakefield 4.61 5.39 -0.78 Johan Santana 3.17 3.94 -0.77
I can't say I'm incredibly surprised to see Jeff Weaver near the top of this list, but it's definitely interesting to see the likes of John Lackey, Roy Oswalt, and Johan Santana as "un-clutch." In high-leverage situations Santana has a slightly increased BB/9 and HR/9, Oswalt's K/9 drops nearly 2 points with a slight increase in BB/9, and Lackey's K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 all head about half a point in the wrong direction.
Time to check in on the relievers:
The "Clutch" Relievers:
Name (low LI) (high LI) Dif Joaquin Benoit 4.60 3.62 0.97 Jason Frasor 4.15 3.22 0.93 Francisco Rodriguez 3.21 2.29 0.93 Jonathan Papelbon 3.06 2.20 0.86 Ryan Madson 4.49 3.78 0.71 J.C. Romero 4.51 3.96 0.55 Chad Bradford 3.67 3.13 0.54 Kyle Farnsworth 4.11 3.60 0.51 Eric Gagne 2.22 1.73 0.49 Todd Jones 4.08 3.60 0.49
I must admit Eric Gagne's FIP in high-leverage situations is rather ridiculous; however, I should note this does not include his 2008 stats. In high-leverage situations, Jon Papelbon strikes out over 1 more batter per 9 innings and walks 1 less per 9 while K-Rod lowers his HR/9 by a considerable amount.
The "Un-Clutch" Relievers:
Name (low LI) (high LI) Dif Jason Isringhausen 2.97 4.78 -1.80 Justin Speier 3.97 5.56 -1.59 Keith Foulke 3.49 5.03 -1.54 Guillermo Mota 3.70 4.98 -1.28 Jesus Colome 4.65 5.76 -1.11 Jorge Julio 4.40 5.39 -0.99 Fernando Rodney 3.83 4.80 -0.98 Alan Embree 3.50 4.44 -0.95 Billy Wagner 2.60 3.52 -0.93 Cliff Politte 4.36 5.21 -0.85
It's a little surprising to see that Jason Isringhausen who has 212 saves since 2002 is not that great when it counts. In high-leverage situations he walks 3 more batters per 9 innings. Wow. And Keith Foulke appears to have a home run problem in those tight spots along with Billy Wagner.
It's always fun to look back and see who has been clutch, but are the same pitchers clutch every year? Unfortunately not. There's pretty much no correlation from year-to-year when it comes to how pitchers do in high-leverage situations compared to how they do in non-high-leverage situations.
So it looks like the same rule that applies to batters also applies to pitchers: you can tell who has been clutch, but you can't predict who will be clutch.
David Appelman is the creator of FanGraphs.com.