Identifying the clutch hitters in the Pittsburgh Pirates lineup


The word “clutch” is thrown about in all sports very liberally, but I find that baseball lends itself more to identifying “clutch” players than any other.  Nothing screams pressure like one batter vs one pitcher.  Without the moving parts of other team sports, the focus shifts solely to who emerges the victor in the modern-day equivalent of pistols at dawn.  By the way, now would be a good time to mention, if you reading this and playing the Rumbunter drinking game, and your word is ‘clutch,’ well, I apologize in advance.  Get home safe.

Before we decide who is the most clutch hitter on the projected 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates, let’s define what clutch is.  I’ll let do the heavy lifting here and give us a look at the Buccos ‘clutch stats’ in 2014:

Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 team clutch stats

(Late & Close are Plate Appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.)

Now, I think we all can agree to this standardized definition of “Clutch” as it applies to a wide number of scenarios wherein a batter is in a high pressure situation.  Looking at the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates as a team, the numbers in these situations are fair-to-good across the board.  The strikeout rate with 2 outs and runners in scoring position comes in at a downright alarming 25%, albeit in a smaller sample size.

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The overall strikeout rate in clutch situations comes in at 22%.  To me, there is a real opportunity for the 2015 ball club to take a huge step forward offensively with better plate discipline.  Striking out with 2-on and RISP is an absolute rally killer, and the Pirates did it way too often in 2014.  And even when the Bucs put the ball in play in those situations, the .BABIP suffers at .270, one of only two instances in clutch situations below .300 (the other, batting when behind, is only a tick below at .299).  Bad luck + striking out = bad times. Even though there are some weaknesses for the team, there were some very clutch performers on the team in 2014.  Where else would we start other than

Andrew McCutchen

?  Here are his clutch numbers last year:

Andrew McCutchen’s 2014 clutch stats  “Clutch” McCutchen was just that in 2014.  The late & close numbers are just flat-out incredible.  These numbers speak for themselves, so I won’t spend much time on them.   But there were a few other surprises in the Pirates’ lineup.  Take Josh Harrison for example:

Josh Harrison’s 2014 clutch stats

JHay’s stats in this area were pretty rock solid across the board, and very impressive in some categories.  JHay-All-Day led the Pirates in batting with 2-out & RISP with a robust .392/.426/.529 slash line.  Couple that with an overall strikout rate of a very respectable 15.8% in clutch situations, and one can see why it was such a thrill to watch him come through in these situations again and again.  I strongly believe that JHay’s plate discipline will guard against, or at least minimize, any backslide that he may have in 2015.  Now would be a good time to relive this moment:

(Side note:  is it baseball season yet?)

So who needs to improve in the clutch?   The answer may surprise you:

  Neil Walker‘s 2014 clutch stats  

By all measures, The Pittsburgh Kid had a historic season.  That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any areas in which he can improve.  In this data, you can see that his slashline with 2-out and RISP takes a nosedive.  A great factor in that particular situation is his .BABIP, which is a highly unlucky .211.  His late & close numbers are steady, so improving his other numbers in these scenarios is easily within reach.  Like JHay, Walker’s strikeout rate was steady at 17.3 percent.  I expect Neil Walker to have a great year in 2015 in the clutch as the hitters in front of (JHay, Gregory Polanco) and behind him (Starling Marte) continue to mature.

Of course, any discussion about the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates batters would be incomplete without touching on the great unknown.

Pedro Alvarez‘s 2014 clutch stats

Simply put, The Big Bull could not be relied upon to come through for the club in 2014.  (I know, tell you something you didn’t already know).  Never to be confused for a disciplined hitter, Pedro Alvarez defines the phrase “all or nothing.”  The slashlines throughout this table will show you high slugging numbers, and downright horrible numbers in .AVG and .OBP.  A horrific 29.2% strikeout rate is to blame.  But we knew this about Pedro.  The most polarizing batter on the Pirates’ lineup will likely continue to be erratic in 2015, as his strikeout rate overall has actually gotten worse year-to-year.

With this discussion, I wanted to shed light on how the Pirates can build on their breakout offensive season in 2014 by employing better plate discipline in high-leverage situations.  Clint Hurdle has commented that the club will be more aggressive on the basepaths in 2015 and as such, there will be more of these situations as more runners are in scoring position.  The onus is on the Pirate batters to seize their “clutch moments”