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Making Meaning of 0 for 14

In case you had to do something like, say, work from 12:30-4pm, you might have missed a somewhat thrilling Mariners defeat at the hands of the Tigers. Detroit won 5-4 and in the process the two teams tied the Safeco Field record for most home runs in a three game series (14, with a pair of home runs launched in yesterday's matinee and 12 in the first couple games).

On the surface, four runs ain't so bad for this M's offense, or really any offense. It's a pretty average output. However...*in my best 30 for 30 promo voice* What if I told you the Mariners went 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position in a game they lost by one run?

For the record, that's exactly what happened yesterday. Frankly, it's stunning the Mariners found a way to score four runs without ever getting a hit with a runner in scoring position. I don't have data on how rare this is, but it seems like something that's just about impossible to do. Almost as impossible, perhaps, as going 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position.

The M's lack of clutch hits is hardly a new story. Reporters and fans alike bemoan this team's anti-ability to strand baserunners with reckless abandon. The Mariners are now hitting .205 with runners in scoring position for the season, which is dead last in the American League. Numbers like this suggest that the Mariners have a problem hitting with runners in scoring position, and games like yesterday's matinee provide individual examples of what this problem looks like.

However, blaming the M's offensive woes on bad clutch hitting wreaks of confirmation bias to me. Yes, the Mariners hit poorly with runners in scoring position, but they hit poorly in every situation. The Mariners haven't hit well, period. So is it all that surprising that they also struggle to hit with runners in scoring position?

Yesterday's game finally motivated me enough to investigate how badly the Mariners have hit with runners in scoring position, and figure out if they "aren't clutch." Clutchitude, or clutchness, or whatever made-up word you would like to use (I prefer clutchitude, so that's what I'll use), is a topic still debated between more traditional followers of the game and statheads.

Long story short, statistical studies tend to strongly suggest that things like particularly good or bad hitting with runners in scoring position have no predictive power. In other words, good and bad clutch hitting don't continually pop up in player stats year after year like a consistently above or below average on-base percentage pops up for players. Therefore, clutchitude is not a skill. The argument is strong, but debate rages on because it is at odds with our own narratives about the game, and even personal experiences playing the game.

Anyway, I am not interested in predicting if the Mariners will continue to hit poorly with runners in scoring position. I am interested in how badly they have already done, and if their hitting so far is truly un-clutch based on their overall hitting trends. This is not a post about arguing the deeper value of clutchitude. It is a post about figuring out how unlucky the 2015 Mariners have been, because there is no debate that the Mariners are the worst hitting team in the American League with runners in scoring position, and that they just went 0-for-14 in the clutch in a game they lost by a run.

Let's start with some numbers. Below is a table summarizing the Mariners offense overall, and showing specifically their offense with runners in scoring position:

Plate Appearances:
Batting Average:
On-Base Percentage:
Strikeout Rate:

There is really only one thing worth talking about, the BABIP (batting average on balls in play). It is true that a higher percentage of balls hit by the M's with runners in scoring position turn into outs. If their BABIP with RISP (what a great combo of acronyms) was the same as their overall numbers that would also drive up their team batting average, on-base, and slugging. In fact, simply making their BABIP .272 in with runners in scoring position would change their triple slash with RISP to .233/.318/.372, which would make them better in clutch situations given the significantly higher on-base percentage than they exhibit in their overall numbers.

So, how unlucky has the M's BABIP been? The quickest, simplest way to test this is to treat RISP as a random subset of the M's overall numbers. There is a statistical rule of thumb helpful here. We can use 1 over the square root of n, where n in this case is the number of plate appearances that the Mariners have had with runners in scoring position. Then, we take that number and add/subtract it to get a plausible range for what the M's actual ability is in that situation. The concept is simple - the bigger the sample size, the smaller 1 over root n gets, which suggests that the more data we have the more reliable it is.

1 over the square root of 745 works out to 0.0366 (and lots more decimals). So, applying this to BABIP with RISP, we would expect the M's "true" BABIP to be somewhere between .208 and .282. So far it has actually been .272, which falls within this range. Just for fun, here are the rest of the expected ranges based on their stats with RISP:

  • The M's true batting average is somewhere between .168 and .242.
  • The M's true on-base percentage is somewhere between .253 and .327.
  • The M's true slugging is somewhere between .307 and .381.
  • The M's true strikeout rate is somewhere between 19.5% and 26.9%.

Every single overall statistic falls within the range suggested by the M's statistics with runners in scoring position when considering the variance that would be expected given a sample of 745 plate appearances. It is interesting that the Mariners hit worse with runners in scoring position, but the takeaway here is that they haven't hit so much worse that it's beyond random noise in the data.

The Mariners biggest problem with hitting in the clutch is that they are bad at hitting. Their shortcomings are more noticeable in crucial situations, that's all. For instance, the Mariners strikeout almost as often as they get hit, so it is reasonable to expect a strikeout just as much as a hit with the game on the line - and that's even before we account for things opposing pitchers and managers might do. Some starting pitchers save their fastest fastballs and sharpest breaking pitches for tougher situations, and late in games a manager is more likely to call on tougher relievers when the game is on the line (in other words, when runners are in scoring position).

It is plausible that the Mariners have bad luck in the clutch. However, it is much more plausible that the Mariners are simply bad at hitting and that the "tough luck" we've witnessed is a combination of noise in the data and pitchers buckling down in crucial situations. That's what it means to be True To The Blue in 2015.