Because Neil Walker's first half performances has been such a hot topic in the comments and because there is a lot of local discussion about Walker's big first half RBI total and how it compares to other second baseman, I want to take a bit to talk about Walker and his RBIs. I'm not breaking any new sabermetric ground here, nor am I pretending that I am (I'm mostly standing on the shoulders of Nate Silver's chapter on clutch in Baseball Between the Numbers here), but I think that sometimes I superimpose the way that I think about things and the way that the most vocal commenters here think about things onto the blog's entire audience. That's not fair, so let's pull the curtains back a bit on Walker, his RBI totals, and what they might possibly mean. As a starting point, the chart below shows how many times Walker has driven each of his teammates home in 2011.
It's important to note that besides home runs, Walker's driven in Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen more than anyone else on the team. Walker's played 88 games this year and by my count, McCutchen and his .390 OBP have batted in front of him 70 times, while Tabata and his .350 OBP have batted in front of him 67 times. The Pirates have many problems on offense, but getting the guys at the top of the order on base is generally not one of them and Walker, who usually bats in the middle of the lineup, often benefits.
That's simply to say this: Walker has a ton of RBIs, but he's also had more runners on base than you'd expect based on his plate appearances. He has 368 plate appearances and based on league averages, you'd expect him to have come to the plate with 222 runners on base and to have 38 RBIs. Thanks to McCutchen and Tabata, though, he's seen 244 men on in front of him. I did some back of the envelop math adjusting up for Walker's extra chances, the fact that Walker's been slightly better than average at the plate this year (if you'd expect an average hitter to drive in 38 runs in 368 plate appearances, you'd expect a slightly above average hitter to drive in slightly more than that without having to be "clutch"), and the fact that almost everyone that bats in front of him is a good base runner. Taking all of those things into account, I'd say that a fair estimate of "expected RBIs" for Walker based on his performance at the plate this year, the opportunities that he's been presented with by his teammates, and his teammates abilities to run the bases is probably around 45-47.
That means that it's true that Walker has done a good job hitting situationally in the first half and his clutch stat (I know people love to argue that there is no clutch, but it's relatively easy to compare how a batter fares in high leverage situations to how he fares in normal situations and then spit out a number based on the relationship between the two performances, which is exactly what FanGraphs' clutch stat does) bears this out. I'm willing to concede the point that Walker's been a "clutch" hitter in the first half of the season for now, but I won't do so without pointing out that there's absolutely no evidence that clutch exists as a repeatable skill. Look, for example at Mr. Clutch David Ortiz's clutch rating at FanGraphs over the last couple seasons; it flucuates wildly and since his insanely "clutch" season in 2005, he's actually been a bit "unclutch." Alex Rodriguez, meanwhile, who is notorious for supposedly coming through during the season but not when it counts, has a negative career clutch rating, but a positive score in the playoffs. Hitters can have clutch performances within the confines of a season, but that doesn't mean that they'll be able to do the same thing the next year.
When it comes to RBIs, context is everything. Without baserunners, Neil Walker would have eight RBIs this year. RBIs do describe something that's useful when talking about an individual game, but as a predictive stat they're absolutely worthless. When Andrew McCutchen gets on base at a clip of .390 in the first half and you see that he's doing it by drawing more walks, you can predict that he'll keep getting on base during the second half of the season. When Neil Walker drives in 57 runs in the first half, you can't say anything else about it because you don't know when Jose Tabata's coming back or how long Alex Presley will continue to hit for or if Clint Hurdle will move Walker to the three-hole and bat Andrew McCutchen fourth for a big chunk of the second half. All of those things are out of Walker's control, and they're all going to affect his RBI total.
Walker's had a decent but unspectacular first half at the plate. He's drawing some more walks, he's hit for a bit of power, but he's really just barely above average with respect to the league. It definitely seems like he's gotten more of those hits with runners on base than you might expect and as a result he's piled up the RBIs thus far, but that in no way means he's a lock to continue doing so in the next 76 games.
Can we just agree that Warren Morris or Mike Benjamin or any of the other mob of non descript 2Bs we've endured over the years would not have 58 RBIs at this point given the same opportunities? This RBI discussion is about 10 miles past tedious.
Is it possible that "clutch" can be indicative of a player's potential? I'm way too lazy to figure this out but is it possible that there are players that showed "clutch" lines as a younger player, then became the player that they were in the clutch? Possible explanations for this could be that the player sees better pitches when runners are on base; the player is given more freedom to swing away instead of focusing on the details of their game; confidence in player is much higher when batting with runners on? Just a thought. Seems like Neil has the potential to fill in his line a little bit as improves his L/R splits and I'm wondering if the clutch factor is a possible indicator of that...
Thank you for making this post. Now I have numbers to direct people to when they don't get my explanations that RBIs are great, but not at all predictive.
Nice job tp point out what you have but your 'clutch' disclaimer really shows the limits of statistics. They show what but not how. This seems obvious until sabermetrics starts to stretch beyond 'what'. Anybody who has played anything knows what 'clutch' means and how fleeting and ephemeral it can be. What the stats do tell us though is that the Walker is clutcher than some right now notion is not sn illusion.
The important thing here is the Bucs have a 2nd baseman with some pop in his bat that has so far stayed healthy. There are not many teams that can say that.
I like this post a lot - very cool - very well thought out. It brings a lot about how to view Neil Walker. This progressing Neil Walker discussion has made me realize what we have right now right now, and think a little about what we may have down the road.
What we have now - two thoughts. First, we have an average or slightly above average second baseman. We have had that for more than a year now. We might want more, but that isn't so bad, even if we wish it were more. We haven't had many average or above average players who play into our long term plans for a long time. It is kind of nice that Walker has brought stability to this position. Second, people break out into the bell curve - most people are clustered in the middle. To be in the top 50% ain't too shabby, and to get higher than that gets pretty rare. In other words, if Neil Walker is an abover average MLB second baseman, that is pretty damn good.
What we might have down the road - a couple thoughts. First, defense - defense - defense. If Walker's defense were too improve, we would be looking at a pretty good package right now, even if his hitting never improved. Second, maybe his hitting can improve. He has only been in the major leagues for a year. Third, maybe he will digress. Warren Morris anybody?
Finally, a few thoughts on clutch. I think Pat has this exactly right. Clutch is not a long term characteristic, except in the very best of the game - generational talents like Michael Jordan. Maybe Joe Montana. In baseball I think it is probably even more rare. I'm sure that Neil Walker will not stay "clutch" long term, but I think we have benefited from it and he has helped us win quite a few games in the meantime. But hopefully when he stops being "clutch" his other numbers will have started to come up, so it won't matter so much.
But again, very cool post. Looking forward to tomorrows game.
@nickjuneau24 Wooo, Warren Morris! He's got a lifetime pass in Baton Rouge, at least. Sometimes one home run is all it takes.
Walker may regress, but to me that's the point of looking at the stats. We just have to remember which ones are predictive. As Pat is saying, RBI is going to fluctuate based on situation. I also feel like people look a team with a record above their Pythagorean and say "they'll lose more games later", but that's not what it means.
@nickjuneau24 I should clarify, I mean that some people expect the record to even out to the Pythagorean by season's end. That bad luck must follow later to even out the previous good luck.
Strawman. No one (at least in this post) is saying there is no clutch. All that Pat is saying, which is backed up by tons of evidence, is that "clutch" isn't a repeatable skill. @SportOMania
In 1977, when Reggie Jackson earned the "Mister October" nickname, his triple slash line with 2 outs/RISP was .323/.391/.619. Yes, Walker is more clutchy this year than Mr. October.
In 1978, Jackson's triple slash line with 2 out/RISP was .259/.341/.420. I guess Mr. October forgot how to focus with the game on the line.
Funny, though, because he remembered again in 1979 and 1980, putting up 2 out/RISP triple slashes of .304/.451/.625 and .338/.437/.784.
Then he forgot again in 1981, where his 2 out/RISP triple slash fell to .189/.246/.396.
There are certainly clutch performances. But as Pat said, there's no evidence that clutch performance is a repeatable skill, or that statistics showing clutch performances are at all predictive. @SportOMania @whygavs
@whygavs @DGL Clutch players are in all sports. Some players have an extra level of focus when the game is on the line or in the playoffs. Others feel the pressure and do not deal as well with the stress. That's why you have Mr May (Dave Winfield) & Mr October (Reggie Jackson). That's why guys make a whole career mostly based on pinch hitting abilities (Manny Mota, Greg Gross, Gates Brown, etc.).