September 10, 2018

Is Dansby Swanson a Clutch Player?

Over the course of his career, Dansby Swanson is a .247/.316/.376 hitter but is .341/.391/.508 in late and close situations (7th inning or later and the Braves are leading by a run, tied, or the tying run is at bat, on base, or on deck).  He’s having a solid offensive season for a good defensive shortstop, with a line of .248/.307/.415, and naturally his late and close numbers are .381/.404/.631.  Also, the higher the leverage of the situation, the better his numbers.

The general consensus among baseball analysts is that major league players do not possess some sort of innate ability to come through in clutch situations that is drastically different from their ability to come through in any situation.  This makes logical sense.  You think about what a player has to go through to reach the big leagues and it seems all players would have to have an ability to come through in the clutch, at least to the degree that there’s no discernible difference in the ability from one major leaguer to another.  That’s not to say every player will perform the same in clutch situations, but that performing or failing to perform in clutch situations doesn’t come down to some sort of innate ability or inability to overcome pressure of clutch situations.

For a player to make it to the big leagues and stick, he must be able to overcome pressure enough to be one of if not the very best player on his little league team, his high school team, his college team (if he goes), he must be a good enough minor leaguer to be considered a legit prospect, he must be a skilled enough big leaguer that a team allows him play in situations that we’d consider clutch.  It certainly seems that if a player is going to be greatly affected by the pressure of a clutch situation, he’s going stall out well before he’s given clutch innings or clutch plate appearances in the major leagues.  And if a player is discovered to have issues with pressure to the degree it’s noticeable (think about players with the yips, like Mark Wohlers or Rick Ankiel or Steve Sax), he’s not going to get many more opportunities after those issues arise.

So, if it doesn’t make sense statistically or logically, is there an explanation for Swanson’s numbers in clutch situations versus non-clutch situations?  He now has 200 plate appearances in late and close situations, 234 in high-leverage situations, and 407 in medium-leverage situations.  Swanson’s numbers seem to suggest a pattern of clutchness.  But perhaps Swanson is a case study for rethinking what it means for a player to be clutch.

In low-leverage situations, Swanson’s hit .202/.262/.308 in 523 plate appearances.  If there is something within Swanson that leads him to perform well in late and close situations or high-leverage situations, should we call that “being clutch”?  Is it clutch for a major leaguer to need such situations in order to hit well?  Let’s take a very specific example: When Swanson has been the leadoff hitter in an inning, he’s posted a .296 OBP in 270 plate appearances.  What’s more clutch than being on base for your team to get things going?

On the one hand, it’s encouraging that Swanson has it within him to perform, as is evident by what is referred to as “clutch” statistics.  On the other hand, if this is something besides just coincidence, if there is something innate that causes him to perform well in certain situations and not others, and if we need to wait on certain situations for Swanson to perform, that’s a bit discouraging.  Again, Swanson has had a solid offensive season for a good defensive shortstop.  And with his tools and pedigree, I don’t think we should be all that concerned about Swanson going forward.  Also, I think it’s more likely than not that his “clutch” numbers are something fluky and he’ll eventually perform in other situations.  But sometimes “clutch” is doing something in a situation that is overlooked in the clutch statistics, like getting on base to leadoff an inning early in a game.  There’s more to being clutch than just performing in “clutch” situations.



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