Sports Outside the Beltway

Tom Glavine Best Clutch Pitcher Since 1990

Josh Levin takes an interesting look at the phenomenon of “clutch pitching.” While most SABRmetricians scoff at the concept of clutch hitting, there seems to be widespread consensus that clutch pitching exists. The rationale is reasonable enough:

Clutch pitchers certainly seem more likely to exist than clutch hitters. Pitching is an intellectual exercise. It makes sense that some guys would excel at setting up batters in the game’s anxious moments, and some would get undone by their sweaty palms. (As James, a clutch-hitting agnostic, told me: “Pitching is planned. Hitting is reactive. It’s much harder to plan a reaction than to execute a plan.”)

Measuring clutchness isn’t easy but Levin makes the case that Glavine exemplifies the quality for the modern era.

Nate Silver of the analytical Web site Baseball Prospectus agrees. He says a clutch pitcher is the same thing as a smart situational pitcher—someone who’s internalized that, with men on base, walks don’t hurt as much as extra-base hits. Silver says one pitcher has mastered these precepts more than his contemporaries: Tom Glavine.

If you watched Game 2 of the Division Series, in which Glavine threw six scoreless innings, you know the 40-year-old left-hander isn’t imposing. His fastball reaches only the high 80s. His main skill, and it’s no small one, is the ability to pound the ball to the outside corner. Glavine is particularly adept at doing this with men on base. According to Stats Inc., Glavine’s opponents have a .303 career on-base percentage and a .380 career slugging average with none on. With runners in scoring position, they have a .353 OBP and a .345 slugging average. In tense situations, Glavine uses hitters’ aggressiveness against them—take a walk if you want, but if you swing you won’t hit the ball square. It’s not as glamorous as a bushel of strikeouts, but it keeps runs off the board.

Silver suggests that another good way to measure clutchness is to compare a pitcher’s ERA—the number of earned runs he allows per nine innings—with what his ERA should be based on his peripheral statistics—the amount of hits, walks, and home runs he gives up, and the number of men he strikes out. If a pitcher consistently gives up a lot of hits but has a low ERA, Silver says, there’s some amount of skill involved—he’s doing something to keep those base runners off the scoreboard. Conversely, if the pitcher’s actual ERA is consistently higher than his peripheral ERA, he’s allowing more runs than he should.

When Silver used peripheral ERA numbers to create a clutchness toteboard, Glavine came out on top. Since 1990, he’s allowed 79 fewer runs than you’d predict from his stats, the best figure in the majors. On the other side of the ledger is Nolan Ryan, who allowed 100 more runs over his career than his peripherals would suggest. (To look at Silver’s list of the most-clutch and least-clutch pitchers since 1946, click here.)

Is Glavine, the crafty left-hander, really more clutch than the fireballing Ryan? I expected Tom House, Ryan’s pitching coach when he played for the Texas Rangers, to say that was malarkey. But House says the stats make sense. House says that Ryan always struggled with a tendency to try to strike everyone out rather than settle for ground-ball outs. Ryan muscled up with men on base, causing him to overthrow and lose command. Glavine, though, places his change-up and middling fastball on the outside corner rather than trying to blow hitters away. He doesn’t overthrow with men on base—he just keeps aiming for the outside corner.

Silver’s lists don’t suggest that strikeout pitchers can’t be clutch—Steve Carlton, for one, ranks high on the all-time clutch list. There is compelling evidence, though, that clutch pitching doesn’t correlate with the speed of your fastball. The top two guys on the clutchness toteboard—Whitey Ford and Jim Palmer—relied more on control and guile than velocity. The 5-foot-10 Ford, the winningest pitcher in Yankee history, relied on his legendary precision and a diverse repertoire of breaking pitches. Palmer, who famously never allowed a grand slam, told me that he owed his success to controlling his adrenaline. “You don’t have to throw every pitch as hard as you can,” he says.


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