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Has Ian Desmond been clutch for the Rockies?

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No.

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After Ian Desmond’s dramatic walk-off home run on Thursday, Bud Black told The Athletic’s Nick Groke that “we know eventually he [Desmond] will rise to the occasion because that’s what he’s done in the past.” This was in the context of Desmond’s playing time relative to Ryan McMahon. Black’s reasoning for sticking with Desmond in the midst of an objectively poor season, it seems, has been his late-inning performance.

But has Desmond been clutch overall? The walk-off is the walk-off, and it won the Rockies the game as a result, as was the case for the late-inning home run Desmond hit in Washington in April, and when he hit an eighth inning home run against the Mets in May. Groke cites all three of these homers. But those are three moments in a long season. There are a lot of ways to measure clutch. Let’s see how Desmond stacks up.

What the numbers say

Baseball Reference tracks plate appearances in “late and close” situations. They are defined as any plate appearance that takes place in the seventh inning or later in which the batting team is tied, ahead by one, or is down but with the tying run on deck. That’s a pretty straightforward and reasonable definition of “late and close,” and it fits with our ideas of what a clutch plate appearance is.

Desmond has come to the plate in this situation 79 times in 2018, the most on the team. And his batting line is .176/.215/.351. That’s not only not good, but it’s much worse than Desmond has been overall. According to this measure, Desmond gets worse in late and close situations.

Another way to look at clutch is to ask how good a player has been in high leverage situations. “High leverage” is quantified as situations in which a team’s win expectancy has a chance for a significant change. The difference between “late and close” and “high leverage” is that all “late and close” situations are high leverage, but not all high leverage situations fit Baseball Reference’s parameters for “late and close.”

Desmond has more high leverage situations than late and close, 105 compared to 79. Because those 79 are a part of the 105, it’s not surprising to discover that Desmond has also done poorly in high leverage situations: .211/.267/.358. That’s also worse than his overall line.

We can also look at Win Probability Added (WPA). WPA credits and debits a hitter for how much he changes the team’s win expectancy for every plate appearance. While high leverage situations will add more to the favorable side of a player’s ledger, even a first-inning single gets added to the cumulative stat.

Desmond’s 0.68 WPA is the fourth highest among position players on the 2018 Rockies, behind only Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and Ryan McMahon. Desmond’s WPA indicates that, on the whole, he’s contributed more to the team’s win expectancy than he’s taken away. It’s still not quite evidence that he’s been clutch though. It ranks 68th in baseball, and in the leaderboards his WPA sits between Odúbel Herrera and César Hernández.

The best evidence that supports Desmond as a clutch hitter in 2018 is his Clutch score. Clutch looks at a player’s performance in high leverage situations compared to context neutral situations and takes the extra step to compare the player to himself. So, for instance, if a .310 hitter hits .300 in high leverage situations, that will count against his Clutch score, even though hitting .300 in high leverage situations is good.

Desmond’s Clutch score is 0.66. Like WPA, that’s fourth best on the team. Here he’s behind Ryan McMahon, Tony Wolters, and Gerrardo Parra. It’s also good relative to the rest of baseball, as Desmond’s Clutch score ranks 25th, in between Mike Moustakas and Kevin Pillar. Again, it’s important to recognize that Clutch is compared to a player, so Desmond’s score is partially due to his overall slash line. For instance, Nolan Arenado has an essentially neutral -0.07 Clutch score, which means he’s neither over nor underperformed his high baseline in high leverage situations in 2018.

What to make of the evidence

Untangling the knot of Desmond’s clutch question comes down to home runs. Desmond has done extremely poor in “late and close” situations overall, but he does have those three home runs in those moments. That’s tied with DJ LeMahieu for most on the team.

Those home runs are doing a lot of work to alter perceptions about Desmond in the clutch. They were clutch moments, to be sure. But it’s dishonest to emphasize those three moments and ignore everything else.

It’s also worth returning to where we started, when Bud Black told Nick Groke that Desmond “will rise to the occasion” in important situations as a reason for sticking with Desmond over McMahon. In every measure of clutch cited here, McMahon has been a lot better. McMahon has hit .324/.390/.541 in “late and close” situations, .400/.424/.767 in high leverage situations, has a 1.12 WPA compared to Desmond’s 0.66, and has the highest Clutch score on the team. Those figures would probably come down if McMahon had more opportunities, but as they are, McMahon has been the most clutch hitter for the Rockies in 2018.

Clutch as a rationale for giving Desmond more playing time over McMahon doesn’t stand up to the evidence. We’re left with two possibilities about Bud Black’s actions and the evidence.

  1. Black doesn’t know these figures and therefore has relied on perception and single moments to use clutch as a case for Desmond.
  2. Black’s reasoning for starting Desmond isn’t actually about Desmond in the clutch at all, but it’s cited when an example shows itself or is convenient.

I think the second possibility is the most likely case. Black may not know these specific figures, but he probably has a good sense of them. And he’ll tell a beat writer about Desmond “rising to the occasion” when it takes place, but the decision to give him more playing time than McMahon is probably based on something else.

That’s why it matters to think critically and look at the evidence about Desmond in the clutch. It’s fine if Black is making his decisions based on other factors, but let’s be honest about it. A good way to start is to be honest about what all the evidence points to about Ian Desmond’s 2018: Outside of a few moments, he has not been clutch.