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Is Derek Jeter really a ‘clutch’ hitter?

Yankees batter Derek Jeter slugs double eighth inning Chicago White Sox 9-6 wover New York Yankees Monday August 20 2012

Yankees batter Derek Jeter slugs a double in the eighth inning of the Chicago White Sox 9-6 win over the New York Yankees Monday August 20, 2012 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. | Tom Cruze~Sun-TimesYankees batter Derek Jeter slugs a double in the seventh inning of the Chicago White Sox 9-6 win over the New York Yankees Monday August 20, 2012 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 10, 2012 6:17AM

Sabermetricians readily acknowledge the
importance of clutch hitting in a tight playoff race. When a team’s record is more than a few games removed from its
Pythagorean expectation based on runs scored and allowed, unusual clutch performance is a prime reason why.

But sabermetricians tend to be agnostic about the existence of consistent clutch hitters. No matter what their reputation, hitters who outperform their normal levels in the clutch are rare.

Clutch stats tend to vary widely from season to season, a product of a small sample size. Hitters with 500-plus plate appearances might have a fifth of them come in high-leverage situations. If you ever have watched a hitter batting .400 in early May become a .270 hitter by September, you know how small samples can lead to extreme-looking numbers.

During a long career, a larger sample builds that smooths out the clutch highs and lows. The Yankees’ Derek Jeter, with his reputation as a supreme clutch hitter, has a career .829 OPS. To break it down into clutch situations, his OPS is .825 in high-leverage situations that add the most to a team’s win expectancy, .818 with runners in scoring position, .834 with two outs and runners in scoring position and .794 in the late innings of close games.

Rather than a hitter who elevates his game in clutch situations, his record shows a great hitter who does his thing in all situations.

This season, Jeter had a .791 OPS overall and an .810 OPS in high-leverage situations. The difference is one single. If one more ground ball hit had been turned into a high-leverage out, his OPS in those situations would have been .791. In a small sample, one play makes that much difference.

Among the 10 playoff teams, there were 56 players with 500 or more plate appearances during the regular season. Thirty had higher OPSes in the high-leverage situations defined by analyst Tom Tango than they had overall. The 30-26 split is almost right on the 28-28 you’d expect randomly.

Seven players in the sample had season OPSes of .900 or better, led by the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera at .999. Seventeen topped .900 in high-leverage situations, with the Tigers’ Prince Fielder edging the A’s Yoenis Cespedes 1.076-1.067. That there are more .900-plus hitters in high-leverage situations is par for the course, given that it’s easier to post extreme averages in fewer plate appearances.

What about those who raised their production — at least for this season — in high-leverage situations? Eleven had high-leverage OPSes at least 100 points higher than their overall figure: Cespedes (.861 overall, 1.067 high-leverage); Fielder (.940, 1.076); the Giants’ Angel Pagan (.778, .883); the Reds’ Brandon Phillips (.750, .881) and Drew Stubbs (.610, .718); the Cardinals’ Carlos Beltran (.842, .946); the Braves’ Dan Uggla (.732, .902); the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus (.727, .978); the Orioles’ Chris Davis (.827, 1.023); and the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira (.807, .938) and Nick Swisher (.837, .948).

The biggest gainer was Andrus, up 251 points in high-leverage situations. Does that make Andrus ‘‘Mr. Clutch’’? His previous three seasons — OPSes of .702, .643 and .708 to go with high-leverage OPSes of .619, .694 and .708 — suggest 2012 was an outlier, one of the ups that go with the downs in making up a careerlong sample.

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