The Oakland A’s took a tough loss on Wednesday. They played 12 innings against the Mariners but failed to score a single run, eventually falling 2-0. There were plenty of opportunities, between a leadoff triple in the 4th and runners in scoring position in the 6th, 10th, and 11th, but they just couldn’t manage to push any of them across.
After such a dispiriting defeat, it’s easy to get down on your team. Fans of every club are sure that their guys are the worst in the world at driving in runners from third base, but of course everyone can’t be last place in any given stat. The perception usually has more to do with the fact that we get a front-row seat to every single failed attempt by our players, and with baseball being a low-success-rate sport where the biggest stars only come through 30-40% of the time, that means lots of negative data points sticking in our memories.
Fortunately, we have numbers to tell us a more accurate story, and they are quite clear about one thing: The A’s are pretty good at clutch hitting this season. Regardless of how sustainable or predictive of a metric “clutch hitting” may be, the fact is that they’ve done well at it for the last four-plus months.
Runners in scoring position
This is the classic measure of clutch and the most obvious place to start our discussion. Getting a hit is always nice, but how often do you get those hits when it really counts the most? Specifically, how often do you step up with a runner on second and/or third base?
The A’s are batting .249 as a team this season, which ties them for 14th in MLB. With RISP, though, they jump up to .258, tied for 7th in the league (MLB average is .253). The top five teams are quite a bit above the rest of the pack and Oakland is more like the best of the rest, but that still means they’re better than most in this regard.
Their OPS goes up slightly too, from .751 to .764, though in terms of league rank they drop from 7th to 10th. I don’t care as much about OPS w/ RISP because a walk doesn’t drive in the runner and a homer is awesome even without RISP. Those are still good results, but the one thing I really want to know here is how often they come through with any kind of hit because even a single drives in a run. Hence, batting average is the name of the game, and the A’s are perfectly fine at it.
Up the ante to RISP with two outs, and the A’s are tied for 5th with a .253 average (league is at .232), with the 9th-best OPS (.762, league is at .721).
Runner on 3rd, less than 2 out
This is the other straightforward measure. In this situation you don’t even need a hit, just a medium-deep flyout or a well-placed groundout. Overall, the league drives in the runner 49.9% of the time, or essentially a coin flip.
The A’s rank 7th here too, with a 51.6% success rate. Once again they’re closer to average than to 1st place, but the fact is they’re better than most other clubs at bringing home that man from third. They’re also 7th in sac flies despite being only 25th in plate appearances. Lamenting that Oakland never scores that runner is literally, factually, objectively untrue.
Runners on base, in general
Taking a step back, what about just generally hitting with runners on base? They’re a bit more average here, ranking 17th in batting (.257) and 13th in OPS (.765). In this metric I care more about OPS than batting average, though, since many of these situation feature only a runner on first base and so a walk or a double/homer really do make a difference (either by pushing a runner into scoring position, or driving one in from non-scoring position). Oakland’s OPS in these situations is higher than their overall OPS, and higher than league average. They’re also 9th in terms of scoring baserunners overall, at 14.7% (league is 14.3%).
To cherry-pick one bad split, they’ve struggled with the bases loaded, sitting 22nd in both average and OPS. The biggest culprits have been Chad Pinder and Matt Chapman, who have combined to go 1-for-18, but even then that one hit was Pinder’s game-winning grand slam to steal a win on the road.
We already know the A’s own the 8th inning, but let’s put some numbers on it. They lead the sport with 87 runs in that frame, thanks to the best OPS, most dingers, and 3rd-best average. They even have the 4th-fewest strikeouts, just for good measure.
They stay strong in the 9th, with the tied-6th-best average, 5th-best OPS, and tied-5th-most runs. They’re not as good in extra innings, dropping to 18th in average and 15th in OPS, but considering they’re 10-5 in those games they clearly must be coming through eventually — it just takes until the 13th sometimes. It helps that they’re tied for 2nd with five homers in bonus frames.
They’re also really good in the 7th inning, but let’s move on.
Now we move into the more abstract realm. First up is “Late & Close,” as measured by Baseball-Reference. This is defined as such: “The 7th inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.” The A’s rank 2nd in MLB in OPS in this split (.782, league .692), and 6th in batting average (.251, league .236). They’re also 1st in home runs and RBI, and even though that’s partly a result of having more opportunities to work with, they’re still blowing away the league averages on a per-plate-appearance basis. None of this should come as a surprise given their absurd number of late-inning comebacks.
How about high-leverage situations? These are the moments when a hitter has a chance to make a significant difference in his team’s win expectancy, whether by capitalizing on that bases-loaded rally early on in a scoreless tie or batting as the potential tying run in the 9th or what have you. The A’s drop to 14th in batting average but remain 8th in OPS. Given what we learned in the previous paragraph, this one just tells me that they’re more likely to come through in a big situation in the later innings than they are to do so earlier in the game — it would be nice to be good all the time, but if I had to choose one I’d prefer to be clutch in the 9th than the 5th.
Now that we know the A’s have been good in the clutch, let’s see which specific players have led the charge.
You know who I want up in that crucial spot, to bring home that runner we desperately need to score? Jonathan Lucroy. He’s more or less the worst hitter on the team overall, but the one thing he does well is simply put the bat on the ball. He leads the team in contact rate by a wide margin, and has the lowest strikeout rate by far. When you’re in a tight spot and need to drive home a runner, the best thing you can do is make any kind of contact at all. Dingers are great but sometimes a single is all you need to win the game, and you’ll never get one unless you put the ball in play.
Lucroy leads the team at bringing in the runner from third with less than two outs, having done so 63.2% of the time (12-of-19). His overall .237 average and .614 OPS go up to .304/.797 w/ RISP, and .278/.756 w/ RISP and two outs, both of which are among the best on the club. Of the A’s seven walk-off hits this year, two came off Lucroy’s bat, making him the only Oakland player with more than one (Semien, Olson, Chapman, Khrush, Laureano have the others). Even better, Lucroy’s walk-offs came against the Angels and Giants.
After him are some names you’d expect. Jed Lowrie is among the leaders in every clutch category, from bringing in the runner from third (55%), to RISP (.311/.911), to RISP w/ two outs (.333/.939) to Late & Close (1.006 OPS, 6 HR). Khris Davis can bring home the runner from third with less than two outs (56.8%, 21-for-37, team-best 7 sac flies), plus he leads the team in OPS w/ RISP (.932) and he comes through Late & Close (.950, 9 HR). Stephen Piscotty is great at bringing home the runner from third (61.9%, 13-for-21) and Late & Close (1.018, 6 HR). The same three players have also been the best in high-leverage spots, with OPS marks of .900 or better.
The other unlikely name here is Marcus Semien. He’s been a tick below average at the plate overall this season, but he’s coming through when it counts. He’s solid at bringing home the runner from third (54.6%, 12-for-22, 5 sac flies rank 2nd), and his .263/.712 line jumps up to .309/.847 w/ RISP and even further to .351/1.034 w/ RISP and 2 outs. On a smaller scale, Josh Phegley and Nick Martini have come through in their limited opportunities — they’ve combined to go 6-of-7 in driving home the runner from third with less than two outs.
On the downside, Pinder (1-for-11) and Chapman (5-for-16) have been the worst at bringing home that runner from third, and they’ve also been the worst in high-leverage spots overall. Pinder has been bad w/ RISP too. Matt Olson hasn’t really been good or bad in the clutch, just his normal self, though he rates well in Late & Close (.916, up from .768 overall).
Again, none of these stats are considered to be particularly predictive moving forward. They’re more a record of what happened in the past than a measure of true talent levels or likelihood of future success. But at the very least they show that the A’s, who we already know are one of the best lineups in baseball, have taken care of business when it counts as well as just about any team. That doesn’t mean they’ll come through every time because no baseball team/player ever will, but they don’t deserve to have their clutchiness called into question this season — not even after a stinker like the one we sat through on Wednesday.