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Cards in the clutch

The Cardinals were a very poor clutch-hitting team in '07. As a team, they ranked 14th in the NL in their OPS w/ 2 outs and RISP - a feckless .682. Even the Nationals fared better in those situations, a full 46 points higher than the Cards. The NL average OPS in these 2 out, RISP situations was .756. Teams averaged scoring 238 runs in these situations while the Cards were held to 210. It stands to reason that the Cards could have gained 3 wins in the standings by being an average clutch-hitting team in '07.

It's reasonable, however, to question whether or not that's realistic. There's considerable debate, at least among statheads, as to whether or not there really is such a thing as clutch-hitting. There's a good argument to be made, for example, that those people who perform well in the clutch (David Ortiz, Albert Pujols) are just great hitters and perform well all the time. It stands to reason that they'd be well above average w/ 2 outs and RISP.

With that in mind, we should remember that the Cards were below average offensively in '07 - finishing 9th in the NL in OPS. It's interesting to note that the Cards' OPS of .743 was more than 60 points higher than their performance in the clutch. Is it reasonable to think this team should be that much worse in clutch situations than they are in every other situation? What was the average OPS in the NL in '07? .756 - exactly the same as the average OPS in clutch situations in the NL in '07.

If the Cards had performed in the clutch as they did in every other situation last year, they likely would have added around 22 runs to their total - more than 2 wins. (The Cards were 9th in OPS; the Pirates 9th in runs scored w/ 2 outs and RISP - they scored 232 runs in those situations.) So it's reasonable to conclude that if the Cards had performed in the clutch as they did in every other situation, they would have added 2-3 wins to their record.

Clutch hitting on an individual level is difficult to determine on an annual basis b/c hitters have so few PA's in those situations. For example, last year's great free agent acquisition - Adam Kennedy - pounded out a robust .451 OPS w/ 2 outs and RISP. Impotent is the word that comes to my mind, yet he had only 38 PA's in those situations. Was his horrific performance in those situations b/c he was bad last year, b/c he nutted up in clutch situations, or simply due to bad luck. A 38 PA sample size makes it difficult to create solid judgments.

Even if we look at Pujols, far and away the Cards' best hitter and best clutch-hitter, he only had 54 PA's in 2 out, RISP situations in '07. His OPS in those situations - 1.066 - a career LOW! It's more than 30 points lower than his previous career low in 2002. Many of us believed Albert to be pressing at times last year. Considering the state of the offense for much of the season, Albert seemed to put an inordinate amount of pressure on himself to come through in tough situations and perhaps that's reflected in his RELATIVELY low OPS last year. Or maybe it's simply caused the randomness of trying to make informed judgments based on 54 PA's. It's tough to tell.

Nonetheless, the only Cards' regulars outside of Pujols to perform near their '07 numbers in the clutch were Molina and Duncan. Molina's OPS of .721 in clutch situations isn't going to win him a Silver Slugger but it is slightly better than his '07 OPS of .708. Duncan's .916 OPS in the clutch was considerably better than the .834 he posted all year long. Aside from those 3, only Ludwick and Edmonds, among semi-regular Cardinals, posted an OPS above .700 w/ 2 outs and RISP. (Both were at .706)

What can explain this? Were so many Cardinals so bad in clutch situations b/c of the radomness of being measured in so few PA's? I doubt it. Is there a sort of snowball effect - where hitting poorly in clutch situations becomes somewhat contagious in that 1 person's poor showing in tough situations causes another to put more pressure on himself, thus making him worse, which increases the pressure on other hitters and so forth? Who knows? Was it simply caused by the fact that the Cards had so many mediocre-to-bad hitters in their lineup last year? Possibly, but that doesn't explain why they were so much worse in these situations.

I can't help but think that some of it had to do w/ the fact that the Cards were coming off a World Championship the previous season. Might they have tightened up in these pressure situations b/c of high expectations from the '06 World Series triumph? As Carpenter went down, the pressure to come through in these tough situations became more pronounced and as they began to lose, they saw their season slipping away. Is this even a remote possibility?

I think that, probably, there's a little bit of truth in all of it. They were just not very good hitters, to be sure. Rolen and Edmonds weren't what they were in the past. For much of the year, the Cards had 2 above-average hitters in their lineup. Expecting them to be very good w/ 2 outs and RISP was expecting too much. But I also think that there was an inordinate amount of pressure on them last year as well. Rolen had the pressure of trying to rebound from injury. Eckstein was approaching free agency. Kennedy was trying to prove himself worthy of being a starter on a defending World Championship team. They all felt the pressure of being the champion and that pressure increased mightily as Carpenter went down in game 1. Pujols, though he had a very good season and was very good w/ 2 outs and RISP, wasn't what he'd been in the past. I don't believe that all of us who noted anecdotally that he was pulling off the ball in tough situations were imagining it. Don't misunderstand - I'm not at all accusing him of being a poor clutch hitter but I do believe that he put a ton of pressure on himself last year as Rolen, Edmonds, and Carpenter were unproductive and so he wasn't quite as good as he'd been in the past or as he expects to be.

So what does that mean for this year? Well, the good news is that the Cards have relatively little pressure on them as a team in '08. No one expects them to finish above 3rd or 4th in the division and some will pick us for 5th. Rolen has been replaced by a better offensive player at 3B (Glaus) and we certainly won't be worse in CF than Edmonds was last year (.728 OPS). Will we be worse at 2B? Not possible. Duncan should be healthy and he was very good last year before getting hurt. There's OF depth, if not strength, so that if Rasmus doesn't make it this spring, or Ankiel turns out to be mediocre at best - there are (hopefully) adequate replacements in Barton and Ludwick, and then Mather or Schumaker or someone else.

There's little doubt that this team has its problems. The rotation is pretty weak after Wainwright. The lineup has its warts at SS, 2B and still only has 3 above average offensive players. But hopefully the team can perform adequately in the clutch this year thus enabling the team to grab a couple more wins and making it a little easier on Cardinal nation as well.