(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
The 2015 season for the Arizona State baseball team has undoubtedly been characterized by clutch late-inning heroics.
“Walk-off Woody” on the first game of the year has evolved into the season-long trend of success in critical moments of the game—hence the new team nickname, “Cardiac Devils.”
The numbers back it up too. After going 6-10 in one-run games a year ago, the Sun Devils have clutched up in 2015 and gone 10-5 in those same contests. ASU is also a lofty 6-3 when trailing after six innings this season.
But even with all this at the forefront of our minds, I’d like to present a thesis: ASU baseball isn’t clutch; it’s situationally excellent.
On the surface, this may appear to mean one of two things. The first could be that “clutch” and “situationally excellent” are interchangeable terms, and thus I’m arguing nothing. The second could be that calling ASU baseball “situationally excellent” instead of “clutch” is really an analytic way of demeaning its late-inning accomplishments.
Rest assured, neither is true.
To set the parameters, let’s go by the definition FanGraphs provides for “clutch”: “Clutch measures how well a player performed in high leverage situations.”
In other words, clutch hitting implies hitting with success in big moments, at the most critical of times, most ordinarily found in the eighth and ninth inning when the game is on the line.
But a look at the inning-by-inning run distribution chart for ASU, and it’s easy to see that this team doesn’t just excel late in games.
The numbers that immediately stick out like sore thumbs are the first-, fifth-, and eighth-inning pure dominance from ASU. Specifically, a 20-4 run differential in the first inning is just silly, and shows situational excellence rather than just clutch-ness in late innings.
But when addressing the fifth- and eighth-inning onslaughts (relative, for the eighth inning), both have to be considered in the context of a disturbing trend.
This trend is apparent in the second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh innings, and could be classified as a lull, as the Sun Devils’ positive run differential is drastically slashed.
In fact, when addressing what he makes of his team’s knack for coming through in clutch situations, head coach Tracy Smith had the following to say:
“I’d say it’s two things: One, it’s our inability in the middle of games to extend the lead when we have plenty of opportunities to do so,” said Smith.
I’ll get to what the second part of his statement was, but take a moment to appreciate that seemingly-counterintuitive, but extremely accurate statement from Smith. In essence, his team only performs well in clutch situations because they fail to do so in not-so-clutch situations. If his team could sustain its first-inning demolition of opposing pitching, the clutch situations wouldn’t even arise and there would be no reason to call his team “clutch” in the first place.
In this context, being called “clutch” has negative connotations, and essentially is synonymous with “lazy.”
Still, we’re discussing baseball here—a sport in which sustaining sky-high production is always leveled out by periods of dry spells. Expecting a team to always hit to its full capacity is unreasonable.
It’s in that spirit that the value of “clutch” hitting manifests itself.
That is also where Tracy Smith’s second part of his statement regarding his team’s clutch hitting comes into play.
“In a positive sense, I think it also speaks to the professionalism in the at-bats,” Smith said. “We’ve done a really good job of not worrying about or putting extra pressure on ourselves on who the opponent or what the score is. We preach that all the time, and they keep throwing good at-bats together. This is a very resilient team; we’ve proven that. It says a lot about our professionalism and maturity.”
The simple question that begs to be asked is where is this professional and mature approach in the second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh innings? ASU baseball doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and Smith’s heavily-instilled hitting philosophy cannot possibly just disappear for the not-so-glamorous innings.
When looking at the 21-9 overall record, the 9-3 conference record and the D1Baseball.com ranking of No. 6 in the country, the skeptic would say that if you take away its success in tight games and attribute it to good fortune, ASU is a middle-of-the-pack team—much like it was last year.
However, I argue that this isn’t a case of a team destined to regress to the mean—the mean being a closer-to-.500 record in one-run games.
What’s the rationale for this?
The Sun Devils have demonstrated they can flip an elite switch when they want to—such as the first inning when it’s critical to set the tone of the game; the fifth inning after they realize that they’ve dozed off in the second, third and fourth innings; and the eighth and ninth innings, when, obviously, the game is on the line.
It’s a scary thought because it means that ASU hasn’t put together a complete effort yet, nor has it played its best baseball or tapped into its immense potential.
So don’t be fooled. This team isn’t “clutch”; it’s situationally excellent, and only occasional middle-of-the-game mental lulls are stopping it from making that situational excellence apply to every situation and every inning in a given game.