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RISP-ect! Cardinals shatter the all-time clutch hitting record

Sep 30, 2013, 10:47 AM EDT

Reuters Yadier Molina Reuters

Incredible hitting with runners in scoring position has carried the Cardinals all season and Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch notes that they finished the year with the highest RISP batting average of all time:

The highest average since 1974, the first year of reliable RISP stats, by a team with runners in scoring position was .311 by Detroit in 2007. The Cardinals shattered that number by going 447 for 1,355, or .330. They did this in a season when averages across baseball with runners in scoring position were at a low for the past decade.

Breaking their incredible team totals down even further, the Cardinals had 10 different players get at least 50 at-bats with runners in scoring position and all but one of them hit at least .297:

Allen Craig       .454
Matt Holliday     .390
Matt Carpenter    .388
Carlos Beltran    .374
Yadier Molina     .373
Daniel Descalso   .361
Matt Adams        .329
Pete Kozma        .322
Jon Jay           .297
David Freese      .238

That’s amazing, especially considering that no other team hit above .282 with runners in scoring position this season. And seriously though, what was David Freese’s problem?

(Incidentally, last year with mostly the same group of hitters the Cardinals hit .264 with runners in scoring position. Which helps explain why many people don’t consider “clutch” a sustainable, year-to-year skill.)

  1. jm91rs - Sep 30, 2013 at 10:57 AM

    I know that “clutch” doesn’t exist in the sense that people believe in it, and some stat guy is gonna jump on me for even using it in a sentence, but this stat is exactly why I believe some people are just better performers than others. Some guys get it done when it matters, others don’t. It’s not some physical limitation, it’s a mental thing and if the player at the plate believes in it, it can have an impact, even if that impact is slight.

    • sophiethegreatdane - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:09 AM

      Yet they weren’t particularly “clutch” last season. So, they took clutch lessons between last season and this season? That, or perhaps the Cardinals just have every clutch player in the league, given the performance of the other 29 teams.

      • jm91rs - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:43 AM

        Or perhaps they are damn good ball players and have the right approach when there’s a man in scoring position?

      • Jeremy T - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:07 PM

        Perhaps. But if that’s the case, what changed since last year?

      • paperlions - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:31 PM

        …and why not use that approach all the time? Are bases empty situations just not important enough to focus or use whatever approach leads to .330 hitting with RISP?

        I am very grateful that the Cardinals were able to hit so well in those situations all year, but there is a 0% chance they repeat that performance next year.

      • spudchukar - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:03 PM

        Because their approach is more effective when there are runners in scoring position.

        St. Louis’ HR numbers are also way down in 2013, supporting the idea that they have altered their approach, somewhat.

        Certainly, some of the success is random, psychological, contagious, and good fortune. But that does not explain the extreme success.

        Mostly, they have perfected an approach that is magnified when runners are in scoring position.

      • cohnjusack - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:16 PM

        Okay, want to make a comparision. Let’s use 2nd place on this list, the 2007 Detroit Tigers

        The 07 to 08 Tigers are actually a bit different, but not in a bad way.

        07 to 08 changes

        1B: Sean Casey to Miguel Cabrera – Sure shouldn’t hurt!
        SS: Carlos Guillen to Edgar Renteria – Guillen was better, but Renteria was actually better with RISP in 08 than Guillen in 07, so no downward movement here!
        3B: Brandon Inge to Carlos Guillen: Brandon Inge couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat, so this shouldn’t hurt.
        LF: Craig Monroe to Marcus Thames: Monroe put up an abysmal 65 OPS+, so this isn’t worse

        Those are the four changes among starters, none of which should have made them worse at hitting with RISP, in fact, they all should have helped greatly.

        The 2007 Tigers hit .311 with runners in scoring position
        The 2008 Tigers hit .268 with runners in scoring position

        The facts, over and over again, show these types of “clutch” numbers to be unrepeatable blips. As much as I would love to believe the Cardinals cracked the mystery and are somehow hit like Stan Musial when a guy is on 2nd base, it’s almost certainly a case of being extremely lucky.

        But rejoice! The luck was on our side and it resulted in 97 wins and potential post-season bliss! Just don’t bank on them repeating it next year.

      • spudchukar - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:23 PM

        It isn’t just luck.

      • Jeremy T - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:32 PM

        If that’s the case, then it will certainly be interesting to see if they continue the trend next season. The stats seem to suggest nobody’s “solved” it like you’re suggesting in the past, but I suppose it’s always possible that they’ve figured out something new.

      • spudchukar - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:34 PM

        Actually, it is simple Geometry.

      • cohnjusack - Sep 30, 2013 at 2:21 PM

        Actually, it is simple Geometry.

        Nope, I got nothin’.

      • spudchukar - Sep 30, 2013 at 2:49 PM

        Not my fault if you ignore the obvious.

      • jm91rs - Sep 30, 2013 at 3:22 PM

        Ignore the word clutch. Ignore the idea that the effect at the plate is not repeatable and think about approach (which is absolutely repeatable with the right coaching). Let’s think about a game situation. I’m a dude that has enough power to hit 20 hr per season. My teammate is standing on 3rd. I swing different if I’m really trying to hit a HR than I do to drive the ball to the opposite field for a single. Do I swing for the fences or just make contact to drive the runner in? Obviously depends on game situation, meaning every at bat is not the same and therefore does not need to be repeatable. I believe that the Cardinals are able to do what is most likely to lead to a run in those RISP situations. They approach the at bat differently, and as such they are hitting less HR but driving in more when runners are on 2nd and 3rd. You can lift the ball or you can drive the ball, when a simple single will do it makes more sense to not swing for the fences.

      • spudchukar - Sep 30, 2013 at 3:23 PM

        Ok, one last time. This explanation gets old, but I will make the effort once again. Call it Baseball for Dummies, HardballTalk edition.

        Let’s start with the scenario of runners on first and second and one or nobody out. First off, the first baseman has to hold the runner on which opens a hole between first and second. Next, the second baseman has to play closer to second in order to be in position to complete a double play chance. The shortstop must play shallower, to try and hold the runner on second closer to the bag to keep him from stealing third, and the third baseman must play in, in case the hitter is instructed to bunt,(more often the case with no one out).

        The outfield must deepen to cut off balls in the gap, (not a strategy that I happen to adhere to but it is most common).

        So a ball that is struck without runners on base is much more likely to get through the infield, particularly one that is hit towards right, or up the middle. This is what the Cards do. And they add the fact that they do this on fastballs. Teams are more hesitant to pitch inside with runners on for the fear of the 3-run homer, playing into the hands of the team that chooses this approach.

        With the outfield deeper, line drives hit in front of them drop in more often. As indicated earlier, it is really simply geometry. But it isn’t just after the ball is hit into play that geometry comes into play. It is also the swing approach.

        If a player keeps his bat parallel longer the chances of making solid contact, squaring up the ball increases, and this occurs much more often when trying to hit the ball where it is pitched, again simple geometry. Those, who try to pull, jerk, and lift the ball, hit more homers but hit fewer balls squarely.

        As if all this wasn’t enough, pitchers are also at a strategic disadvantage in the above scenario. Breaking balls that he wouldn’t be afraid to bounce can no longer be in consideration for the fear that runners can advance a base.

        I could go on and on, there are so many other advantages, but the fundamental fact is that a ball that is struck identically with no one on base is much more likely to be caught, than when the same struck ball with guys on base.

      • jm91rs - Sep 30, 2013 at 3:29 PM

        As for “why not use that approach all the time”, well it’s pretty obvious that the value of reaching base is not weighed the same by everyone. A guy like Joey Votto almost led the league in homers one year, then decided getting on base was more important and now he’s an on-base machine but the homers dropped significantly. There are probably other players with his ability that could get on base like him, but they haven’t adopted the mindset that a walk is as good as a hit and that the occasional homerun mixed in with a high on base percentage is better than mashing them and never getting on base. Seeing the entire Cardinals team (other than one) with such a great average with RISP, my gut tells me there is some good coaching going on there, and if they can translate that approach to every at bat they’ll get even better.

        No one here is saying they learned how to hit better in those situations. No one is saying they took some magical fairy dust or whatever crazy reason stat people try to use when mocking the “scout” people. All I’m saying (and Spudchukar, who by the way I’ve never before agreed with) is that a players’ approach can change, would change the results.

      • forsch31 - Sep 30, 2013 at 4:08 PM

        >>”Perhaps. But if that’s the case, what changed since last year?”

        The batting coach. John Mabry replaced Mark McGwire after McGwire left for the Dodgers. I think Goold had a story in the first part of the season about the Cardinals’ different approach at the plate since since Mabry took over, which may have fueled the RISP team stat. I’ll see if I can find it later.

        But yeah, RISP is pretty much a counting stat and not an indicator of past or future performance.

      • spudchukar - Sep 30, 2013 at 4:25 PM

        And there is so much more. Almost all pitchers are more effective out of the wind-up than out of the stretch. Plus, the pitcher is distracted. Not just focusing on the hitter, but having to share attention to the runners.

        Here’s more. It has been established, that a .250 hitter becomes a .300 hitter when the infield is in. So not only does this come into play when the infield is actually in, but supports the idea that if the infield defenders, who are forced to shorten up with runners on, would succumb to the same geometric disadvantages as fielders who have to play in with a runner on third and less than two outs.

      • forsch31 - Sep 30, 2013 at 8:32 PM

        Found Goold’s article:

        It’s focus is on Craig’s run with RISP the past two years, but it also talks a bit about the team’s overall approach.

        Goold also has a weekly chat, and this is one of the topics that tends to pop up regularly, so I may be think of one of his responses in that.

    • Joe - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:14 AM

      Yes, just like last year the Orioles’ record in one-run games wasn’t “lucky,” it was that they had figured something out. As evidenced by their record in one-run games this year.

    • jc4455 - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:14 AM

      It appears that David Freese stopped believing at some point.

      • spudchukar - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:13 PM

        Freese’s numbers are way down, and for some unknown reason he has gone away from the approach that was so successful for him for so long.

    • jm91rs - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:41 AM

      It will all average out over these guy’s careers, but what will that matter if they ride the RISP high average right through to a WS win? Laugh at my belief that these guys do it better than anyone else all you want, but the fact is they hit the ball when people are on base better than my team and it’s got them pretty far this year.

      • RickyB - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:14 PM

        You’re absolutely right in the fact that the Cardinals have done it better than anyone else this year, and it’s not even close. However, the statistic is not predictive. You cannot expect them to continue that level of hitting with RISP throughout the playoffs. They may equal or better it, but it is much more likely, statistically speaking, that they won’t.

      • paperlions - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:33 PM

        I will not laugh at any of your beliefs….what you can’t confuse is clutch hits, which do exist by definition with the ability to perform better in the clutch, which does not exist.

        As pointed out in the article, essentially the exact same lineup hit .264 with RISP last year.

      • spudchukar - Sep 30, 2013 at 1:29 PM

        You are conflating two different ideas. “Clutch” deserves criticism, but a style that is obviously more conducive to success with RISP, shouldn’t be lumped with something that isn’t measurable.

    • Steve Garcia - Jun 1, 2014 at 1:13 PM

      Yes, some players – like, say, Michael Jordan, have proven to be able to either elevate their games, or at the least to not choke.

      Perhaps we should refer to it as non-choking. At least anecdotally some players DO choke in pressure situations. Those who don’t choke we recognize as “steady contributors” – those who don’t fail in pressure situations.

      Writing this on the 1st of June, 2014, we can look at STL and where they are this year, vs last.year. Right now the RISP for STL is .237 – down almost 100 points. And still the Cardinals have the 4th best record in the NL, amazingly. At this point in 2013 STL was battling for the best record in the NL. Their overall BA is .256, so rather than last year’s .269 BA and .330 RISP the numbers are reversed – much less production with RISP than BA. Not hitting in the clutch.

  2. blues1988 - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    most telling about this article is that the man batting .454 with risp may be out for the season. hopefully he can come back at some point, but thank god matt adams stepped up like he did.

  3. lightcleric - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    It’s especially impressive considering they’re an NL team without a DH to help with that; 8 of the top 10 averages with RISP were American League(St. Louis and Colorado were the NL teams).

  4. perryt200 - Sep 30, 2013 at 11:53 AM

    As an avid Cards fan, what I would really like to see compared is RISP with 2 outs. I think that would blow peoples minds.

    • stlouis1baseball - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:06 PM

      I agree Perry. They certainly do a great job adjusting their approach to the situation at hand.
      Be it with guys on 2nd or 3rd…or hitting with 2 strikes.

    • blues1988 - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:22 PM

      yep i agree, that has been amazing. pretty sure all 4 runs scored by the b squad yesterday was 2 outs and risp.

    • cohnjusack - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:51 PM

      You can find that data in Baseball Reference’s team splits.

      The Cardinals hit .305 with 2 out, RISP.

  5. cohnjusack - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    How good were the Cardinals at scoring runs? They scored 10.9% more runs than the 2nd place Rockies and 20.6 runs more than the league average

    The last team that was not pre-humidor Colorado to lead the league by that large a margin? The 1976 Cincinatti Reds (lead by 11.3%. Yep, the 2013 Cardinals outscored the rest of the league at a rate not seen since the Big Red Machine.

  6. savior72 - Sep 30, 2013 at 12:51 PM

    Work the count, make the pitcher adjust and force him to throw strikes. Seems like a simple idea, cards have done it great all year.

  7. moogro - Sep 30, 2013 at 2:24 PM

    Coaching is important, and some things are measurable. Things like how runners are handled, working pitch counts, pinch-hitting for match-ups are all done really well by the Cardinals. Hitters are often put into a position to succeed.

  8. jrbdmb - Sep 30, 2013 at 5:51 PM

    If only the Pirates could have traded for Jeter this year, then they may have been able to compete with the Cards for clutch-iness.

  9. jrbdmb - Sep 30, 2013 at 6:01 PM

    In 2010, the Cardinals batted .270 with RISP. In 2011, that average rose to .290.

    So apparently the Cardinals figured out how to hit better in the clutch in 2011, forgot how to do it in 2012, and remembered again how to do it (and then some) in 2013?

    Uh, OK. Hope they don’t “forget” again in 2014.

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