Sports Nut

In Search of Clutch Pitching

Is Tom Glavine the best in baseball when the chips are down?

Tom Glavine of the New York Mets

The baseball playoffs can drive even the most sensible minds to hyperbole. When you hear in the next few weeks that Albert Pujols is the best right-handed hitter ever, or that Jose Reyes is the most exciting young shortstop of all time, feel free to shake your head and cluck your tongue. But there is one crazy-sounding notion that you shouldn’t dismiss: The Mets’ Tom Glavine is the best clutch pitcher of his generation.

Baseball’s number crunchers have been obsessed with clutch hitting for decades. Mostly, they’ve argued that it doesn’t exist—that everyone who thinks Derek Jeter is Mr. Clutch doesn’t understand random variation. While the clutch-hitting question has spawned piles of research, clutch pitching is a phenomenon that’s gone essentially unexamined. Bill James, the freelance researcher turned Red Sox executive, says there’s a simple reason why everyone wonders about clutch hitters and no one talks about clutch pitchers. “For the same reason that there is more speculation about Bigfoot than there is about lizards,” James says. “We know we have lizards.”

Clutch pitchers certainly seem more likely to exist than clutch hitters. Pitching is an intellectual exercise. It makes sense that some guys would excel at setting up batters in the game’s anxious moments, and some would get undone by their sweaty palms. (As James, a clutch-hitting agnostic, told me: “Pitching is planned. Hitting is reactive. It’s much harder to plan a reaction than to execute a plan.”) But even if you’re inclined to believe Bill James, you’re only halfway there. The real question is: Which pitchers are clutch and which ones are chokers?

When fans think of a clutch pitcher, they inevitably conjure a dominant reliever like saves record-holder Trevor Hoffman. When I asked Hoffman whom he considered clutch, he conjured a dominant reliever: the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera. It’s not very interesting to look at relievers’ clutchness, though. There are already stats—saves and blown saves—that do a quick and dirty, if imperfect, job of assessing relief aces. Besides, calling a closer clutch is like saying a guy with the world’s only metal detector is great at finding coins. Hoffman and Rivera seem clutch because they get so many opportunities to play the hero.

Let’s limit ourselves, then, to starting pitchers. In the age of the six-inning starter, a pitcher’s performance in late-game situations has become increasingly irrelevant. It makes more sense to examine performance with runners in scoring position—a screw-up here will cost your team runs, and a strong performance will keep your team in the game.

Intuitively, it seems like a clutch pitcher would tally lots of strikeouts with men on base. But according to Arizona Diamondbacks pitching coach Bryan Price, it’s important for a pitcher not to “overthrow” in these situations—that is, to rear back and throw harder in an attempt to blow the ball past the batter. Price says that chokers are pitchers who won’t let their defense help out. “The guys who tend to get in trouble are the guys who don’t want to get hit,” he says.

Nate Silver of the analytical Web site Baseball Prospectus agrees. He says a clutch pitcher is the same thing as a smart situational pitcher—someone who’s internalized that, with men on base, walks don’t hurt as much as extra-base hits. Silver says one pitcher has mastered these precepts more than his contemporaries: Tom Glavine.

If you watched Game 2 of the Division Series, in which Glavine threw six scoreless innings, you know the 40-year-old left-hander isn’t imposing. His fastball reaches only the high 80s. His main skill, and it’s no small one, is the ability to pound the ball to the outside corner. Glavine is particularly adept at doing this with men on base. According to Stats Inc., Glavine’s opponents have a .303 career on-base percentage and a .380 career slugging average with none on. With runners in scoring position, they have a .353 OBP and a .345 slugging average. In tense situations, Glavine uses hitters’ aggressiveness against them—take a walk if you want, but if you swing you won’t hit the ball square. It’s not as glamorous as a bushel of strikeouts, but it keeps runs off the board.

Silver suggests that another good way to measure clutchness is to compare a pitcher’s ERA—the number of earned runs he allows per nine innings—with what his ERA should be based on his peripheral statistics—the amount of hits, walks, and home runs he gives up, and the number of men he strikes out. If a pitcher consistently gives up a lot of hits but has a low ERA, Silver says, there’s some amount of skill involved—he’s doing something to keep those base runners off the scoreboard. Conversely, if the pitcher’s actual ERA is consistently higher than his peripheral ERA, he’s allowing more runs than he should.

When Silver used peripheral ERA numbers to create a clutchness toteboard, Glavine came out on top. Since 1990, he’s allowed 79 fewer runs than you’d predict from his stats, the best figure in the majors. On the other side of the ledger is Nolan Ryan, who allowed 100 more runs over his career than his peripherals would suggest. (To look at Silver’s list of the most-clutch and least-clutch pitchers since 1946, click here.)

Is Glavine, the crafty left-hander, really more clutch than the fireballing Ryan? I expected Tom House, Ryan’s pitching coach when he played for the Texas Rangers, to say that was malarkey. But House says the stats make sense. House says that Ryan always struggled with a tendency to try to strike everyone out rather than settle for ground-ball outs. Ryan muscled up with men on base, causing him to overthrow and lose command. Glavine, though, places his change-up and middling fastball on the outside corner rather than trying to blow hitters away. He doesn’t overthrow with men on base—he just keeps aiming for the outside corner.

Silver’s lists don’t suggest that strikeout pitchers can’t be clutch—Steve Carlton, for one, ranks high on the all-time clutch list. There is compelling evidence, though, that clutch pitching doesn’t correlate with the speed of your fastball. The top two guys on the clutchness toteboard—Whitey Ford and Jim Palmer—relied more on control and guile than velocity. The 5-foot-10 Ford, the winningest pitcher in Yankee history, relied on his legendary precision and a diverse repertoire of breaking pitches. Palmer, who famously never allowed a grand slam, told me that he owed his success to controlling his adrenaline. “You don’t have to throw every pitch as hard as you can,” he says.

The choke list is littered with pitchers like Len Barker and Jose DeLeon—strikeout artists who never had great control. The most surprising name is probably Jack Morris, who pitched a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. But like Ryan, Barker, and DeLeon, Morris was no control pitcher—he was perennially among the league leaders in walks allowed.

Several players and coaches told me that you don’t want to “overthink” things in the clutch—that you should trust your ability. But perhaps it’s tough for a dominant-yet-wild pitcher like Nolan Ryan to trust himself with the bases loaded—after all, he got into this situation because his physical skills let him down. For a guy like Glavine, though, the skills needed to wriggle out of a jam parallel what he always does: outsmart batters and hit his spots. Now, isn’t that a guy you’d want on the mound with the bases loaded?