In a fit of frustration Wednesday night, after seeing Rick Ankiel fail to produce in a crucial late-game situation again, I made the foolhardy assertion in a game thread over at Viva El Birdos that Ankiel was regressing to look like Chris Duncan at the plate. I said he was consistently fooled by breaking balls in the dirt and pitchers were learning how to set him down on a regular basis.
I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong, so I’ll say it here. I was clearly wrong. Rick is hitting .342/.405/.737 in the month of July. In fact, not only is Ankiel hitting well these first few weeks of July, Duncan has quietly hit .294/.429/.471 (albeit in a relatively small sample size).
Ankiel has been one of the hotter hitters for the Cardinals over the last two weeks. including five home runs in only ten games for the month of July. So, forgive me for my moment of indiscretion. Hopefully Ankiel continues his hot streak through the rest of the month and then some.
What I SHOULD have said, was that Ankiel for some reason looks feeble every time he comes up beyond the seventh inning in a clutch situation. There are varying definitions and opinions on what constitutes “clutch,” like this article by the esteemed Joe Sheehan over at Baseball Prospectus. University studies have been done on the topic. FanGraphs has developed their own stat for measuring “clutch.”
While my initial argument was that Ankiel’s performance suffers in situations after the seventh inning that carry particular weight regarding the outcome of the game (I’ll expound on this more later), I found a very interesting correlation in Ankiel’s overall performance in “clutch” situations, using FanGraphs’ statistics.
All of this is based upon Win Probability Statistics developed by Tom Tango at InsideTheBook.com. The shorthand description of the clutch stat is that basically a play can add to or subtract from the probability that a team will win a game, or WPA – Win Probability Added. They then compare that with a stat called LI – Leverage Index – that determines how important a particular event is to the outcome of a game. Positive numbers mean a player performs better than his typical production in high leverage situations, negative numbers mean they perform worse.
Ankiel’s clutch rating? -0.90.
It is important to note that a score of 0 in clutch would not be a bad thing. From another post about the stat on FanGraphs:
…instead of comparing a player to the rest of the field, it compares a player to himself. A player who hits .300 in high leverage situations when he’s an overall .300 hitter is not considered Clutch.
Ok, so Rick’s negative score is pretty damning, but if he were closer to 0, it wouldn’t be a bad thing. One perceived flaw in the stat is that if a player performs at an insanely high level regularly, but is slightly worse in high leverage situations, but still very good – he still has a negative clutch score. For instance, Albert Pujols has a negative clutch score this season (and for his career), and I think we’d all agree he’s pretty “clutch.”
So then let’s get back to the original argument, that Ankiel isn’t producing in late-game, pressure situations. We don’t need any new-fangled stats to determine that. A widely accepted statistical split, “close and late,” can provide us that information. The stat is defined as:
Late & Close are PA in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.
So in layman’s terms, the Cardinals would either be tied, winning by one, or down by two when Ankiel was at the plate.
Rick’s stats late and close? .100/.182/.160
A horrendous .342 OPS in situations where they need him to be at his most productive. .342!
This was all banging around in my head as I was watching Ankiel’s at-bat Wednesday night against Brad Lidge in Philadelphia. The Cards, down only two, with runners at first and second, had Ankiel to the plate with two outs. Lidge had already walked Skip Schumaker and Troy Glaus and had gone 2-0 to Pujols before he flied out. What I mean to say is, Lidge was a bit all over the place Wednesday night. What did Ankiel do? Swung at the first three pitches he saw and struck out. Now, it can be argued that the last pitch could’ve been called a strike, but the first two weren’t even close (this graph shows the pitches from the catcher’s perspective):
Ankiel has long shown little to no patience at the plate in these situations, and this at-bat just amplified that fact. I think that until Rick can prove he’s willing to take a pitch and wait an already wild pitcher out a bit in a clutch situation, we may continue to see him perform poorly in those situations.
Now, maybe someone on the Cards’ staff could do something about that. Hal McRae, are you listening?