Thursday, July 03, 2008

Tremendously Timely Hitting

The Twins defeated the Tigers 7-0 yesterday to polish off their sixth consecutive series victory. Much credit must be given to Nick Blackburn, who hurled seven scoreless innings to pick up his seventh win, but it was also great to see the Twins put up seven more runs in the victory. They scored these runs by going 7-for-18 (.389) in scoring opportunities, and six of the seven runs were driven in with two outs. The Twins didn't hit any home runs in the game, but they strung together rallies and beat up on the Tigers. In many ways, this game perfectly epitomized how the Twins offense has operated this season.

In spite of an offseason overhaul to the lineup, the Twins averaged only 3.78 runs per game in April. Since that point, however, they've really come into their own, averaging 5.32 runs over 58 games. They've scored four or more runs in 14 of their past 18 games, and when you're getting good pitching (as they have) that's a pretty good recipe for success.

As much as I expected the offense to be improved this year, there's no way I would have anticipated it to be one of the top run-scoring units in the league. Yet, the Twins continue to battle the Tigers and White Sox for the No. 3 ranking in the American League in runs scored. They haven't done it through conventional methods. The Twins are hitting .275/.330/.402 on the season for for a team OPS of 732, which is decent but far from spectacular. Compare that to the other team OPS figures for the highest scoring offenses in the AL... Texas: 804, Boston: 801, Chicago: 778, Detroit: 775. The Twins have hit for considerably less power than any of the other top offenses in the AL, but one thing that they have done exceedingly well is hit with runners in scoring position. The Twins have hit better than any other team in the majors with runners on second and/or third. They've hit insanely, ridiculously, unfathomably well in these situations.

OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but seriously -- the team's .313/.384/.464 line with RISP dwarves their overall hitting line. This has been the case for some time, and I've continually been telling myself that it's unsustainable. A whole team can't be "clutch"; the very notion is silly. Yet, Twins hitters continue to deliver big, run-scoring hits with amazing consistency.

It's like timely hitting has been contagious in the clubhouse. I wrote a few weeks ago about how ridiculously effective Justin Morneau has been as a cleanup hitter thanks to what is now a .365/.448/.604 hitting line with runners in scoring position, but he's hardly been the only one coming through consistently with ducks on the pond. The Triple-A call-ups -- namely, Alexi Casilla and Brian Buscher -- have gotten a lot of credit for helping to rejuvenate the offense. Much of this probably has to do with the fact that each player has been driving in runs at a torrid pace. Casilla's overall OPS is 835; with RISP it jumps to 1163. Brian Buscher has a 796 OPS overall; with RISP, 979. And heck, even Mike Lamb, for all his struggles, is hitting .381/.382/.476 with runners in scoring position, which is probably why many fans have gone somewhat easy on him.

You'll often hear statistical analysts say that clutch hitting is not a skill. That's true, for the most part, but clutch hitting has certainly been a pattern for this Twins offense. And that pattern continued in yesterday's victory. If your lineup can't hit for much power and doesn't get on base at a particularly high rate, they must take advantage of the run-scoring opportunities that present themselves. The Twins have been absolutely splendid in this regard, and it's one of the biggest reasons they find themselves within a few games of first place here on July 3.

7 comments:

John said...

This is precisely why I still cannot accept that the Twins are this good. The Twins may be able to sustain the clutch hitting for a while--but it is eventually going to regress to the mean and they will start losing more again.

On the flip side, a team like the Tigers is eventually going to catch up to their team OPS and start winning more.

The 'stat-side' of my brain keeps telling me this is a mirage and will fade. Yet it is an amazing run and fun to see!

Beau said...

Hopefully this regression won't happen until next April

TT said...

Clutch hitting is clearly a skill. Like many baseball skills, it is difficult to separate it statistically from all the other factors.

To keep things in perspective, on average, major league hitters do slightly better with runners on base, including with runners in scoring position. So the typical major league batter hits better in the clutch and so does the typical team.

The other thing is that these things don't necessarily fade over the course of a season. Teams have entire seasons where they do better than the rest of the league.

Nick N. said...

Clutch hitting is clearly a skill. Like many baseball skills, it is difficult to separate it statistically from all the other factors.

With some exceptions, good hitters hit well with RISP. Bad hitters don't. It's rare that you'll see a player consistently perform significantly better in these situations over the course of a large sample (say, a career).

It is true that the league as a whole tends to hit a bit better with RISP, but I think this is skewed by the fact that good hitters are the ones who hit most often with RISP (big bats are usually placed behind high OBP guys in the batting order, managers will use sac bunts to get a runner on second for the cleanup hitter, etc).

The other thing is that these things don't necessarily fade over the course of a season. Teams have entire seasons where they do better than the rest of the league.

That's true. Let's hope it is the case for the Twins. I'm concerned about a regression to the mean, but not necessarily convinced that it's inevitable.

TT said...

I think this is skewed by the fact that good hitters are the ones who hit most often with RISP

Or its skewed by the fact that runners are more likely to be in scoring position against a pitcher who is struggling. This is the kind of non-random factors that make it difficult to accurately evaluate statistically.

And I am not sure that better hitters have an advantage. For instance, when Mauer comes to the plate with runners in scoring position he is likely to see a lefty reliever. Baseball is a game of adjustments on all sides - there is no "average" situation that means very much.

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