The NL Central in the Clutch

Two on, one out, his team needing a big hit in a big game against a hard-charging division rival. The perfect spot for Allen Craig.

Announcers use lines like those all the time. They talk about someone being the perfect player for a high-leverage situation, pointing to 30 or 40 at-bats as if they’re a reliable barometer of a skill, or using selection bias to tease out a couple of examples of a player being “clutch,” even when the evidence suggests otherwise. Craig is one of a tiny number of players who, at least to this point in his career, can claim that clutch situations really do bring out the best in him: In 373 career plate appearances with runners in scoring position, he’s hitting .392/.444/.639. The rest of the time? Just .285/.324/.467.

Facing Pirates ace Francisco Liriano in the first game of a pivotal five-game series, his Cardinals down 4-0 in the fourth inning and two ducks on the pond, Craig got his chance. But instead of tacking on a couple more RBIs to his top-three total, Liriano destroyed him. The Buccos lefty fired four straight sliders — the final two at Craig’s feet — to punch him out. The Pirates didn’t look back from there, going on to win that game 9-2, en route to taking four of five from the Cardinals to take over first place in the NL Central.

Where the division battle goes from here may well depend on a matchup just like Monday’s. The Cardinals have been baseball’s top offense with runners in scoring position this year, better than any other team in that department since 1997. They’re led by Craig, who owns the highest career batting average with runners in scoring position and the biggest gap between overall batting average and batting average with RISP in at least 40 years. On the flip side there are the Pirates, the stingiest pitching staff in baseball with runners in scoring position. In the race for the crown, the end result might come down to the irresistible clutch force vs. the immovable clutch object.

With a big assist from our friends at ESPN Stats & Info, let’s start with the Pirates. Heading into Thursday night’s series finale, Pittsburgh pitchers had allowed the lowest batting average with RISP (.220), the lowest slugging average (.317), and the lowest OPS (.621). Even after adjusting for PNC Park being one of the league’s friendliest environments for pitchers, the numbers still jump off the page.

The Pirates’ starters have been particularly stingy, none more so than Jeff Locke. Through 21 starts, Locke owns a 2.36 ERA, the fifth-lowest mark for any qualified starter this year. That’s despite pedestrian peripheral stats, including a below-average 18.3 percent strikeout rate and a poor 11.3 percent walk rate, all of it adding up to a merely decent 3.73 FIP. What’s Locke’s secret? He’s been the best starting pitcher in the league with RISP, and it’s not even close. With runners in scoring position, Locke has allowed a microscopic line of just .151/.240/.174, with a tiny .191 batting average on balls in play; he’s been good but not nearly as good (or lucky) the rest of the time, allowing a .219/.321/.343 line, with a .255 BABIP.

The numbers are even more extreme in the Cardinals’ case. St. Louis came into Thursday’s game with an .862 OPS with runners in scoring position, the highest figure since the 2006 Yankees and White Sox both fared better. The batting-average gap between the Cardinals’ overall numbers and what they’ve done with runners in scoring position might well be the biggest of all time. At the very least it’s by far the largest gap in 20 years, as far back as Elias Sports Bureau’s data set goes for this team stat:

Craig has been the leader of the pack, for his team, in the league this year, and compared to anyone else in decades. As strong as his RISP numbers are for his career, they’re impossibly great this year: .466/.492/.650. Since we’re a fan of larger sample sizes, though, we revert back to Craig’s career numbers, where we get this:

… and …

The numbers are even more dramatic when we look at Craig’s career numbers with and without runners in scoring position:

… and …

Unusually great clutch hitting and pitching performances don’t tend to last, whether for teams or individual players. But ask a typical sample of baseball fans which of the two teams is playing over its head, and the answer will usually be the Pirates. There are reasons for skepticism, of course. The Cards are tied for the best run differential in the majors, having scored a staggering 132 runs more than they’ve allowed, vs. a more modest +51 margin for Pittsburgh. The expectations were much higher for St. Louis coming into the season than they were for the Pirates. And on a basic level, the Cardinals’ roster is stuffed with more brand-name players; you can’t help but be skeptical when the likes of Locke and Jordy Mercer are powering much of your success.

But RISP results aren’t the only reason the Pirates are where they are. The Buccos have been extremely aggressive in deploying defensive shifts: According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Pirates have been the second-most shifting team (behind the Orioles) and are seventh in baseball with seven Shift Runs Saved. They rank seventh in overall team defense, per Ultimate Zone Rating. They also own the third-lowest team reliever ERA in the game, paced by Jason Grilli (2.34) and his replacement while on the DL, Mark Melancon (0.88). Those factors help explain the Pirates’ 39-26 record in one- and two-run games; they’re tied with the Indians, Diamondbacks, Royals, and A’s for the most one-run wins, with 21. Some of those factors might be subject to regression, though the team’s defense looks like it might hold up well. One other factor could come into play, too: As great as Pirates pitchers have been in big spots, Pittsburgh’s hitters have been awful with runners in scoring position — only the Marlins have been worse.

Meanwhile, the arguably more talented Cardinals have holes in their game. They rank 26th in team defense and 21st in baserunning. And Yadier Molina, one of the most valuable players in the game, is on the disabled list with a knee injury. None of these are anything close to fatal blows, of course, not for a team with one of baseball’s deepest lineups (even after adjusting for off-the-charts RISP results), a rotation with three good-to-great starters in Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, and Shelby Miller, and a bullpen that is flawed but at least better with Edward Mujica and Trevor Rosenthal pitching late in games.

Still, none of those stats look as perilous as do both teams’ results with runners in scoring position. Given how unsustainable aberrant RISP results tend to be, we may well see more balls in play find holes against Pirates pitchers in high-leverage situations, with the opposite potentially occurring for Cardinals hitters. If you’re looking for a tiebreaker in this race, keep your foot on the clutch.

Filed Under: MLB, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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