There’s no getting around it – Prince Fielder has failed in many clutch situations this season. The big talking point in this regard is Fielder’s substandard batting average with runners in scoring position. For sure, his .216 average is disappointing and multiple baserunners have been stranded due to this failure. What does this mean? Is Prince “unclutch?” How many wins has it cost the Brewers? Let’s try and answer these questions.
First, the matter of “clutch.” Is clutch a skill? Tom Tango sums it up pretty well here over at The Book Blog:
To conclude: yes, clutch skill exists. No, it’s not that big a deal (at best, half as wide as than the platoon advantage). Correct, teams should not rely on clutch skill in their decision-making process, other than as a tie-breaker.
The differences in clutch skill are generally tiny – some hitters are as much as 8 points of wOBA better in high leverage situations, some are similarly worse. That’s not insignificant, but it’s not nearly enough to make Craig Counsell a better clutch hitter than Alex Rodriguez, or make Scott Spiezio a good MLB player. My theory is that
Prince is hitting .266/.412/.467 with RISP in his career and has a 123 wRC+ (141 overall) in high leverage situations. That’s not as good as his overall line, but it’s much better than the league average in both cases and this doesn’t account for the differences in pitchers faced in the high leverage splits. Let’s take a look at one last clutch statistic: “clutch,” as shown on FanGraphs. Prince is +0.76 clutch wins on his career, but the year-by-year stats show some pretty wild fluctuations.
There’s the answer to the second question, too. For as good as Prince Fielder was the last three seasons – particularly 2009 – Fielder’s struggles in high leverage situations have cost the Brewers about one whole win. In the great scheme of things, that’s not that big of a deal, and really, it’s hard to imagine Fielder performing worse in the clutch than he has this year. Fielder still is reaching base at a .413 clip; it’s just that the power is completely lacking (.257 SLG).
The number that matters most in the analysis of Fielder’s clutch performance is 46: the number of high leverage plate appearances that Fielder has seen this year. It’s possible that Prince is pressing at the plate in important situations; it’s possible that, for some reason, Fielder is now intimidated despite solid performance in these situations in the past. But in 46 plate appearances, one home run would raise his slugging percentage by over 100 points. Random variation happens in baseball all the time, and we have to just accept it, acknowledge that this year has been rough for Fielder (at least, as much as a year can be for one of the better hitters in the game), and that next year will almost certainly be better.