Just about a year ago, Michael Young was on a roller coaster ride. He'd weathered a stormy off-season: after the Rangers' front office requested he move to the hot corner to make room for shortstop phenom Elvis Andrus, he'd abruptly demanded Texas trade him, only to withdraw the request a short while later.
But any damage Young's outburst might have caused to his standing with Rangers fans was quickly diminished by the manner in which he started the 2009 season. In the month of April, he posted a .295/.354/.591 line -- and even more remarkably, in the span of eight games, Young: (1) hit a walk-off home run to topple the Royals; (2) hit a go-ahead shot with two outs in the top of the ninth to shoot down the Orioles; and (3) keyed a comeback victory against Baltimore with a three-run, two-out homer in the top of the fifth.
As a result, Young posted an outlandish early Win Probability Added (WPA): for the month of April, his WPA was 1.564, and over that extraordinary eight-game stretch, it was a 1.354. Probabilistically speaking, Young was responsible for adding a game and a third to the (hello!) win column in just over a week of play. That's got to be the very definition of "clutch," right?
Indeed, Young's heroics spurred paeans to his clutchiness, and concomitantly sparked somewhat derisive dismissals of sabermetric wisdom, which (or so the story goes), says there's no such thing as clutch. In fact, analysts will tell you that there probably is such a thing as clutch hitting. They'll hasten to add, however, that in the big picture, clutch just isn't worth much. But that, the FOTF-inspired argument went, that was just so much player hating. The math geeks just didn't get what it was to want to be like Mike. Young's performance proved again that the abacus-fiddlers don't grasp the way the game is really played on the field; it's a clutch thing, and those sickly cellar dwellers simply wouldn't understand. Try telling Michael Young that there's no such thing as clutch, man, and he'll ask you how you liked them ninth-inning apples ...
Fast-forward about a year, and the story's a little different. The Rangers offense is sputtering, and Young's early-season struggles with men on base have come under scrutiny. Heading into Monday's game against the Indians, Young had yet to record a hit with runners on. That changed with his fifth-inning RBI single off Cleveland starter Fausto Carmona, but several frames later, things got ugly again. Young grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the ninth, squandering a golden opportunity to put the game away without heading to extra innings. With that at-bat, Young's WPA for the season nosedived into negative territory. It seemed like the diametric opposite of April 2009.
So what's going on here? Has Young's stick started wilting under pressure? Should Texas fans go on a search for MY's missing mojo? In a word: no. Seven games is simply much too small a sample size to say anything rational about a player's ability to hit in high-leverage situations. So's eight games, for that matter -- even if it'd take a miracle to convince true believers that Young was anything less than Baseball Jesus last April, resurrecting so many wins from the dead.
Statistical snark aside: so much is a matter of luck. Imagine that Young's sharply hit grounder in the ninth been a couple feet into the hole. Neftali Feliz would've taken the mound in the bottom half of the frame instead of Frank Francisco, charged with protecting a two-run (at least) lead. And the story of the game would have been the team leader coming through in the clutch twice, and showing promising signs of returning to 2009 form. And 155 games later, if the Rangers found themselves atop the AL West by a game, it's quite likely that Young's April 12th performance would have been cast as a key inflection point in pre-postseason retrospectives.
Instead, six months from now, who'll remember that Young's costly GIDP could've sunk the Rangers back below .500, seven games into the season? And even among those who might remember, who would care, given that the Rangers won regardless? It's only natural; we tend to remember the dramatic victories. (How else has David Dellucci remained such a beloved figure in Texas baseball history?) The dramatic walk-off double, the three-run, come-from-behind shot: we keep those fresh in mind well after we've forgotten the quotidian failures that make up such a large proportion of even the most talented batters' high-pressure appearances.
And speaking of: for his career, Young has hit markedly better with runners in scoring position, and even slightly better than that with runners on second and/or third and two outs: tOPS+ of 113 and 116, respectively. (tOPS+ is the measure of a player's situation-specific OPS relative to his overall average.) When Young's come to the plate in "late and close" situations -- the seventh inning or later, with the Rangers tied, ahead by one, or having the tying run on deck -- he's been strikingly worse than average (a 73 tOPS+).
Still, Young's a slightly better hitter in "high-leverage" situations as tagged by Baseball Reference (a 105 tOPS+); FanGraphs' "Clutch" metric has him in the black in aggregate, though up and down across his nine full seasons. (It's worth mentioning that last season was a slight down year in terms of the FanGraphs measure, despite Young's awesome April: if he was really good last season in the clutch, it was because he was really good last season, period.) The mixed bag o' stats pretty much sums it up. Young might be marginally clutchier than thou, but that's nothing to get excited about, and certainly nothing to wager on.
By the same token, Young shouldn't be fitted with horns for his 2010 performance to date. After all, his ninth-inning "choke" Monday evening only delayed Feliz's successful debut as a closer by one inning, as the cavalry -- also known as Nelson Cruz -- continued to ride to the Rangers' rescue. Cruz, by the way, has a career 76 tOPS+ in high-leverage situations. His high-leverage tOPS+ through the first six games of 2010 was 72. Small sample sizes, folks. There's nothing to see here. These are not the droids you're looking for. Move along.
It is slightly troubling that Young's line is .185/.233/.333 coming out of yesterday's day off -- not good, especially combined with the gruesome .040/.040/.040 Julio Borbon has put up in front of him. Only Josh Hamilton's early proclivity to draw bases on balls has saved the top third of the order from utter futility. If the Rangers are going to go on an extended April run, the black hole at the top of the lineup has got to stop sucking everything into its ravenous maw. On the bright side, Young's track record gives Texas fans every reason to believe that there are happier days ahead in 2010 -- and that his performance with runners on the basepaths will stabilize as a matter of course. When that happens, do the stats guys a favor, please: try not to drop the clutch too loudly.