Players Being ‘Clutch’ When Targeting 20 Wins

This article was written by Phil Birnbaum

This article was published in the Summer 2009 Baseball Research Journal


In a blog post of March 23, 2008 (“Do Players Turn ‘Clutch’ When Chasing a Personal Goal?” sabermetricresearch.blogspot.com), I speculated about the anomaly, discovered by Bill James, that there are more 20-game winners than 19-game winners in the major leagues. That is the only case, between 0 and 30, where a higher-win season happens more frequently than a lower-win season.

Here, once again, are some of the win frequencies. For instance, there were 123 seasons of exactly 19 wins since 1940. (All numbers in this study are 1940–2007.)

Wins Seasons
16 311
17 221
18 185
19 123
20 144
21 92
22 54

I did a little digging to see if I could figure out what caused this to happen. I think I have an answer, and it’s a bit of a surprise. In the earlier post, I suggested that the bulge at twenty wins appears to be about 29 “too high.” So we’ll proceed as if there are an extra 29 twenty-win seasons to be explained.

EXTRA STARTS

The first thing I looked at was whether pitchers with 18 or 19 wins late in the season would be given an extra start near the end of the season to try to hit the 20 mark. So, for each group of pitchers, I checked what percentage of their starts came in September or later:

  • 16-win pitchers — 17.53% of starts in September
  • 17-win pitchers — 17.77% of starts in September
  • 18-win pitchers — 18.36% of starts in September
  • 19-win pitchers — 18.49% of starts in September
  • 20-win pitchers — 18.47% of starts in September
  • 21-win pitchers — 18.15% of starts in September
  • 22+-win pitchers — 18.18% of starts in September

So it looks like there’s a positive relationship between September starts and eventual wins, and a little bulge that happens in the 18–20 range. Maybe those pitchers are getting extra starts, or, as Greg Spira suggested,1 perhaps the other pitchers miss a start in favor of a minor-league call-up, while the pitchers with a shot at 20 are given all their usual starts. The bulge appears to be about a quarter of a percent.

If we assume that, if not for targeting 20 wins, the 19–20 pitchers would have been 0.25 percent lower without the special treatment, that’s 23 of their 9,229 combined starts. If half those starts led to a 19-game winner becoming a 20-game winner, that’s an extra 1 pitchers in the 20-win column. It seems reasonable— it’s fewer than 29, anyway, which is the number we’re trying to explain.

RELIEF APPEARANCES

Greg also suggested, in the previous post, that pitchers with 19 wins may be given an extra late-season relief appearance to try to get their twentieth win. I checked Retrosheet game logs, and Greg is right—there has been some of that going on.

I found all September relief appearances for eventual 20-game winners where they had at least 18 wins at the time of the relief appearance and they got a decision (Retrosheet game logs won’t list a reliever unless he wins or loses, but that doesn’t matter for this study). Here they are:

  • 1951: Early Wynn gets his 18th win (in relief)
  • 1951: Mike Garcia gets his 19th win
  • 1956: Billy Hoeft gets his 20th win
  • 1957: Jim Bunning gets his 20th win
  • 1964: Dean Chance has 19 wins but loses
  • 1966: Chris Short gets his 20th win
  • 1991: John Smiley gets his 19th win
  • 1997: Randy Johnson gets his 20th win

So that accounts for seven 20-game winners who would otherwise have won only 19 games.

But what about 19-game winners? Those guys may get extra relief appearances too. I checked, and there are fewer of them.

  • 1956: Lawrence Brooks has 18 wins but loses
  • 1962: Art Mahaffey has 19 wins but loses
  • 1964: Bob Gibson gets his 19th win
  • 1964: Jim Bunning gets his 19th win
  • 1974: Ken Holtzman has 19 wins but loses

(Bob Gibson’s appearance was in the last game of the 1964 season, so he couldn’t have been going for 20.)

And here are the late-season relief decisions for the eventual 21-game winners:

  • 1940: Bobo Newsom, 20th win
  • 1940: Rip Sewell, 20th win
  • 1946: Howie Pollet, 18th win
  • 1947: Johnny Sain, 21st win
  • 1959: Sam Jones, 18th win, loss at 20 wins
  • 1960: Warren Spahn, loss at 17 wins
  • 1960: Ernie Broglio, 19th win
  • 1965: Mudcat Grant, loss at 21 wins

So it looks like pitchers do get extra relief appearances in pursuit of high win totals (or did—most of these guys were pre-1970). There were four 19-game winners created this way, seven 20-game winners, and six 21-game winners.

The difference between 19 and 20, here, is three players—a lot fewer than I would have thought. But three is something, again, when there are only 29 to explain.

CLUTCH PITCHING

Maybe, when going for their 20th win, a player will bear down and pitch better than usual. I found all starting pitchers with exactly 19 wins and looked at how they did in the start(s) that would give them their twentieth win.

In 490 such starts, they went 227–142 (.655). I couldn’t get their ERA or runs allowed from the Retrosheet game logs, but I did get the average number of runs their team allowed in those games. It was 3.63.

That doesn’t mean much without context. Here are the results for some other win totals:

  • 17 wins — 3.72 runs allowed, .658, 670–348 in 1385 starts
  • 18 wins — 3.54 runs allowed, .652, 487–260 in 982 starts
  • 19 wins — 3.54 runs allowed, .655, 367–193 in 704 starts
  • 20 wins — 3.62 runs allowed, .615, 227–142 in 490 starts
  • 21 wins — 3.53 runs allowed, .676, 138–66 in 273 starts
  • 22 wins — 3.34 runs allowed, .774, 82–24 in 148 starts

Now we have something: Immediately after hitting the 20-win mark, the starters suddenly became a lot less likely to win. Instead of a winning percentage of maybe .660, which you would have expected (remember that, the more wins, the better the pitcher, so that the winning percentage should increase down the list), they wound up at only .615. That’s .045 points in 369 decisions, or about 17 wins—almost half the 35 wins we’re trying to explain!

By this measure, it looks like this half of the anomaly is not too many 20-game winners relative to 19-game winners, but that poor performance at 20 causes a logjam, preventing the 20-game winners from getting to 21.

But: If you look at runs allowed, the performance at 20 wins doesn’t seem all that bad. It should be around 3.54, and it’s at 3.62. That’s .08 runs for each of their 490 starts—about 40 runs. How did these pitchers win 17 fewer games while allowing only 40 extra runs? Forty runs is 4 games, not 17 games.

The answer: run support. Here is the pitchers’ run support for each category:

  • 17 wins — 4.39 run support
  • 18 wins — 4.41 run support
  • 19 wins — 4.45 run support
  • 20 wins — 4.05 run support
  • 21 wins — 4.46 run support
  • 22 wins — 4.48 run support

The 4.05 is not a typo. When starting a game with 20 wins, pitchers got four-tenths of a run less support than they should have. That’s huge. Over 490 games, it’s almost 200 runs. That wipes out 20 wins, which keeps twenty 20-win pitchers from getting to 21 wins.

I have no idea why this should happen. I suppose it’s possible that, seeing how the ace already has 20 wins, the manager might play his bench for this meaningless September game. But how often would that happen? No way it would be enough for 0.4 runs per game, would it?

By the way, it looks like these 20-game winners beat Pythagoras in these starts. They finished only 17 games below expectation, while losing 240 runs (40 pitching, 200 hitting). Assigning blame in proportion over those 17 extra games, we’ll say that 3 of the extra losses came from pitching, 14 from run support.

I find it something of a relief that it was run support, and not (positive) clutch performance on the part of their pitchers, that caused the effect—it wasn’t the case that they pitched better when close to a (selfish) goal. Going for their twentieth win, pitchers did not appear to do any better or worse than when going for their eighteenth, nineteenth, or twenty-second wins. And they pitched only marginally better than when going for their twenty-first.

It’s human nature that pitchers want to win 20 for personal reasons, but at least the evidence is that they try just as hard every other game of the year.

CONCLUDING

To summarize these results: We were looking for 29 “extra” 20-game seasons. We got:

  • 11 from extra starts
  • 3 from extra relief appearances
  • 3 from pitchers’ own poorer performance in subsequent games
  • 14 from poor run support from their teammates in subsequent games

That adds up to 31 games, which is close enough to our original estimate of 29.

It’s interesting that about half the effect comes from 19-game winners getting extra chances to hit 20 and that the other half comes from 20-game winners being unable to rise to 21.

And, to me, the biggest surprise is that almost 40 percent of the 20-game-winner effect came from that huge hole in run support. In other words, a big part of the surplus of 20-game pitchers is probably just random luck.

The higher the performance level, the harder it is to achieve it. There should be more .270 hitters than .275 hitters, more .275 hitters than .285 hitters, and so on.

But, surprisingly, there’s an exception: Significantly more players hit .300 to .304 in a season than .299 to .296.

That finding comes from Bill James’s study “The Targeting Phenomenon”2 (subscription required, but the essay is The Bill James Gold Mine 2008, 67).

For pitcher wins, Bill found a similar exception that’s even more striking. More pitchers win zero games than 1. More pitchers win 1 game than 2. More pitchers win 2 games than 3. And so on, all the way up to 30 wins. But there’s one exception –20. Significantly more pitchers finish with 20 wins than with 19.

Why? Because, Bill argues, players care about hitting their “targets.”

“[Brooks Robinson] had a miserable year in 1963, and went into his last at-bat of the season hitting exactly .250—147 for 588. If he made an out, he wound up the season hitting under .250—but he got a hit, and wound up at .251. He said it was the only hit he got all season in a pressure situation. . . .

“Players WANT to wind up the season hitting .250, rather than in the .240s. They tend to make it happen.”

The implication is that there’s a kind of clutch effect happening here, where the player somehow gets better when the target is near. But if that’s true, wouldn’t that point to baseball players being selfish? Studies have shown very little evidence for clutch hitting when the game is on the line. If players care more about hitting .300 than winning the game, that doesn’t say much for their priorities.

(Although, in fairness, it should be acknowledged that the opposition is probably trying harder to stop Brooks Robinson from driving in the game-winning run than it is to keep him from getting to .250. For the record: Robinson’s final 1963 hit drove in the third run in the ninth inning of a 7–3 loss to the Tigers.)

The study also finds that, while this kind of targeting happens for batting average, RBIs, wins, and (pitcher) strikeouts, there’s no evidence for targeting in SLG, OBP, OPS, saves, or runs scored. For ERA, there’s some evidence of targeting but not enough to say for sure.

Also, Bill finds that targeting seems to have started around 1940. He argues that this coincides with a jump in fan interest in players’ statistical accomplishments.

These are very interesting findings, and I wouldn’t have expected as much targeting as seems to have actually occurred. But I’m a bit skeptical about clutchness and whether players really can boost their performance in target-near situations. I wondered if, instead of clutch performance, it might be something else. Maybe, if a player is close to his goal, he is given additional playing time in support of reaching the target. That is, if a pitcher has 19 wins late in the season, perhaps the manager will squeeze in an extra start for him. Or if a player is hitting .298, maybe they’ll let him play every day until he gets to .300, instead of resting him in favor of the September call-up. If and when he reaches .300, then they could sit him (as, I think I remember reading, Bobby Mattick did for Alvis Woods in 1980).

To test the extra-start theory, I looked at pitchers since 1940, grouping them by number of wins. I then looked at their winning percentage, number of starts, and the number of seasons in the group:

Wins Pct. Starts Seasons
16 .606 32.3 311
17 .613 33 221
18 .648 33.3 185
19 .650 34.4 123
20 .667 34.9 144
21 .673 34.7 92
22 .691 35.9 54
23 .705 35.9 34
24 .707 38.5 23

So, reading one line of the chart: 20-win pitchers had a .667 winning percentage and an average of 34.9 starts that year. There were 144 seasons in the group. Looking at the numbers, we do see a bit of an anomaly. More wins normally means more starts, except that pitchers with 20 wins had more starts than pitchers with 21 wins. And, there’s a big jump between 18 and 19, more than you’d expect given the other gaps in that win range.

Suppose we wanted to smooth out the number-of-starts column. We might adjust them like this:

Wins Starts
16 32.3
17 33
18 33.3
19 33.8
20 34.3
21 34.7
22 35.9

Now we have a smooth increasing trend. To get it, we had to remove 0.6 starts from each of the 19- and 20-win groups.

One possible interpretation: When a pitcher has 19 wins near the end of the season, he’s given an extra 1.2 starts. Half the time, that gives him an extra win, and he goes to 20 (which now shows 0.6 extra starts). The other half, he fails to get the win, and stays at 19 (which also shows 0.6 extra starts).

Another way to look at this is through the winning-percentage column: Pitchers with 19 wins have almost the same winning percentage as the 18-win guys, which means more losses. And the 20-win guys, at .667, are only .006 away from the 21-win pitchers, which suggests more wins. That’s exactly what happens if you take a bunch of 19-win guys, give them an extra start, and reclassify them.

So what do you think of this as an explanation? Does the average 19-win late-September pitcher really get 1.2 extra starts? That seems too high to me, although I don’t really know. And, some of the effect might be not from extra starts but from leaving the pitcher in the game longer when he’s losing or tied, long enough for his offense to bail him out and give him the win.

Now look at the last column, the number of seasons. If we were to smooth out that column, we might do it this way:

Wins Seasons
17 221
18 185
19 151
20 115
21 92
22 54
23 34

The difference is 29 pitchers in the 19-win row, and 29 pitchers in the 20-win row. Assume those 29 pitchers moved from 19 to 20 because of the extra start. If you figure that these pitchers generally win half their starts, that means about 58 pitchers were given that one extra shot.

So: 58 pitchers in the 68 baseball seasons since 1940 means about a little less than one pitcher a year getting that extra start. There are normally only about two 19-win pitchers a year, so that means about half of them would have to get the special treatment.

Again, that seems high. However, in support of this theory, the effect diminishes after 1980. In fact, there are now fewer pitchers winning 20 than 19:

Wins Seasons
17 97
18 84
19 43
20 41
21 25
22 12

There’s still a bit of an effect, but not as much—in line with Bill’s idea that, these days, managers are less likely to pitch an ace on short rest (or leave him in longer in a tie game) just to help him reach a personal goal.

There are probably other things that might be causing this that I haven’t thought of.

In any case, it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out a decent answer: Just head to Retrosheet and look at 19- and 20-game winners. See if their days of rest varied late in the season, which would mean the extra-start theory is correct. Check whether they were left in the game longer than normal. And check whether they pitched better in late-season games, which would mean the clutch theory is correct.

And you can do the same thing for hitting, for players around .300. Is it just a matter of opportunities, or is there some clutchness too? If it is the latter, that would be a very significant finding. It would suggest, perhaps, that:

  • clutch hitting does exist, and either
  • it shows up only for personal goals, or
  • it shows up only when the situation is not clutch for the other

Maybe I’ll look into this myself, if nobody else does.

 

Acknowledgments

A version of this article appeared originally as a post at Sabermetric Research (27 March 2008), http://sabermetricresearch.blogspot.com/2008/03/players-being-clutch-when-targeting-20.html.

 

Notes

1 Greg Spira, Sabermetric Research, 26 March 2008, https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=31545676&postID=6993388544957206639.

2 Bill James Online, billjamesonline.net/ArticleContent.aspx?AID=164&code=James01017. Subscription required, but the essay also appears in The Bill James Gold Mine 2008 (Skokie, Ill.: Acta Sports, 2008), 67.

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