addison russell helmetTime was, we baseball fans collectively believed there were “clutch” players, and “un-clutch” players. There were the guys who could, in the biggest moments of a game, raise their focus and performance to an even higher level, and be better than their best when it meant the most. Other guys, by contrast, would let the pressure get to them, hampering their ability, and perform much worse when their team needed them.

With gobs of data available, we now know that this particular description of what is to be “clutch” or “un-clutch” is not quite accurate, though there are kernels of truth in there. Although we know that some players do seem to have a better ability to perform up to their best when the moment is huge, the idea of being “clutch” is more about avoiding the downside of yielding to pressure than it is about somehow being better in big moments than you are, on average, in all other moments. There seems to be too much year-to-year noise in offensive performance in high-leverage moments for above-your-normal-baseline performance to be any kind of repeatable skill. See, for example, Kris Bryant, who was one of the most “clutch” hitters last year by the numbers, and has been one of the least “clutch” hitters this year – what, did he suddenly get worse? No, he didn’t. (Players tend to hit a little better with runners on base, so there’s that, but that’s a generally-applicable principle across the board, so watch out for that when you’re using data to dig in on “clutch”-ness.)





I say all of that stuff to set up last night’s big moment, which seems to happen again and again with the guy who did the damage.

On Wednesday night, we saw Addison Russell show off his defensive “clutch”, if you want to call it that, by making one of the most incredible catches of the year with the bases loaded in the 7th inning, ultimately preserving a win for the Cubs. Then last night, Russell showed it off again with the bases loaded in the 7th inning, this time on offense:

The Cubs had a 39.9% chance of winning the game as Russell stepped to the plate. They were down a run with two outs in the 7th inning, and, even with the bases loaded, the odds tend to be that you lose that game. After Russell’s at bat, the Cubs suddenly had a 79.1% chance of winning. Talk about a huge swing.



Russell has been so good in those moments that I tweeted these two things last night, the first just before his at bat after Jason Heyward popped out, and the second just after:

I still believe what I believe about “clutch”-ness, but boy, Russell’s been something else this year. Consider, Russell is hitting a very solid .243/.326/.425 this year (98 wRC+, so he’s just a touch below average) overall. But in high-leverage moments – the times in a game where the outcome can be changed most dramatically – he’s hitting a whopping .400/.448/.620 (178 wRC+).

Is Russell special? Does he somehow have the ability to perform THAT much better in the biggest moments than he does in every other moment?

I still tend to doubt it (consider that, despite what our anecdotal memory tells us, Russell is hitting just .239/.320/.403 (88 wRC+) with two outs and runners in scoring position). There’s probably a lot of small sample noise in these numbers, even as unappealing as that may be to our sense of narrative.

HOWEVA, I don’t doubt that Addison Russell is clutch, as we now understand that word. This is a guy – at age twenty-freaking-two – who clearly does not let the pressure of the biggest moments get to him. He stays within himself, stays focused, and performs as well as he can when the pressure is at its highest.

When it comes to being clutch, that’s all you can ask for.




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