The graph above shows Mets players' performances in "high-leverage" situations since 2007, minimum 150 plate appearances. Daniel Murphy is planted firmly in the bottom half of the table. Does he choke in big spots?
A 13th-round pick in the 2006 amateur draft, Murphy seemingly came out of nowhere to become a player that pulls Mets fans' emotions in all different directions. Blessed with a line drive hit tool but blocked at his natural position by David Wright, Murphy has moved all over the field so that the Mets could find a spot for his bat.
He finally landed at second base in 2012 and has delivered the goods offensively. Murphy has hit a solid .290/.333/.419 (108 wRC+) in his major league career, helping to compensate for his defensive and baserunning shenanigans.
But back to the topic at hand, there has been endless debate and controversy over the topic of "clutch." Does it exist? Do some players rise to the occasion in the biggest moments? Do some crater under the pressure? When is the sample size large enough to make the determination that a player is not as good when the pressure is at its highest?
My personal opinion is that it seems unlikely that players can just tap into a certain moment to become a better player than who they are. Players who show a knack for coming through with big hits in big spots one year will often revert to normal expectations the next year. Aaron Boone’s extra-inning home run against the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS is considered one of the greatest clutch hits of all-time. What often isn’t mentioned is that Boone was just 8-for-52 (.153) with only two extra-base hits in his other 57 postseason plate appearances for the Yankees that year.
FanGraphs offers the neat Leverage Index (LI) metric to help us answer clutch-related questions. LI was created by sabermetrician Tom Tango several years ago and it attempts to quantify the importance of each situation by looking at the possible change in win probability of any given at-bat. A value is assigned for every situation depending on the inning, score, outs, and number of runners on base. The bigger impact the ensuing at-bat has on the outcome of the game, the higher LI score it will receive.
A 1.00 LI is considered an average/neutral situation.
- An LI below 0.85 is considered low leverage. These would occur mostly in blowouts or early-inning situations without runners on base. A majority (~55%) of all situations are low leverage.
- An LI from 0.85 to 2.00 indicates a medium-leverage situation. These would primarily cover your typical middle-inning at-bats in competitive games. About a third (~35%) of situations fall in this category.
- Anything higher than 2.00 is high leverage. On average, roughly 10% of at-bats per game are considered high leverage.
Murphy has thrived in medium-leverage situations. These at-bats are important toward the outcome of the game, but typically will not determine it. They are not do-or-die moments. In these situations, Murphy is at his best, hitting .320/.362/.488 with a 138 wRC+ over the course of his career.
The fact that Murphy hits extremely well in those situations makes his high-leverage performance all the more peculiar. In key moments of the late innings, Murphy has struggled immensely. In a somewhat relevant sample size of 306 plate appearances, he has hit a woeful .254/.313/.338 with a 75 wRC+.
But why is someone who is so good through the middle innings so bad late in the game? Is he choking under the pressure? The answer, simply, is no.
The chart below, which lists Murphy’s career numbers against each pitch type thrown by left-handed pitchers, helps explain what is going on.
Murphy is getting absolutely destroyed by left-handed sliders. Who is he going to face in the seventh and eighth innings of tight games? You guessed it: He sees tough lefty specialists who almost always feature devastating fastball/slider combinations. Over the last three seasons against southpaw relievers, Murphy has a .070 ISO.
It’s not that Murphy isn’t clutch. It’s just that, in key moments, he can be neutralized by his number one weakness: lefty sliders. He sees more of these pitches in the most important moments of the game than at any other time.
Forty-four times last year, Curtis Granderson and Daniel Murphy were batting 1-2 in the order. David Wright and Lucas Duda were usually behind them. When it came to pivotal moments in a game, teams could use just one lefty to buzz through Granderson and Murphy, walk Wright, and get a good matchup with Duda.
The addition of Michael Cuddyer (career 132 wRC+ against LHP) provides a big opportunity to break up the lefties at the top of the order and keep opponents from using left-handers against multiple hitters. John Mayberry Jr. (another 130 wRC+ career lefty masher) gives Terry Collins a very respectable bench option for high-leverage situations.
Murphy isn’t likely to suddenly start hitting these tough sliders, but reducing the number of times he has to face them will go a long way toward improving the Mets' offense late in games.
As to the question at hand, there is no evidence that Murphy is demonstrably any worse when the game is on the line.