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By the numbers: Weighing the RISPs

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

You can find more from Michael Salfino at Comcast SportsNet

One of the great baseball debates involves clutch hitting: Does it exist or is it the game's mythical unicorn?

In 1977, Dick Cramer wrote a Baseball Research Journal article that said that year-to-year averages of players with runners in scoring position (RISP) appeared random and thus clutch hitting did not exist. But about 30 years later, Bill James wrote that Cramer's methodology "was unreliable to the point of being useless." Basically, James said he finally realized that he and Cramer were using random data to prove randomness. And that while this can prove that there's no evidence of something, it cannot prove that something does not exist.

James says clutch hitting is now an open issue and I will not argue the point. But he's accepting implicitly that the sample sizes for even an entire season's worth of RISP data is too small and thus random. And random things are very unstable and more likely to change dramatically. So let's use current RISP averages to see if we can play the market and get guys who possibly are unlucky (as opposed to unclutch) thus far in 2009 in RBI. Similarly, let's sell high those hitters who have had unsustainable good fortune measured the same way.

BUY

Felipe Lopez(notes), SS, Diamondbacks: How do you have eight RBI with four homers and a .323 average? Hitting .059 with RISP. He was .378 in those spots for the Cards last year.

Hank Blalock(notes), 3B, Rangers: He hit .343 with RISP in '04 and .337 in '06. This year, .194. His average is low due likely to bad luck – .224 on balls in play (he's been around .300 – average – throughout his career). Mixed league players should not be overly concerned with injuries because replacement value is typically high on the waiver wire.

Troy Tulowitzki(notes), SS, Rockies: He's at .091 with RISP and hitting homers at a higher rate (percentage of fly balls) than in 2007, when he launched 27 rockets.

Pat Burrell(notes), DH, Rays: Owners have made a living for years getting Burrell when things appear bleakest because he always turns it on and ends up with about the same numbers. Bet no one knows he's hitting .378 with RISP. He will have a month when he hits 10 homers and that month is there for the taking, so we'll gladly trade that for the likely regression in RISP average.

Vernon Wells(notes), OF, Blue Jays: He's too good a hitter to continue his .191 with RISP. And the Jays lineup is good, if not great.

HOLD

Hanley Ramirez(notes), SS, Marlins: Hitting .500 with RISP, but he has just 19 RBI despite being moved to the three hole. Prior to this year, though, he's been relatively poor in the clutch – .239 with RISP in 2008, for example. No matter, though; if the Marlins wise up and get Emilio Bonifacio(notes) out of the leadoff spot (and lineup altogether), that alone will get Ramirez on track for 110 RBI along with 30 bombs and 30 bags.

Aubrey Huff(notes), 1B, Orioles: A smart owner in my home league just paid a fortune for him as if 2006 and 2007 never happened. He's hitting .424 with RISP this year (.320 in '08). But he was .180 in '06 and .270 in '07. The three guys hitting ahead of him are all well over .300 and getting on base in droves. Looking at it another way, he's exactly the hitter we thought he'd be now after the 2004 season.

Ryan Ludwick(notes), OF, Cardinals: He's hitting .400 with RISP but his owners are not liking his overall average – depressed by hitting .256 on balls in play (he hit .342 on BIP last year). I don't like him having twice as many homers (8) as doubles (4), but he is on a 40-plus homer pace so that I will forgive.

Ian Kinsler(notes), 2B, Rangers: Hitting .423 with RISP this year after posting .413 in '08. So he sure seems clutch to me. Note that he's striking out a lot more, too, though and thus is likely to see declines in overall average unless that gets corrected. I wish I knew what his K-rate was with RISP, but would bet it's a lot lower.

Jay Bruce(notes), OF, Reds: He's just .171 this year and .228 last year with RISP. Maybe he is unclutch, the anti-Kinsler. I thus can't confidently predict a dramatic RBI correction.

SELL

Brandon Inge(notes), 3B, Tigers: Everyone has him rostered at catcher. He's hitting .417 with RISP and it's never been higher than .298 before and most often far lower than even that. His rate of homers on fly balls is about three times higher than in '07 and '08. He's perhaps better, but likely not nearly this much better. The line drive rate is low – 13.5 percent. A correction in average is coming, the only question is how big.

Akinori Iwamura(notes), 2B, Rays: Career MLB averages with RISP: .184, .241, .219 ('09). Verdict: unclutch.

Michael Salfino's work has appeared in USA Today's Sports Weekly, RotoWire, dozens of newspapers nationwide and most recently throughout Comcast SportsNet, including SNY.tv, for which he also analyzes the Mets and Yankees. He's been writing "Baseball by the Numbers" weekly since 2005.

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