My first real-life encounter with someone from the other side of the Belt Wars happened during the 2014 World Series. Before then, I had only heard myths and legends. I had begun to think they were something like a ghost story invented to keep us loyal. I was at a bar in Chicago called Cheesie’s, and I was talking to another Giants fan sitting next to me. We watched as Brandon Belt struck out, and the dude lamented, “Man, I hate Brandon Belt. He’s always striking out in big moments.”
I was taken aback to say the least. Belt wound up finishing the 2014 postseason with a .295/.397/.361 slash line, which aside from the lack of power, is pretty good considering all of those at bats took place in big moments. But I couldn’t help wondering about this guy who thought Belt was bad because he struck out that one time.
Sun Tzu’s Art of War encourages one to know thine enemy. Weirdos on the other side of the Belt Wars have long fallen upon the argument that Belt isn’t clutch. But you, an enlightened individual know that no hitter is clutch or unclutch (except for Josh Reddick who is extremely unclutch somehow). Besides, Belt has been unequivocally great this year.
Even with his appendix going rogue, he still leads the Giants in fWAR. No one has helped the Giants win in 2018 more than Belt. The traditional stats say he’s great. The nerd stats say he’s great. There’s no way he’s “unclutch.”
Wait, I can explain.
A couple things about Fangraphs’ clutch stat:
1) By Fangraphs’ own admission, Clutch does a good job of describing the past, but it does very little towards predicting the future. Simply because one player was clutch at one point does not mean they will continue to perform well in high-leverage situations (and vice versa).
2) It compares a player against himself. If a player is hitting .350 but .300 in high-leverage situations, he’s going to look unclutch. Conversely, if a player is hitting .250 but .300 in high leverage situations, he’s going to look clutch even though he’s performing more or less the same as the unclutch hitter in big spots.
Belt appears to be unclutch because he’s been bad in a handful of plate appearances and amazing in all the others. On the season, Belt is hitting .300/.395/.542. In high-leverage situations, he’s hitting .130/.241/.391.
Take a look at the name at the top. Kelby Tomlinson is hitting .222/.282/.278 and hitting .333/.375/.533 in high-leverage situations.
Essentially, Belt and Tomlinson have Freaky Friday’d into each other’s bodies when the game is on the line.
Imagine this situation: ninth inning, Giants down by 1, runners on second and third, two outs. The pitcher’s spot is coming up and Bochy has two guys on the bench he can use: Belt or Tomlinson.
Who would you rather he use?
(You can’t say Madison Bumgarner because he started the game.)
Look, I love Kelby Tomlinson. He’s the real-life version of every time I’ve created myself in Road to the Show. But if you’re going with Tomlinson in that situation, you’re either (A) a time-traveler who knows that Tomlinson slapped a chopper up the middle causing the middle infielder to collide and conk their heads together like coconuts or (B) you’ve conked your head like a coconut.
Belt hasn’t hit well in high-leverage situations this year, but he’s also only had 29 plate appearances. Batters don’t get enough crucial plate appearances in a season to really prove anything about a player’s clutchness one way or the other.
Fangraphs has recorded Belt with 406 high-leverage plate appearances. Baseball Reference defines high-leverage a bit more broadly. They have him with 724 high-leverage plate appearances. Since Baseball Reference supplies the larger sample, we’ll look at those numbers. He’s hit .277/.372/.439, which is a very Belt-like slash line.
Look at tOPS+, which is like OPS+ except that it only compares how a player performs in a split to his overall performance. A mark of 100 means that a hitter performs no differently in high leverage situations. Marks below suggest a player chokes. Marks above suggest a player is clutch. Josh Reddick, mentioned earlier as someone who actually might perform differently in high-leverage situations has a career 69 tOPS+.
Belt has a tOPS+ of 97 in high-leverage situations. He’s hit just a tick below his normal performance, but not significantly so. If you think that an .811 OPS is much worse than an .827 OPS then I don’t know what else to tell you.
Belt doesn’t choke, and he’s also not clutch. He’s like any other player in that he hits how he normally does with the game on the line. Just because he hasn’t done well in important spots this year doesn’t mean he’ll continue to.