One night, everything seems like it’s working perfectly for the Dodgers—sort of like their bulldozing 11-1 victory against the Padres in the series opener on Friday evening. The next night, however, the squad will find itself in a very tight contest, only to under-perform in the moments when the game is on the line. This has become a popular theme of the 2018 Dodgers, leaving fans feeling confident one moment, but pulling their collective hair out the next.
Some folks have attributed the problem this season to many aspects of the club’s performance—anything from poor team chemistry to inconsistent batting orders to a lackluster bullpen. Many more have observed that the Dodgers have been horrible on offense with runners in scoring position, and this group could be the closest to the real crux of the problem. According to Fangraphs and Jeff Sullivan (with a hat-tip from our own Jeff D. for his discovery), the Dodgers are the worst performers in the clutch this season and could be among the worst clutch teams in the bigs since 1974.
Sullivan indicates that the actual formula itself is complex, but explains the gist of clutch performance as whether a player or team has done better or worse than expected in higher-leverage situations—in terms of both pitching and hitting. From the roots of the standings, it makes total sense. The Dodgers far and away have the best run differential in the National League at +118, yet sit right in the middle of the pack with the eighth-best record.
Sullivan outlines his claims nicely by highlighting several instances from the recent series against the Cardinals in which the Dodgers were swept at home. In the opener, with the game on the line, Kenley Jansen allowed a pair of ninth-inning home runs. Moments before, when the game was tied in the bottom of the eighth, Justin Turner struck out with one out and a runner on third. Cody Bellinger failed to deliver with two out and runners on second and third. In the finale, Jansen allowed a two-run ninth-inning homer. Before that, when the game was tied in the bottom of the eighth, Manny Machado grounded out with two outs and the bases loaded.
Ironically enough, the clutch score of the Dodgers last year was good enough for seventh-best in the majors, a far cry from an MLB-worst -9.1 this season. If the patterns occur at their current rate, Los Angeles would finish with a score of -11.5, almost guaranteeing them an absence from the postseason while recording once of the worst clutch performance scores in recent history.
There are a few other advanced stats that back Sullivan’s claims. He explains, according to Baseball Reference, that the Dodgers have a .768 OPS in low-leverage situations. In medium-leverage situations, it has increased .803. But in high-leverage situations, the Dodgers have a combined OPS of .635. There’s also a stat called tOPS+, which compares a player or team’s split performance to the player or team’s overall performance. The Dodgers have a high-leverage tOPS+ of 71, where 100 would be average. And it’s the worst such tOPS+ in the majors.
As far as individual performances go, Sullivan points out that the blame isn’t shared by everyone equally. Matt Kemp has a positive score, as does Enrique Hernandez. So did Logan Forsythe when he was with the club, believe it or not. But Joc Pederson’s score is strongly negative. Bellinger’s is the sixth-worst in baseball, while Max Muncy’s is the fifth-worst. Yasmani Grandal’s is the fourth-worst in the MLB. That’s bad news when three of the club’s key contributors score among the ten worst in the majors.
In the end, clutch performance is a stat that can’t be fixed with a simple lineup adjustment, extra time in the video room or swings in the batting cages. It’s primarily about individual performances and whether or not all the players can collectively deliver when the game is on the line. Last season, fans saw it night after night, as the Dodgers were able to find victory often, even when they were trailing late in games. And while it has been almost the opposite this year, there’s still time to turn the tables, despite the numbers suggesting otherwise. But, if the current patterns hold true over the final 33 regular-season games, a 2018 postseason berth may never come to be.