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Who Are Major League Baseball's Most Clutch Pitchers?

The White Sox' Chris Sale is no stranger to facing tough situations—or pitching out of them.
The White Sox' Chris Sale is no stranger to facing tough situations—or pitching out of them.Leon Halip/Getty Images
Jason CataniaMLB Lead WriterSeptember 24, 2013

Clutch can go both ways.

Last week, we looked at the most clutch hitters in Major League Baseball, and this time around, we'll do the same for pitchers. After all, with playoff berths, positioning on the line and the postseason itself looming, this is when clutch really counts.

Similar to the approach for hitters, we'll identify a batch of various clutch-related categories and list the hurlers—both starters and relievers—who are in the top 10 in each over the last five seasons (2009-2013) in order to provide a large enough sample size to weigh and measure meaningful performances.

Much like with batters, the key to remember is that clutch isn't necessarily consistent, meaning a pitcher who has come up big in key spots in the past is not guaranteed to continue to do so. Rather, the results below simply show which arms have managed to be at their best when it has mattered most in the recent past.

With that in mind, here's the windup and the pitch.

 

Runners in Scoring Position

For this first split, we're going to go with a general situation in which things start to get tense for the men on the mound.

These are the ERA leaders with runners in scoring position—second and/or third base—from 2009 through 2013 (using a minimum of 75 innings pitched in such situations for starters and 75 innings for relievers):

There are loads of big names on both the starter and reliever sides of this list. In the former, we can point to Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw as perhaps the three best pitchers in the game right now, which is backed up all the more by the fact that they have shown a knack for making big pitches in big spots. Like this:

In the latter group, there are a trio of Proven Closers™ in Jonathan Papelbon, Rafael Soriano and Francisco Rodriguez, as well as a couple of others who have saved a few games over the past few years in righties Brad Ziegler and Tyler Clippard, both of whom have also been among the most consistent setup men in the sport. And lefty Eric O'Flaherty was in that same mix, too, before missing the vast majority of this season with elbow surgery.

Remember, as we continue, it's worth keeping track of which names come up more than once.

 

Two Outs and Runners in Scoring Position

Now we get a little less taxing on the pitcher, but it's still no fun having a man within on second or third base, even when only one out is needed.

Again, here are the ERA leaders with two outs and RISP between 2009 and 2013 (using a minimum of 75 innings in such scenarios for starters and 30 for relievers):

There are a bunch of repeats on both fronts, but with regards to the starting pitchers, there are five interesting cases in Josh Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels and Yovani Gallardo. While none of them have had their best year in 2013, they all have a long history of success in the majors, and this shows just how much they were able to bear down and get that final out with runners only 180 or even 90 feet from scoring.

Among the relievers, there's a mix of arms with closer experience, like Sergio Romo, Chris Perez, Andrew Bailey and Joaquin Benoit, who took over the job in Detroit this summer in part because of how well he handles pressure.

But there are also a few specialists here in righty sidewinder Darren O'Day and southpaws Scott Downs and Javier Lopez, each of whom are frequently brought into the game with runners already in scoring position—and who often get out of such jams. Like so:

 

Late and Close

As mentioned in the clutch hitter piece, "late and close" is any plate appearance (or batter faced) from the seventh inning on in which the hitting team is either in a tie game, ahead by one run or has the potential tying run on deck. Essentially, this is when the going gets tough.

And here are the ERA leaders in late and close situations from 2009 to 2013 (using a minimum of 75 innings in said scenarios for starters and 150 for relievers, because starters don't pitch as often from the seventh inning on):

You may have noticed that this is the second straight instance in which each of Hernandez, Lincecum, Halladay and Cain made this top 10, and isn't it fitting that each of those four has also hurled either a perfect game or a no-hitter within the past four seasons? Lincecum tossed his no-no this year, Hernandez and Cain pitched perfectos in 2012 and Halladay—gasp—did both back in 2010.

Meanwhile, Chris Sale has yet to achieve either feat, but he does lead this list, and there are two reasons for that. One, he's really good (duh). And two, the lanky left-hander, you'll recall, spent his first two seasons in the majors (2010 and 2011) pitching out of the White Sox' bullpen as a key late-inning arm, which helps pump his stats up a bit.

Speaking of late-inning arms, we have even more closers this time around, as Craig Kimbrel, Mariano Rivera, Brian Wilson and Grant Balfour enter the fray along with repeaters Papelbon and Romo. And it's no surprise to see them joined by eighth-inning relievers Mike Adams, who's missed much of 2013 with injury, and David Robertson, who has always had a knack for wiggling himself out of trouble.

 

High Leverage

The explanation for "high leverage" (or the concept of "leverage" in general) can be found at Baseball Reference (and perhaps more succinctly translated in my previous clutch hitter story). The gist, though, is that certain game situations are more significantly weighted toward the potential outcome of a contest, and how pitchers perform in those meatier matchups can be measured.

These are the ERA leaders in high leverage scenarios from 2009 to 2013 (using a minimum of 100 high-leverage innings for starters and 75 for relievers):

Not many new names here by now, which does show that there is at least some carry-over from certain clutch statistics to others when it comes to both starting pitchers and relievers.

It's certainly not shocking that an electric arm like Kimbrel's would show up on a second top 10 list, as many consider him to be the most dominant closer in the game right now.

And while it may be tough to remember now, given his ongoing arm troubles and overall struggles the last two years, Halladay has made it into all four clutch categories because of how dynamic he was at his peak at shutting down lineups the third and fourth time through. A reminder:

 

The Most Clutch of the Clutch

As in the hitter piece, here is where we tally the pitchers who appeared in more than one of the above top 10 lists to find out just which arms have been the kings of clutch in the last five seasons.

Overall, among starting pitchers there are nine who showed up multiple times on these top 10s, and they are: Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Chis Sale, Roy Halladay, Mat Latos, Cole Hamels, Hiroki Kuroda, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum.

Of those nine, the first four—Kershaw, Hernandez, Sale and Halladay—made it onto at least three top 10s (Halladay made four), making them the most consistently clutch performers (if such a thing does exist) in recent years as starters.

Shifting to relievers, there are 11 who placed multiple times in these top 10s, and they are: Jonathan Papelbon, Eric O'Flaherty, Brad Ziegler, Tyler Clippard, Sergio Romo, Darren O'Day, Scott Downs, Mike Adams, Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera.

Of those 11, the first two—Papelbon and O'Flaherty—appeared in three top 10s, while the other nine relievers all showed up in two lists.

As far as the final week of the season and into the playoffs, it will be worth keeping an eye on Kershaw and Latos among the starters, and Kimbrel and Downs in the reliever crew to see how they all fare in the most intense situations.

Alas, the shame of this is that the great Rivera likely won't get another chance to come up clutch and add to his incredible postseason resume this October.

But when it comes to being clutch, not every pitcher can put himself in big spots—he can only do what he can to pitch well when called upon.

 

All statistics come from Baseball Reference.

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