MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Some players are cool when heat is on

Leach: Some are cool when heat is on

Some players are cool when heat is on
When you think of money players, clutch performers, you probably think of some of Major League Baseball's biggest names. Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and Mariano Rivera have long-standing reputations as not only great players, but players who are great at the biggest moments.

Whether those players' histories are predictive is, of course, a matter of enormous debate. There's a strong argument to be made that great players are simply great, regardless of the circumstance, and that "clutch" players and "chokers" will eventually look like themselves if you give them enough big-game at-bats or innings.

In the short term, though, there's a reason games are played out. Lesser-known players can shine in big situations, and it's often that their contributions make a difference in a season. Here's a look at some players quietly (or loudly) getting it done under pressure in 2011.

Antonio Bastardo: Nobody's doing much hitting at all against the third-year Phillie, who has been a critical part of a surprisingly superb bullpen. Overall, opponents are batting .128 against him -- 18-for-141. But in situations defined as "close and late," which is to say when the Phillies are tied, ahead or behind by one run or with the tying run at the plate or on deck, he's been impossibly dominant.

In those situations, hitters are 7-for-88 against Bastardo, good for an .080 batting average. He has struck out 35 of the 101 batters he's faced, and limited opponents to a .136 slugging percentage. Bastardo has been very good all the time, but with the game in the balance, he's been otherworldly.

But then, the same could be said of ...

Jose Reyes: Here we have the perfect foil for Bastardo. Reyes is having a magnificent season, the kind of year that would have put him in MVP conversations if he'd stayed healthy. He's one of the game's most exciting players, a fan favorite in Flushing ... and even more important to the Mets this year than anyone may realize.

In those same "close and late" situations, Reyes has turned into something out of the Rogers Hornsby collection. Reyes is hitting an eye-popping .424 in close-and-late situations, with a .507 on-base percentage and a .627 slugging percentage. He goes from being one of the best players in the league to being absolutely unstoppable.

Here's the thing, though: before you go and label Reyes as a "clutch player," take a look at last year. In those same situations, he was simply brutal, putting up a .161/.250/.241 line. If ever there was an argument that clutch hitting is just about timing and not some special skill, this is it.

Still, Reyes has done it this year, and it has made a difference. So has Bastardo. Even if these numbers aren't predictive, they're certainly illuminative.

For the record, Reyes and Bastardo faced each other once this year. The score was tied, but it was the fifth inning, so it didn't qualify as close and late. But for those wondering, Reyes lined out to deep left-center.

Zack Greinke: This may be the most remarkable number anywhere on this list. Not because of the accomplishment, but because of the context. Greinke is having a truly bizarre year, one in which his strikeout and walk rates are both exemplary and yet he's still giving up a high number of runs. The biggest cause of that disconnect is that when Greinke has had runners on, he's gotten tattooed. Opposing hitters are batting .321 and slugging .607 against him with runners in scoring position.

And yet with the bases loaded, he's been perfect. Opponents are 0-for-8 against Greinke with the sacks full, with no RBIs -- not even so much as a sacrifice fly. One player reached on an error, but that's it. No hits, no walks. Load 'em up against Greinke, and it's lockdown time.

Which means that somehow it would be cool if he could face...

Asdrubal Cabrera: It's been a special season in all sorts of ways for Cabrera, who has emerged as a star in 2011. He's hit more homers this year than in the rest of his career combined. He's closing in on career-high run, RBI and stolen-base totals. And he has been unstoppable with the bases loaded.

Cabrera is a sparkling 6-for-6, plus one sacrifice fly, with the sacks full. He has 10 RBIs in seven plate appearances. He's been plenty solid in pretty much all situations with runners on base, but untouchable with the bases loaded. That's a change from recent years, by the way. Cabrera was 1-for-6 with the bases loaded last year, 2-for-10 in 2009 and 4-for-10 in 2008.

Randy Choate and Tyler Clippard: A few pitchers -- four to be exact, entering Monday -- have inherited more runners this year than Choate, the Marlins' veteran lefty. But nobody has stranded them more often. Now, that's partly a factor of the way Choate is used. He averages fewer than two batters faced per appearance. In fact, Choate has finished the inning in which he entered the game in fewer than half of his appearances. That means that while he may be stranding runners, he's still leaving them for somebody else to have to strand as well.

Still, of the 25 relievers who have inherited the most runners this year, Choate is the only one who has allowed fewer than 10 percent of them to score (four out of 41, 9.8 percent). That's not nothing. Plenty of other pitchers among the leaders in inherited runners are also lefty specialists, and they've had less success than Choate.

Still, it highlights what Clippard has done. The Washington right-hander has stranded a smaller percentage of runners, but had to work harder to do it. Clippard has averaged more than four batters, and 3.8 outs, per appearance. Moreover, there hasn't been a single game this year in which he entered an inning and was removed before that same inning ended. His inherited runners are his inherited runners, nobody else's. That makes his ratio, stranding 80 percent of 40 inherited runners, much more impressive.

The point to remember in all of these scenarios is that these numbers aren't predictive. Just look at Cabrera for evidence. You can be brilliant in these situations one year and brutal the next. But that doesn't mean they don't tell a story. Every one of these guys has helped his team win more than the conventional stats show, because over the course of a game, timing does matter.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.