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Tucker Barnhart was clutch in 2016

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When it mattered most, Tucker Barnhart was at his best.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Over the next few weeks at Red Reporter, we're going to be looking at some of the things that made us go hmmmm from the 2016 season (What have I done? The song in my head, it is getting louder). In particular, we're going to look at a statistic from each prominent Reds player that sticks out. Does this stat teach us anything about a particular player moving forward, or was it simply a one-time occurrence? Today, we're going to take a look at Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart.

Before we do that, I have to go get this song out of my head.

There's nothing quite like a little C+C Music Factory on a Wednesday afternoon...in 2016. Oh yeah, back to Barnhart.

What sticks out from Barnhart's 2016 season? If you look at his offensive stats, there isn't much that jumps out at you. It was the best year at the plate of his young career, but the production was still below average according to FanGraphs (82 wRC+) and Baseball Reference (86 OPS+). On the whole, Barnhart's season might not appear that impressive. However, if you dig a little deeper you discover something rather unexpected about the Reds catcher.

In 2016...Tucker Barnhart was really clutch.

The idea of "clutch" has been debated in baseball circles for years. Are there certain players who are able to repeatedly raise their performance in high leverage situations? The answer around the game for many years was "Yes." You could see this in the narratives that would form around particular players. In recent years David Ortiz was a common recipient of the title "clutch."

Yet, a number of statistically inclined analysts have worked toward wiping away this common perception of clutch. One such example is this 2004 article by Joe Sheehan who was with Baseball Prospectus at the time. His primary conclusion was that "players' abilities do not change in the clutch." There will always be high leverage situations in baseball and one player will win out, but those results are more a product of the normal skill and randomness inherent to baseball. The prevailing idea in this line of thought was that clutch is not a repeatable skill.

In recent years both sides have softened their stance. Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight concluded that further study "has shown there are players with a demonstrable ability to improve their hitting when it matters most." Part of his evidence for this conclusion was a lengthy article by Bill James in which he challenged a number of accepted conclusions from the saber-metrics community. James wasn't arguing that the positions were wrong, just that they couldn't justifiably be set in stone yet.

Part of what has aided our understanding of "clutch" has been the development of several statistics to help us measure its reality (and randomness). Both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference have employed statistics that help us see whether or not certain players actually do raise their level of performance in pressure packed situations. FanGraphs version of this is appropriately named "clutch," and below is a definition of the metric.

"In the words of David Appelman, this calculation measures, '...how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment. It also compares a player against himself, so a player who hits .300 in high leverage situations when he's an overall .300 hitter is not considered clutch."

According to this statistic, which Reds player was the most "clutch" during the 2016 season? Below is the top of the team leaderboard. For the sake of context, with this statistic 0 is neutral. Anything above 0 means a player outperformed their expected production in high leverage situations. A total below 0 means they performed worse than expected.

Name

Plate Appearances

Clutch (FanGraphs)

Jay Bruce

402 (w/ Reds)

1.68

Scott Schebler

282

1.47

Tyler Holt

208

1.00

Tucker Barnhart

420

1.00

Jay Bruce is no longer with the team anymore. Schebler and Holt both had higher clutch ratings than Barnhart, but they also had at least 138 fewer PA. For those reasons, Tucker Barnhart takes the title of the most clutch hitter on the Cincinnati Reds this season. What exactly helped him earn this title?

First and foremost, Barnhart performed 88% better than the rest of MLB with two outs and runners in scoring position. In 2016 Barnhart stepped to the plate 49 times in this very situation. How did he fare in those instances? He hit .350/.469/.550 and drove in 21 runs. That makes an OPS of 1.019. Among Reds players who had a minimum of 300 PA, Joey Votto and Adam Duvall also had an OPS north of .900 in this situation. However, neither of them were as productive as Barnhart.

Another factor in Barnhart's favor was his ability to produce in "high leverage situations." Baseball Reference defines these situations by means of a leverage index which "looks at the possible changes in win probability in a given situation; situations where dramatic swings in win probability are possible (e.g. runner on second late in a tie game) have higher LIs than situations where there can be no large change in win probability (e.g. late innings of a 12-run blowout)."

How did Barnhart perform in high leverage situations? 73% better than the rest of baseball (173 sOPS+). He accomplished that by hitting .353/.416/.588 with 3 HR and 28 RBI. The only Reds player who outperformed Barnhart in this regard was Joey Votto (191 sOPS+). As an aside, someone needs to take this stat, frame it, and hang it in the Red Reporter Facebook group. Not only was Joey Votto really good in 2016, but he was really good when it mattered most. Why don't people believe this?!?!? WHY DON'T YOU APPRECIATE HIM???

(Goes upstairs to get a fresh cup of coffee and calm down)

Back to Barnhart...he also performed unusually well when he came to the plate in a tie game (65 PA). By OPS this was the clutch situation in which he had the most success. When the game was tied Barnhart hit .350/.400/.633 with 4 HR and 13 RBI. This probably carries the least amount of weight, because this factor doesn't consider the inning in which it was tied when Barnahrt came to the plate.

The individuals who created these stats are quick to remind you that they aren't usually predictive of future performance. A season ago Barnhart had a "poor" clutch rating (-1.02). His strong "clutch" stat this season probably doesn't tell us much about Barnhart's expected performance in 2017, but it was fun to watch this year.

It was fun to watch him perform in moments like this...