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Tigers are among baseball's worst teams at clutch hitting

Over the past three years, Detroit's performance in high leverage situations has been far worse than the league average.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday night's loss against the Cincinnati Reds was frustrating for many reasons. Some could point to manager Brad Ausmus' bullpen usage, and some could point to the rain delay costing David Price a chance at a complete game three-peat. Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all, though, was Detroit's hitting late in the game. Outside of Tyler Collins' pinch-hit homer, Detroit was shut down in the late innings. They were held to just six hits on the night, two of which came in the ninth inning or later. This is part of a disturbing trend that has shown up in Detroit since 2013.

In the past three years, the Tigers have been one of baseball's best offensive teams. Their .334 wOBA and 111 wRC+ lead all of baseball during that span by a healthy margin. However, they show a large split in performance when in what Fangraphs defines as a "low" leverage situation (a situation where an at-bat will likely not have a drastic effect on the probability of a team winning) and what is considered "high" leverage (an at-bat which will have a large effect on a team's win probability).

In low leverage situations, Detroit is hitting .281/.337/.432 for a robust wRC+ of 113. However, during high leverage opportunities, the team's batting line plummets to .242/.316/.383, which is an 89 wRC+. Quite literally, over the last three years the Tigers have been 21 percent less effective as hitters in clutch situations versus nonclutch situations.

There are reasons for the Tigers' hitting woes in big moments, not the least of which is quality of competition. To give extreme examples from Wednesday night, the Tigers were locked in a high-leverage battle with the Reds going into the ninth, and thus were forced to face Aroldis Chapman. The Chicago Cubs, who beat the Cleveland Indians 17-0, faced emergency reliever Ryan Raburn in the ninth. The results were predictable; Detroit was set down in order while many runs ensued for the Cubs in Cleveland.

That is to say, the higher the leverage in a game, the better the pitcher on the mound is likely to be. This is reflected in league-wide stats from 2013 to 2015, which show that the average wRC+ in low leverage situations is 95, while the league-average high leverage wRC+ is 91. There's a drop-off there, but nowhere near as dramatic as Detroit's. This table further breaks down the split in run creation by leverage.

Team differences in leverage-based wRC+
Team Low-Leverage wRC+ High-Leverage wRC+ Difference
Kansas City 89 114 25
San Diego 86 106 20
Baltimore 97 105 8
San Francisco 98 106 8
Atlanta 91 96 5
New York Yankees 87 91 4
Cleveland 103 106 3
Seattle 89 91 2
Arizona 91 92 1
Saint Louis 93 93 0
New York Mets 90 90 0
Milwaukee 88 86 -2
Chicago White Sox 85 83 -2
Cincinnati 91 88 -3
Oakland 101 98 -3
Miami 87 83 -4
Colorado 89 84 -5
Toronto 105 99 -6
Pittsburgh 102 95 -7
Philadelphia 86 79 -7
Minnesota 93 84 -9
Houston 93 82 -11
Tampa Bay 107 95 -12
Anaheim 106 94 -12
Boston 106 93 -13
Chicago Cubs 87 70 -17
Las Angeles 108 90 -18
Washington 93 73 -20
Detroit 113 89 -24
Texas 99 72 -27

Detroit's split in hitting effectiveness is one of the largest in the league, but it's not unprecedented. The woebegone Texas Rangers suffer a 27-point drop-off in performance in big moments, while on the opposite end of the spectrum the Kansas City Royals are essentially kings of the high leverage. The standard deviation on this sample (assuming all teams' opportunities are weighted equally) is about 11.5, so the Tigers scoring a negative 24 gives us a z-score of -2.09. This means that there is roughly a two percent chance that a team showing that sharp of a difference between wRC+ values based on leverage is due to pure luck, so we can go ahead and conclude the Tigers are just a bad team at clutch hitting.

Detroit's inability to hit in the clutch has plagued them over the last three years as much as bullpen issues. Hitting better in key scenarios would go a long way to take stress off of the beleagured relief corps and help Detroit climb back into the divisional race.