Debunking RISP


After a sluggish start to the 2015 season, the Seattle Mariners’ record has started to improve, which is encouraging for the team’s fan base since the team has been a popular pick to reach the postseason for the first time since 2001. Yet, fans continue to voice their concern that the Mariners’ offense continues to struggle with scoring runs.

Entering today, the Mariners were averaging 3.8 runs-per-game (R/G), which ranks twelfth in the American League (AL). Understandably, fans are going to be frustrated when they see stranded runners and too few runs being scored, especially when the team is losing or struggling to hang on to leads. It’s as if nothing has changed from last year’s Mariners squad, which also couldn’t consistently mount a reliable offense to support their superb rotation.

As the offense has scuffled through April and nearly all of May, one “statistic” that’s been used repeatedly by some pundits to quantify the team’s early struggles is batting average with runners-in-scoring-position (RISP) and it drives me crazy.

It’s not that I don’t agree that the Mariners have issues scoring – they do. But, run-scoring success – or futility – can’t simply be pinned on RISP effectiveness, which is a random statistic that doesn’t accurately reflect a team’s or player’s ability to score runs. Frankly, using RISP to assess the offensive production of an individual player or a team is lazy analysis.

Yes, the Mariners are currently mired in the bottom three of the AL in both runs-scored and RISP. But, the correlation between run-scoring and RISP doesn’t measure up when you look around the league – half of the teams that are above the league-average in R/G are below-average in RISP average. The most glaring contradiction is the worst scoring team in the AL – the Chicago White Sox – they have the fifth best RISP batting average (.276) of the young 2015 season.

Looking back at the 2014 Mariners provides another example of the meaninglessness of using RISP success as an assessment tool – Seattle’s RISP (.262) was six points higher than league-average and fifth in the AL. Yes, that’s right, the team that was near the bottom in virtually every offensive category  – including thirteenth in R/G – had the fifth-best batting average with RISP. How can that be?

Small sample of a small sample
One of the biggest issues I have with “RISP analysis” is that small sample sizes of data are used to express offensive effectiveness. Using small amounts of data to characterize the “clutchness” of an individual player reduces the reliability of the RISP statistic being quoted. Yet, I continuously read comments discussing the performance of a team or a player during a short span of games.

Even a player’s RISP batting average for an entire season is small sample size. In 2014, Robinson Cano hit .339 in 149 plate appearances with RISP. That’s pretty good! But, you wouldn’t award a player a batting title for hitting .339 for such a short time period. So, why label a player as “clutch” or “not clutch” with such a small sample size?

Good hitters hit regardless of the situation, while below-average hitters continue to be below-average – a player’s career RISP success will look similar to their overall career batting average. To see what I mean, take a look at the career numbers of veteran Mariners and you’ll see that their career batting average is relatively close to their batting average with RISP. They’re either good or bad, regardless of the base runner situation.

Is something wrong with Robinson Cano in 2015?
The answer to the question is “nothing.” It’s true that Cano has gotten off to a slow start and is batting a lowly .205 with RISP. Is this a reason to decry that the 32-year-old is over-the-hill? Not after a whopping 49 plate appearances with RISP. A review of Cano’s career numbers illuminates the fact that he’s the same player with or without RISP. The Mariners’ second baseman has an overall career batting average of .308, while his career average with RISP is .284. His career on-base percentage (OBP) with RISP (.353) is nearly identical to his overall OBP of .356.

Boomstick
Nelson Cruz has made an impressive debut in Seattle by leading the AL in home runs and earning recognition as AL Player of the Month for April. Yes, he’s hitting extremely well (.346) with RISP. But, his overall average (.341) is virtually equal. As I said earlier, the 2015 sample size is too small to use. Like Cano, the 34-year-old slugger’s career numbers with or without RISP are similar – .287 and .272 respectively.

The enigmatic Mariner
Seattle’s most confounding hitter – Dustin Ackley – hasn’t produced with RISP throughout his five-year career, but he’s below league-average regardless of situation. The 27-year-old has a career average of .225 with RISP and .242 otherwise – neither are good. By 2,000 major league plate appearances, a player’s value has normally become apparent. This isn’t an iron clad rule, but 2,000 plate appearances is an appropriate time to consider the future role of a player. In the case of Ackley, his course seems to be set based on his 2,100-plus plate appearances.

The rest of the gang
There are six other Mariners with more than 2,000 career plate appearances – Willie Bloomquist, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison, Kyle Seager, Seth Smith, and Rickie Weeks. Only Morrison has a significantly different batting average – .250 overall vs. 215 with RISP – while the averages for the others are within 30 points. This demonstrates that players are basically the same player regardless of the RISP situation; that even applies to a player renowned for his poise in pressure situations.

Captain Clutch
Derek Jeter earned the moniker of “Captain Clutch” for making impressive postseason plays – in the field and with his bat – that left an impression that the retired Yankees shortstop was better under pressure. It’s true that the future Hall of Famer provided some of the most memorable plays in the last twenty years. But, Jeter’s career batting average was .310, while he hit .301 with RISP – good, but very similar numbers. In reality, Jeter was consistently great in every situation and that’s why Cooperstown awaits the Yankee great.

Creating opportunities
The Mariners’ 2014 success with RISP didn’t lead to the team doing well in the runs-scored category because they didn’t create enough scoring opportunities – they were fourteenth in plate appearances with or without RISP. The team that ranked last – the Baltimore Orioles – was able to overcome their shortfall of runners by easily leading the majors in home runs, being second in the AL in slugging percentage, and being slightly above league-average in batting average. The Mariners aren’t constructed to consistently power their way to scores and have to create scoring opportunities by getting more runners on base.

The Mariners currently rank thirteenth in plate appearances (409) with RISP – league-average is 445. This reinforces the real problem with the Mariners’ offense – they don’t get on base often enough, let alone hit with RISP. For this team to succeed, they’ll need to create more scoring opportunities by getting on base at a higher rate, which is a topic that Prospect Insider founder and co-host of The Steve Sandmeyer Show – Jason A. Churchill – broached just last week when he offered suggestions to fix the Mariners.

“Clutch” hitting isn’t the problem for the Mariners– they just need to get on-base at a higher rate in order to increase their scoring opportunities. Seattle will need to make incremental moves similar to the ones that Jason has suggested or the team will continue to have difficulties scoring – regardless of their success with RISP. I’m not advocating to ban “RISP” from the lexicon of the baseball pundits. But, I do believe that it’s a hollow stat that doesn’t tell the “rest of the story” and – at the very least – should be put into context when being offered to fans during an offensive drought.

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