The Narrative

You’ve heard me use the word “narrative” a lot recently, probably enough to make it lose all meaning (you know when you say a word over and over?). But there is a human tendency to tie curious results to some kind of narrative. When a team doesn’t win, we insist that there isn’t enough leadership. On the flip side, when a team is more successful than expected, it’s because players “stepped up” in some intangible way (“knows how to win”, for example). When a normally-successful hitter hits the skids for a noticeable period of time, he’s “pressing” and “trying to do too much”.

The latest narrative involves Jonathan Papelbon and a variant of the “clutch” lore. ESPN’s David Schoenfield notes that the Phillies are worse than the league average going into the ninth inning. That, along with two memorable losses with Papelbon on the mound (last night, and May 7 against the Mets) has led to this narrative:

Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon consistently failing in non-save situations

But put Papelbon into the game in a non-save situation and the numbers haven’t been pretty. He’s pitched nine times in a non-save situation. His numbers? 8.1 innings, 11 hits, 2 walks, 3 strikeouts, 3 homers, 6 earned runs, 6.48 ERA.

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The job of closer is one of the most mental roles in all of sports, and Papelbon is a classic case of a pitcher who can succeed when he’s pitching in a save situation.

But put him into the game when the Phillies are tied, or losing, and don’t expect the score to stay the same for very long.

This narrative is the opposite of “clutch”. Essentially, Papelbon is fine in strenuous situations but supposedly terrible when there’s nothing to lose. Here are some more stats on Papelbon in those situations:

  • Save situations: 4.7 K/BB, .522 OPS allowed
  • Non-save situations: 3.5 K/BB, .565 OPS allowed

His strikeout-to-walk ratio drops significantly and his OPS rises by 43 points. That’s significant! Wait, let me look closer at this website… no, those are Mariano Rivera‘s career numbers, actually. Oops. Looks like Mariano Rivera just can’t get it done in non-save situations!

Papelbon’s career numbers, by the way:

  • Save situations: 4.4 K/BB, .558 OPS allowed
  • Non-save situations: 5.5 K/BB, .586 OPS allowed

The notorious “small sample size” ¬†label needs to be appended here as well. Papelbon has faced no more than 190 batters in save situations in any one season (less than one-third of a full season’s worth of plate appearances) and no more than 120 batters in non-save situations (less than one-fifth of a full season). There is so much room for variance in any one season. For example, Papelbon held hitters to a .413 OPS in non-save situations in 2006. Clearly, Papelbon came into the league with the ability to get things done when his team needed him least! He allowed a .426 OPS in save situations in 2007, so he grew into the closer’s role… but he’s forgotten since, because his OPS in save situations in 2010 was .708. But he remembered this year (.313).

It’s hard to walk a straight line when you follow the hilariously-warped logic of the narrative crowd. I say, when narrative shrubbery is in your way, cut it down with Occam’s Razor.