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.


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.

Leave a Reply



  1. jackieinertia

    June 05, 2012 01:40 PM

    a closer is not truly clutch unless his ERA, FIP, and xFIP is 0.00. SIERA can vary.

  2. Max

    June 05, 2012 02:11 PM

    Yes, very true. SIERA can vary anywhere from negative-[whatever it would be if strikes out every batter] to 0.00.

  3. LTG

    June 05, 2012 03:14 PM

    Statistical analysis is just a narrative told from the omniscient third-person perspective.

  4. Baked McBride

    June 05, 2012 03:29 PM

    Well, you almost avoided the trap of your cohort, but not quite. You are correct that you use narrative so much as to not have much meaning, but the evacuation of meaning is not from overuse, it’s from not offering any precise or detailed conceptualization of the term in the first place. Qualitative terms are worth explicating at the conceptual level, too. Too often in these pages “narrative” becomes a shorthand for what you really mean to critique (and do quite well) which is the lazy, cliched, time-worn narratives of mainstream writers that overlook what is “really” happening. But when you say things like “the narrative crowd” as if all narratives are somehow problematic, you obscure a number of larger points – including that sabr-analytics and this website develop their own narratives in order to create meaning and explain practices. (As do most scientific and statistical practices (cf. Ian Hacking)). The analytic task is to examine how certain narratives function to create “bad” meaning and to counter that – as I think you often do – not to dismiss the process of narrative altogether without understanding its (quite valuable) role in our psychological and cognitive meaning-making practices – or your own narrativizing. On a larger level, its worth thinking about qualitative concepts with the same rigor used to conduct statistical analysis – when the object of analysis is qualitative in nature (e.g. use of narrative by writers.). (Sorry for the long comment – I’m really bad at the internet but really like much of the conversation and analysis on this site.)

  5. LTG

    June 05, 2012 03:48 PM

    As a member of Hacking’s discipline, I feel compelled to qualify McBride by saying there is nothing authoritative about any conclusion a philosopher draws, even if there is something authoritative in the way that a philosopher carves the contours of the space of reasons. So McBride’s reference to Hacking should not be taken as an appeal to authority but a suggestion for further reading.

  6. Bill Baer

    June 05, 2012 04:17 PM

    Yeah, that’s very true — not all narratives are bad and using the term as shorthand may obfuscate the larger point. Well put, Baked and LTG.

  7. Erik

    June 06, 2012 08:25 AM

    You came through for your readers with this one. I saw Schoenfield’s article yesterday, and thought, “I bet I know what Bill Baer has to say about this.” Thanks for holding the feet that deserve it to the fire.

  8. hk

    June 06, 2012 09:55 AM

    There’s another narrative, that Dom Brown is a bust, that has made its way around the local airwaves since Dom was demoted (instead of Ibanez being benched) following the Pence trade. Don’t look now, but Dom has put together a 4 HR, .415/.455/.756 ten game stretch for Lehigh Valley and I can’t imagine a better time to #freedombrown and test that narrative.

  9. Scott G

    June 06, 2012 11:45 AM


    Thanks for posting this. I heard a lot of people talking yesterday about how Papelbon “doesn’t have it” in non-save situations. At the time, I wasn’t near my computer so I couldn’t really look up his career splits. What’s even more frustrating is that even Papelbon’s career ERA (more mainstream) is pretty much right in line with his ERA in save situations.

    Papelbon has thrown 8 1/3 innings this season. Two weekends ago, Kendrick threw a complete game shutout (9 IP). Certainly this isn’t a great indication of his abilities.

  10. Erik

    June 07, 2012 11:58 AM

    My bad, just skimmed the headline and the first paragraph the other day without getting into the meat of it. Apparently Schoenfield is a writer I should pay more attention to.

  11. BradInDC

    June 21, 2012 08:10 AM

    @HK – Brown is injured. Check the dates on his ten game stretch.

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