July 2nd,2009, a game between the Diamondbacks and the Reds was taking place. It 2-1, bottom of the 9th, reliever Chad Qualls is in the game for the save. After a few years pitching as a middle reliever he finally has backed into the closer’s role. The importance of this in 2009 is that you can be a solid middle reliever and have a nice little career. Yet being a below average closer that simply accumulates saves is a way to a bigger paycheck. Qualls is not Mariano Rivera, but rather he’s more like Saul Rivera, the middle reliever for the Nationals who would become Qualls teammate for about six weeks the following season. But Qualls doesn’t need to be exceptional on a team that is currently 31-47 and heading towards a last-place finish.
Leading off the for the Reds is Jerry Hairston, Jr., who himself has a bit of notoriety as being a member of the first three-generation African-American Major League family. Hairston works the count full and then hits a line-drive single the left. Joey Votto then comes to the plate and hits the first pitch for a single, also to left, leaving Hairston at second base. Up next is Brandon Phillips who hits a shot to 3B, and Mark Reynolds gets the force out at second. Runners at first and third, one out, and manager Dusty Baker sends out Drew Sutton, a light-hitting infielder making his Major League debut. Baker is old school and he has no qualms about sending this kid up for his first big league at-bat with the game on the line. Yet as we will soon see, this is no ordinary kid. Sutton a switch-hitter, has likely dreamed of this moment his whole life. The first pitch he sees in his indoctrination as a Major League hitter is hit sharply on the ground the second, allowing the speedy Hairston to score, game tied.
Reds scored the winning run an inning later in a game that otherwise had no significant meaning, except to Sutton and his family. During the rest of the season, Sutton remained a bench player. He got into about 40 games and started a dozen or so. But what we now know, that we didn’t know then, is that Sutton had a knack for doing something better than anyone in the history of the Major Leagues. Better than Hairston, better than Votto, and in fact better than Ted Williams, Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth. With runners on base, Drew Sutton became a nightmare for pitchers to face. In 2009, his rookie season, he hit only .212, but in the 11 instances in which he came to the plate with runners in scoring position, he got 8 hits, including 3 doubles and a homer. A batting average of .727 with an OPS of 2.042.
The next year, the Reds sent Sutton back to the minors, but they called him up on May 27th. First game, in a blowout win vs. the Pirates, Sutton came up once with no one on base, and he struck out. Next game, bases load, and pitcher Sam LeClure is called back to the dugout. Baker sends up Drew Sutton. Three pitchers later and Sutton deposits the ball into the leftfield stands. Grand Slam. A couple of innings later Ryan Hanigan gets a double, so he is in scoring position. Sutton up again…. hits a single but Hanigan the catcher stops at third. Two at-bats, two hits with runners in scoring position, and should be 5 RBI. Sutton’s reward… a ticket back to AAA. For his next reward, the Reds waive Sutton a couple of months later.
Cleveland picked up Sutton in August, and he went right to work, hitting over .300 with a .414 OBA for his new team, albeit in AAA. But in September he gets the call-up. Starts a few games, and then 4 games into his tenure with the Indians he gets his first moment with runners on base. Denard Span. What else would you expect? Last game of the 2010 season, Sutton is facing rookie Chris Sale with Luis Valbuena on base. Sale is a reliever at this point but has a minuscule 1.27 ERA. First pitch Sutton sees off of the future pitching star… home run to left. Indians release him a month later. What else would you expect?
Almost immediately, Sutton is signed by the team that has mastered the use of advanced metrics, the Boston Red Sox. Sutton hit near .300 for the Red Sox AAA team, but in limited playing time, he hit .315 for the big club and of course has a .375 average with runners in scoring position. But the Red Sox released Sutton and in 2012 he bounced around between Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh’s minor league affiliates. In his first game with the Tampa Bay Rays, he came up with a man and second base and hit a double to bring him in. Next game, came up in the first inning with men on first and second, hit another double to knock both runners in.
June 26thof the 2012 season and Sutton is now playing for the Pirates. First at bat, 7thinning, Sutton pinch hits for the pitcher. Clint Barmes is on second base, Michael McKenry is on first. Sutton takes a 1-1 pitch into the left field gap for a double. July 3rdof that season Sutton hits a home run in the bottom of the 9thto win the game and the adoration of the fans of the journeyman starts to take notice. They begin to hear the story of the man who gave so much to the game. They hear how he and his wife lost their newborn daughter to a heart defect a day after she was born. Yet here he was, in the steel town of Pittsburgh grinding a way to try to champion the game he loves.
July 17th, Sutton is at the plate in Colorado against Rockies rookie and former first-round pick Christian Friedrich. Clint Barmes is at 3rdbase, and with two outs and a strike on him, Sutton hits the ball to right for his last Major League hit, and his last Major League RBI. He ends his career with a .256 average in roughly 300 plate appearances. An otherwise less-than-noteworthy career, except for one stat. Drew Sutton’s career batting average with runners-in-scoring position was .424. Sure, you may say small sample size, as it consists of only 74 plate appearances, but to me, that’s 74 plate appearances against Major League pitchers. Only 59 players in history had even a one season with a .424 average with RISP (min 50 PA), and I will discuss a few of them. But no one had a career average like Sutton, and no one else was over .400 with RISP for their career.
The reason I am so fascinated with this stat is perhaps in the difficulty and stress of the moment. I’ve never played any form of organized baseball. Yet even in a friendly game of softball with friends, I know how it feels to come up with a teammate at second base, as well as the difference between the euphoria of knocking in the run, and the lonely empty feeling of abandoning the runner on base. And just think of that for a moment. The term used in baseball is “abandoning the runner”. What a horrible word to use. Thus, something inside drove Sutton to deliver in those stressful situations more than anyone else, at least on a percentage basis. If you think of the most memorable plays in baseball, it usually involves knocking in a runner in scoring position at a tense moment of the game.
- Mookie Wilson’s single in the 1986 World Series with Ray Knight on second base
- David Freese triple in the 2011 World Series with runners on first and second to tie the game
- Joe Carter’s home run with men on first and second to win the 1993 World Series
- Joe Morgan 9thinning single in game 7 of the 1975 World Series with runners on 1stand 3rd
- Francisco Cabrera’s bases-loaded single in a 1-0 game to win the 1992 NLCS 2-1
- Kirk Gibson’s home run with Mike Davis on 2ndbase in the 1988 series
- And of course, Bobby Thompsons 1951 pennant-winning homer with runners on 2ndand 3rd
We focus on these iconic moments because they are the most exciting clutch hits that help define the glory and agony of this sport we love so much. I find it as no coincidence that one of the most widely dispensed drugs for the treatment of anxiety and schizophrenia is called Risperidone….. Of course, someone at Janssen Pharmaceuticals understood the nervousness of batting with RISP.
Recall Jerry Hairston, Jr. from the opening of this story?? Well, he and his brother Scott grew up around baseball. Their grandfather was a well-known Negro league player who had a very short stint as a catcher for the White Sox in 1951, and their father played 14 seasons with the same White Sox team. Scott Hairston was a career .320 minor league hitter with a near 1.000 minor league OPS. During his 11-year Major League career, Scott Hairston hit .285 batting lead-off, including .312 with a .559 slugging percentage leading off a game. Statistically, top 20 all-time in leading off a game. But Hairston’s career average with RISP was only .221. With two outs and runners in scoring position, his average went down to .177. Was this due to nerves?? Wouldn’t a guy who spent his entire life around Major League baseball be more comfortable in the role than say, a journeyman infielder simply trying to stay on a Major League roster for a couple of months as with Sutton.
Of course, I am not a psychiatrist, but I do love me some stats. I have this ongoing debate with my pal about who was a better hitter, Vlad Guerrero or Chipper Jones. (I need to qualify this now by saying I am referring to Vlad Guerrero, Sr.). Without getting into too much detail, most of my main points is how Vlad chose to strike the ball with the goal of knocking in more runners, whereas Chipper would opt for taking a walk more often. For simple reference, Chipper’s career line was .303/.401/.529 and Vlad’s was .318/.379/.553. They had identical OPS of .930 and their OPS+ was 141 and 140 respectively. While my pal is a zillion percent convinced Chipper was a better player, I am more certain Vlad was a better hitter. Throw in Vlad’s questionable defense in RF, perhaps ruined by the turf in Montreal, and the discussion becomes muddier. But let’s focus on their time in the batter’s box. Quite simply, my perspective is that a player who chooses to do what it takes to make contact and hit the ball, even for a flyout, is better than a batter who will take a walk and simply pass the task of knocking runners in to the next hitter. Interestingly Chipper’s career batting average with RISP is .300 and Vlad’s is .315. Both are exactly 3 points below their career averages. But because Vlad had a higher average, he actually knocked in more runners per PA than Chipper. It’s a negligible difference of 2% (trust me the math works), but in any way you look at it, Vlad was more productive with RISP.
The reason I mention this is because baseball, as in any sport, comes down to a few plays. Let’s say it is game 162 of the season, and to make the playoffs the Indians need to win the game. Francisco Lindor comes up in a 1-0 game, bottom of the 9thand bases are loaded. Lindor hits into a triple play. That out has the same impact on his batting average as leading off the game with a flyout to CF. However, those at-bats are quite different, aren’t they? That is why they have stats such as RISP or ‘high-leverage’ at-bats etc. We as fans may recall that triple play forever, but no one will remember the flyout to CF. However, mathematically, there is no difference on his batting average.
This is why I am so fascinated with the accumulation of statistics such as career batting average with runners in scoring position. Al Pedrique is currently the first-base coach of the Oakland A’s, and he holds the distinction of having the worst managerial record in baseball since 1901 (min 50 games) when he ‘led’ the Diamondbacks to a 22-61 (.265) record. And note this team had Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez, Cy Young winner and 2-time runner-up Brandon Webb and five-time Cy Young winner Randy Johnson. But as a player, in a career in which Pedrique hit .247, he hit .311 with runners in scoring position and .208 with no runners on base. In 1987 alone he hit .458 with RISP in 59 PAs. How?? Why??!! In 1979 Oscar Gamble had his best season, but hitting .477 in 65 PA’s with RISP is absurd. In 1980 George Brett hit .469 with RISP but in that season he was hitting .400 through September 20thwhen Oaklands Matt Keough and Mike Norris shut him down for a couple of days. Oscar Gamble was good, but he wasn’t George Brett.
Lets take a look for a moment at the other side of the coin. Very few people get to play Major League baseball. Very few get to play in the NFL. But to play in both, that’s simply astounding. Only about 50 men have done this including some of the best athletes we have ever known, such as Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, and Jim Thorpe. Chicago Bears legend George Halas did this as well, as he actually played for the Yankees in 1919, betcha didn’t know that. However, former outfielder Brian Jordan was in more rarified air, because he played 15 seasons in Major League Baseball, made an all-star team, and was a starting safety for two years at the same time for the Atlanta Falcons while being named an alternate for the pro-bowl. Clearly, Brian Jordan was one strong tough human. He hit over .290 in six seasons and had four seasons in which he hit over 20 home runs. His career average with RISP was .287, nearly identical to his .282 career average. So why in 1994 did Jordan go 2-48 (.042) with RISP. And for that matter, try to understand why Kyle Schwarber hit .240 with no RISP but .185 with RISP while Andrew Benintendi also hit .240 with no RISP but .346 with RISP!!??
Yes, it’s fair to say I dig players who deliver when the team needs it most. So next time you find yourself watching a Marlins game, and you wonder why the Cardinals are pitching around third-basemen Brian Anderson don’t scratch your head too much. Sure, Anderson has some pop, and okay he did hit .273 as a rookie in 2018, but why are they pitching around him?? Maybe because he hit .352 with RISP last year. But then again, understand that Anderson and Benintendi were in the same lineup while playing for the University of Arkansas, so there’s that.
I’d sure like to hear folks take on this concept. Also, this is the first of three pieces on RISP, so more will be coming on this topic. And by the way, if you happen to run into Drew Sutton at a DBacks training facility make sure to tip your hat. You’re amongst greatness.