Ryan Zimmerman and the issue of clutch

The full package of what makes Ryan Zimmerman one of the game’s best players was on display last night: He continued hitting, raising his average to .396 in his last 25 games. He made a superb defensive play in the fifth inning, sprawling out to rob Hunter Pence of a base hit and firing to first from somewhere between a sidearm and underhanded position.

But in the end, the allure of Zimmerman - more than his fantastic glove or his potent bat - lies in the issue of clutch. Some baseball people swear by it, and others dismiss it as a myth. It’s hard to deny, though, that Zimmerman has had a special knack for coming through when the situation means the most.

How else do you explain his eight walk-off home runs since 2005, the most in baseball? In the course of a season, every player theoretically has the same number of chances to come up big in a pressure situation; Zimmerman seizes them like few others in the game. He’s ultimately the face of the franchise because he makes the hero narrative so easy; the soft-spoken player who comes up in tense situations and does what needs to be done. Kids eat that up. And ultimately, so do adults.

Zimmerman’s numbers aren’t appreciably better in big spots. In fact, they’re the same, or slightly worse. His career OPS in high-leverage situations is .826, and it’s .824 in low-leverage spots. He has a career .466 slugging percentage in tie games. When the Nationals are ahead or behind by more than four runs, it’s .482.

But maybe we need to think about the notion of clutch a little differently - is it elevating your game when the situation calls for it, or is it playing at the same level as you always do when the pressure spikes? Zimmerman is already one of the elite players in the game; there’s not much more room for him to climb in big spots. But there is so much further to fall.

Consider Derek Jeter, widely seen as one of the greatest clutch players in baseball history. Jeter’s career regular season OPS is a solid .832; in the playoffs, it’s .850. That’s not a major upgrade, but it’s a sign Jeter is able to do what he always does when it matters most. Barry Bonds, owner of a 1.051 career OPS, had a .618 mark in 27 postseason games before a transcendant run in 2002 helped push his career mark back up to .936. In the end, that’s still an outstanding OPS. But it’s a 115-point drop from what Bonds was used to doing.

With Zimmerman, in the end, you either relish the times he’s come through in big spots, or you dismiss that as statistically insignificant and find other ways to appreciate him. It’s tough to have it both ways.

The third baseman seems to know there’s something different about late-game situations. He hinted on Friday night that he’s been taught to think that way; he went back to the mantra he’s repeated many times before when he’s asked about what makes him so good in those moments.

“The pressure’s on him, man. It’s not on me,” Zimmerman said of Phillies closer Ryan Madson. “I’m like 0-for-whatever against him. I’m supposed to get out. The way I’ve always been taught is, the pressure’s on the pitcher. Obviously, I want to get a hit as much as anyone else, but if you kind of put it into that mindset, it puts the pressure on him, keeps you calm, and the key thing is to try and not do too much.”

Zimmerman believes that there’s something different about those moments - or at least, that they require a special way of thinking. The question is, what do his fans believe - that he’s got a knack for playing the hero, or that he’s simply wound up in the right place at the right time quite often?

You can decide what you prefer, but if you don’t buy the notion of clutch players, you have to hang your appreciation of Zimmerman on something else.