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Danny Tartabull - awesome hitter or garbage time monster?

The reputation says Danny Tartabull’s numbers were accumulated when they mattered least, but is that the reality of the situation?

Danny Tartabull looks on
1988: Danny Tartabull of the Kansas City Royals looks on a MLB game in the 1988 season.
Photo by: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

It is my humble opinion that Danny Tartabull is one of the best hitters to ever wear the Royals uniform. The fact that he’s not in the team Hall of Fame is a travesty to me. He hit .290/.376/.518 with the Royals from 1987 to 1991, which was good for a wRC+ of 145. Just to put that in perspective, it was within shouting distance of George Brett’s best five-year run, which came from 1979 to 1983 at 154. Tartabull could swing it with any hitters in Royals history. Among those with 1,000 or more plate appearances with the Royals, here’s how he ranked in various categories:

  • 1st in wRC+
  • 1st in wOBA
  • 1st in SLG
  • 3rd in OBP
  • 4th in ISO
  • 5th in BB%
  • 12th in AVG
  • 12th in HR
  • 15th in RBI

Those numbers come while ranking 28th in plate appearances. But what’s funny is that when I was talking about this on Twitter a couple weeks back, Jeffrey Flanagan made a really interesting point that the perception is that Tartabull only did it when it didn’t matter. And while it never really mattered for the Royals from 1995 to mid-way through 2013, he was playing on Royals teams that were trying to compete to get back to the postseason, so they were relevant at the very least. And it got me curious. Was Tartabull really a stat padder? I’m going to tell you at this point that I haven’t looked at a single number, so you’re finding out the conclusion right along with me here, which I think is pretty fun.

Let’s just take a look at the numbers. I want to dig into how he does in the three ways Baseball Reference classifies clutch and then at various margins during the game. And remember, I legitimately haven’t tabulated these yet, so I have no earthly idea what’s going to come of this. I believe people are going to be surprised by these numbers because I think sometimes it’s easy to get an idea about someone and never let it go, but maybe they’re right and he was a beast when down by 11 and put up all his numbers in low leverage spots.

Tartabull in the Clutch

Leverage/Clutch AVG OBP SLG HR XBH % of Total PA
Leverage/Clutch AVG OBP SLG HR XBH % of Total PA
High Leverage .292 .368 .528 24 63 20.6%
Medium Leverage .295 .385 .522 51 113 41.6%
Low Leverage .282 .371 .508 49 98 37.7%
Late & Close .296 .373 .537 19 47 15.2%
Ahead .290 .376 .496 39 95 37.3%
Tied .295 .395 .553 41 81 27.5%
Behind .285 .365 .514 44 98 35.2%
>4 Run Margin .284 .364 .547 19 36 12.2%
Total w/Royals .290 .376 .518 124 274 100%

I feel better now about my feelings because these numbers came out as I expected. See, good hitters are just good hitters. I don’t subscribe to the theory that there is no such thing as clutch necessarily because I do think some players are better equipped mentally to handle big situations. For the most part, big league hitters are what they are. Whether it’s 5-0 in the third or 3-3 in the 10th, if you give a large enough sample, the numbers are likely to level out over time.

I put the percentage of total plate appearances in there because I wanted to make sure to note why some of the numbers might seem light. Him only hitting 19 home runs in late and close situations might seem like a mark against him, but they came in just about 15 percent of his Royals plate appearances. Those 19 home runs represent 15.3 percent of his home runs as a Royal, which is, well, pretty spot on. It’s hard to argue that his best numbers came with the game tied. Of course, that’s hard to really quantify the importance because if it’s 0-0 in the second, that’s a tie at bat. But still, getting a lead is important too even if it’s not how many would define clutch.

His lowest slugging percentages came with the team already ahead and in low leverage situations. He did have his second highest slugging percentage when the margin was greater than four, so I guess that’s a mark against him, but every situation showed a slugging percentage of at least .496 and no greater than .553. His OBP in every situation was between .364 and .395. His batting average was between .282 and .296. And the only situation where his home run percentage compared to his plate appearances was drastically different than the PA percentage was when the game was tied. That accounted for 33 percent of his home runs in just 27 percent of his plate appearances. He’s the picture of consistency really.

Okay, but now I just want to know why the narrative was what it was about Tartabull because I’m super annoying and just have to find stuff like this out or else I’ll never be satisfied. The Royals were 75-41 in the 116 games he homered in. They were 342-295 when he started in his five years. Of the 124 home runs Tartabull hit in his Royals career, 45 gave the Royals the lead and 10 tied the game. The other 69 (nice) were made up of 39 that kept them ahead and 30 that still ended with him touching home plate with the Royals trailing. Of those 39, they did come back to win six of them, so he may have helped to start or at least continue the comeback.

But here’s my theory as to where the reputation comes from. The Royals made some moves prior to the 1990 season. The biggest was signing Mark Davis to give them the reigning Cy Young winners from each league. They’d just won 92 games the year before and they were ready to win again for Mr. K. But it didn’t work. They won just 75 games and finished just outside the AL West basement. Why didn’t it work, though? Well it could be that the Storm and Mark Davis combined to be terrible. Mark Gubicza didn’t help much either.

That was also the only year one of their biggest thumpers played fewer than 132 games with the team. It was easily Tartabull’s worst season with the team. Only three of his 15 home runs gave the team the lead or even tied the game. His clutch numbers generally weren’t bad that year, but one thing Kansas City fans have a hard time forgiving is missing time when needed. The other is the appearance of not contributing when someone isn’t. Even though he put together the best year of a really good career the next season, it didn’t matter. The damage was done.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that’s the issue here. The year with the highest expectations is the year when Tartabull was at his worst. His OBP was .369 or higher in every other year, but it as .341 in 1990. And even though he struggled a bit in 1989 with just 18 homers and a .440 SLG, he took the field and the team won, so it was largely either ignored or forgotten or both. And it makes total sense. Guys make their legacies with teams by performing on the big stage and the year the Royals needed a monster year because some other guys were struggling. I suppose I should point out that his 128 wRC+ that year was third on the team behind Bo Jackson and some guy named George. But it’s my theory that it just wasn’t enough to escape a reputation.

And that’s really too bad because Tartabull was legitimately a fantastic hitter for the Royals, one who deserves to be enshrined in left field in that Hall of Fame building. I’m not sure it’ll ever happen, but it won’t be because he was a guy who made his bones in garbage time. At least we now know that one.