I think one of the biggest myths that baseball fans hold dear to their hearts is that of the clutch hitter. It makes for a great story and lends well to legend to assume that certain players perform at their best in high leverage situations.
Unfortunately for gooey narratives, a player’s performance in one clutch situation has little predictive value on how he’ll perform in another clutch situation. To go even further, far too many players have similar numbers both “in the clutch” and in the regular at bats that it stretches the credibility of people who use the term “clutch” to describe anyone. Good players perform well when the game is on the line because they’re good players. It seems ridiculous to me to suggest that certain players save some sort of extra effort for high leverage situations whether than playing with that mindset all the time.
Even in those rare instances where there are noticeable difference between numbers in and out of clutch situations, it can normally be explained by looking at the type of player. For instance, a guy with a high batting average is more likely to get a memorable game winning hit than a player with a high on base percentage.
A couple of years ago, Tom Tango went to the trouble of polling the blogosphere on who fans would want at the plate with the game on the line. He took the results and compared them to the actual best batter on the team. The difference between the fans’ belief and actuality accounted for an average difference of 20 points in weighted on base average.
That says a lot about how we think of clutch performances. So much of it is based on our own perceptions without realizing how fallible our perceptions are. It’s not our fault, it’s our natural instinct as humans to garner opinions based on our observations. It’s just unfortunate that those observations are almost always either limited or biased.
Nonetheless, the myth of the clutch hitter still exists and was recently propagated by the likes of Mike Silva of NY Baseball Digest and New York Times columnist Paul Sullivan in a podcast. Sullivan was on the show to promote his book “Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and Others Don’t.” The writer makes the following claims, as described by Silva:
There are five traits of a clutch performer: focus, discipline, adaptability, the ability to be fully in the present, and being driven–not thwarted–by fear and desire. Clutch doesn’t just mean hitting the game winning home run, but it could be a hit and run single that puts runners at the corners with none out in the first inning. That event could lead to the starting pitcher unraveling and blowing the game open early. He describes clutch performers as grinders. Individuals that don’t think of the glory that they will get, but rather are just focused on that one task and one moment. Perhaps that is why some of the most unlikely individuals become heroes when the stakes are highest during a short postseason series.
I think there’s an important distinction to be made that’s kind of missed by Sullivan. No one would ever suggest that clutch performances don’t happen. Players make timely hits or collect timely outs all of the time. It’s the way that the game is set up.
The difference is that if you’re going to label a player a “clutch performer,” it connotes that his being clutchy is repeatable. And, with all due respect to Pat Tabler’s numbers with the bases loaded, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence to suggest that the numbers from a large enough sample size of high leverage situations for any particular player is all that different from his career numbers that account for every situation. And even when a player’s clutch numbers are better than average in one year, they can be completely different the next.
Using FanGraphs definition of clutch, here are the leaders from 2010:
- Michael Bourn 2.20
- Placido Polanco 2.17
- Carlos Lee 1.80
- Jose Lopez 1.78
- Delmon Young 1.74
In 2009, here’s how the players scored:
- Michael Bourn 0.57
- Placido Polanco 1.20
- Carlos Lee 0.86
- Jose Lopez -0.49
- Delmon Young 0.48
- Michael Bourn -0.49
- Placido Polanco -0.30
- Carlos Lee 1.37
- Jose Lopez 0.69
- Delmon Young 0.02
Can a baseball player be “clutch” one year and a “choker” the next? It seems more reasonable to me that over a smallish sample size success and failure can happen to both good and bad baseball players. It’s not a simple matter of being “clutch” or a “choker.”
On the flip side a “choker” is unable to accept responsibility and has a tendency to over think and be overconfident in those key situations. We have seen many individuals fall into this category throughout the history of sports, especially in this town.
Silva also uses Alex Rodriguez as an example of a “choker.”
Alex Rodriguez was the center of this debate for many years as he struggled in the postseason from 2005 to 2007 going 7 for 44. I will always remember how tense A-Rod was in a pregame interview on ESPN before the ’06 ALDS against Detroit. I knew he would struggle just from the poor body language he displayed. Alas, he would finish 1 for 14 in that series as the Tigers would shock the Yankees in four games. Things changed in 2009 as the post steroid “truth shall set me free” Rodriguez carried the Yankees to their 27th World Series title. After so many failures he finally was able to perform at his normal level during the heightened pressure of the playoffs. Many wondered what had changed.
This is exactly why the baseball season is 162 games long and players get 700 opportunities a season to prove their worth. Over the course of forty four at bats, anything can happen, even to a player of Alex Rodriguez’s superiority. It’s impossible to make his overall psychological tendencies in every at bat anything close to tangibly measurable.
Is there a single team in baseball that would rate a player based on 44 at bats? Then why should we as fans label someone clutch or choker based on the same amount of data?