ortiz grand slam

Clutch isn’t dead. This year, the titans of clutch are Carlos Beltran, perennial postseason superhuman, and David Ortiz, the “inevitable” hero of Game 2 Sunday night in Boston.

By Beltran’s standards, he isn’t even hitting well this postseason. He owns an absurd .340/.448/.740 line in 41 career playoff games and is hitting just .231/.333/.538 in seven games this October. He has, however, had a pair of gigantic games already. In Game 3 of the NLDS, he supplied the game-tying home run off Mark Melancon in the eighth inning and a two-run single in the fifth inning to boot, but the club ended up losing the game in the eighth on a Pedro Alvarez single. Then, in the Cardinals’ Game 1 NLCS victory over Los Anglees, he supplied the walk-off single against Kenley Jansen, part of a 2-for-6, 3 RBI day.

Ortiz, on the other hand, has been above and beyond this year. His home run to tie Game 2 was already his third, and he owns a ridiculous .300/.462/.800 line in six games thus far against a .284/.394/.542 career line in 72 postseason contests. The game-tying grand slam was his first and only hit of the ALCS thus far in seven at-bats, but his timing was impeccable.

As these postseason legends continue to ply their trade, the concept of clutch surges to the forefront again. It’s an October tradition, baseball’s rise of the Great Pumpkin (aside, of course, from Dan Johnson).

Beltran and Ortiz make it clear: clutch hitting exists, and we’ve seen more examples of it from them than any players still alive in the postseason. Arguments that “clutch doesn’t exist” cannot come from anything but a misreading of the statistical findings of The Book and other studies of clutch hitting.

It’s not that clutch doesn’t exist, but our observations of clutch hitting are not nearly powerful enough to tell us who will continue to be clutch in the future. The anti-clutch argument should not be “Carlos Beltran is not and cannot be a clutch hitter,” but “We don’t know if Carlos Beltran will continue to be a great clutch hitter simply because we know he has a 1.188 OPS in 41 career playoff games.”

Where I personally take issue is when clutch stops being discussed as an achievement and starts being discussed as a characteristic. Stuff like “Who is more clutch, Tom Brady or David Ortiz?” whether it’s coming from a local newspaper or the Worldwide Leader.

To me, this problem seems like one specific to the “Embrace Debate” era of sports discussion, an era that tends to treat its sports stars like video game characters. The wrong idea is not that David Ortiz’s clutch performance is mystifying and incredible, but that it is an inseparable part of him like the clutch scores next to Hakeem Olajuwon and Robert Horry’s characters in NBA Jam: Tournament Edition:

olajuwonclutch

Defining “clutch” as a characteristic player either inherently possesses or inherently lacks presents multiple problems. It allows players to be dismissed as somehow inferior for a poor performance in a tiny sample. It derails the discussion of sports achievement away from the athlete’s work and dedication to a nebulous, abstract quality they may or may not have been born with and they cannot hope to change (see particularly Alex Rodriguez pre-Yankees World Series).

Defining clutch as an inherent quality means we shouldn’t be surprised whenever Carlos Beltran gets another big hit, and that we shouldn’t have been surprised when David Ortiz mashed the game-tying grand slam Sunday night against Joaquin Benoit. I reject that definition. Every time Beltran and Ortiz continue to pass these nigh impossible tests, the hardest tests baseball can present a player, it only adds to their amazing list of accomplishments against long odds. That, to me, is both more satisfying — and probably closer to the truth — than assuming each hit is another expression of some “clutch gene.”

I think this is generally understood. Ortiz’s plaque from Red Sox ownership declaring him “The Greatest Clutch Hitter in the History of the Boston Red Sox” is a celebration of accomplishments, not a declaration of Ortiz’s inherent superiority. When Dustin Pedroia says “I’ve seen him do some pretty cool things. But that’s pretty special,” even he sounds surprised, a teammate who has been with Ortiz through all of his clutch moments.

David Ortiz had failed in six straight at-bats before he his grand slam Sunday night. He said he wasn’t at his best. “I was trying to produce for the team when the opposition was pitching me very carefully. I was chasing a lot of bad pitches,” he said after Game 2.

But this is precisely what makes his clutch performance so amazing, so awe-inspiring even after we’ve seen it so many times before. Even for guys like Ortiz, they never become easy. So go ahead, marvel at clutch performances. It’s not just fun, it’s important. But don’t mistake clutch as some binary “either he is or he isn’t” kind of construct. Clutch is about passing a test under exceedingly difficult odds, about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and that is something we should never expect, something we should never take for granted.