The Tao of Clutchiness

One of my writing heroes, Frank Deford, had a commentary on NPR the other day where he lamented the way that the baseball stats guys — those “hard-hearted brutes” — have “come out of the woodwork to make sure that we silly dreamers understand that numbers don’t lie, that clutch is all a random crap shoot. You can’t count on nobody no how.” He goes on the say that clutch hitting in baseball must exist because that it is human nature.

He ended like so: ‘Fool that I am, I still think some of us can deliver better than ever when the chips are down, when the count is full, and the game is on the line.”

This gets at something about clutch hitting that has been clanking up in my mind for a while. But first I should say that there is a good reason that baseball’s stats guys have, over the last few years, been so tough on clutch hitting. And the reason is what Bill James sometimes called, ‘the brown stuff.” For more than a half century, baseball people — managers, players, writers, broadcasters, fans — went more or less unchecked in spreading the Tao of Clutchiness, the philosophy that certain baseball players were made of stronger stuff than the rest of us. These players, we were told, could reach deep down into their guts and psyches and find their better selves when the chips were down, when the count was full, when the game was on the line.

We were not told this once or twice or fifty times, but hundreds and hundreds of times every season, in every city, on every broadcast, in every newspaper and magazine story, in every baseball discussion, again and again. Whenever a player got a hit in a big moment, he was celebrated not for his baseball excellence but for his courage and valor, for blocking out the fear and pressure that would have crippled lesser men. The Tao of Clutchiness wasn’t just one school of thought. This was the religion of the land. Clutch hitters got clutch hits. Weak individuals floundered in the big moment. And the Tao of Clutchiness reigned supreme and unchallenged for generations.

That is, until a few people — the pioneering Dick Cramer to start with but many have followed — tried to find this clutch ability in the numbers. Certainly Clutchiness had to be in the numbers. There had to be certain players who hit .270 when the game was settled but hit .595 when there were runners in scoring position. When that didn’t turn out to be true, they looked at how players hit with runners in scoring position and two outs. No. Not there. They looked when there were runners in scoring position and two outs and the game was close. No. They looked when there were runners in scoring position and two outs and the game was close and it was the eighth or ninth inning.

No.

By “No,” they were not saying that clutch hitting did not exist. Of course clutch hitting exists. If someone gets a big hit to help a team win a game, bam, that a clutch hit. It exists. But existence wasn’t at the crux of Clutchiness — at the crux was the certainty that some players TRANSFORMED THEMSELVES into greater players when the situation demanded it. The crux was that, when needed, some players could put on a cape and save the city.

And this has proved to be stubbornly hidden in the numbers. People couldn’t find the this kind of Clutchiness when they first looked at the numbers. They couldn’t find this Clutchiness when better numbers became available. They couldn’t find this Clutchiness after Retrosheet and Baseball Reference and Fangraphs and others gave them the tools to break down the game in ways previously unimaginable. Nobody can say that Clutchiness does not exist. All anyone can say is that if it does exist, it does a remarkable job of staying hidden. It’s like a super-spy.

People still preach the Tao of Clutchiness anyway. It like Frank suggests: People still WANT to believe in it. They NEED to believe in it to enjoy the game more. That’s great. I’ve always said people should enjoy baseball the way they want to enjoy baseball. If they like the romance of Clutchiness, great, more power to them.

But, all due respect to my friend Frank, it’s kind of ridiculous to call the stats guys the “hard-hearted brutes,” even in jest. For decade after decade after decade, people blathered on and on about the glory of baseball players who hit in the clutch without having to provide even a hint of proof. It was obvious! You could see it with your own eyes! And so some people went looking for it. And here’s what they realized: it wasn’t obvious. They couldn’t see it with their eyes, their spreadsheets or their databases.Think of it this way: The stats guys have worked a lot harder to find clutch hitting than the preachers ever have.

So, 780 words into this, and I haven’t gotten close to the point.

The point: I keep thinking that maybe I’ve been looking at clutch-hitting all wrong. Here’s what I mean: How many clutch at-bats would you say a hitter faces in a season? The answer to this, of course, depends on your definition of “clutch at-bat.” If you come up in the first inning with a runner on second and nobody out, is that a clutch at-bat? A few would say yes. Many would say no.

What about the fifth inning, down by a run, bases loaded and two outs? Clutch at-bat?

Seventh inning, up two runs, man on second and third?

Ninth inning, tie score, man on third, two outs?

Wait, how’s the team doing? Doesn’t that play into the equation? What if the team in the above scenario is in last place and on pace to lose 100 games? Can anything be clutch then? Or let’s say you’re a first-place team, up only a game on your opponent? Wouldn’t every big at-bat in that game be a clutch at-bat?

Wait, what’s the timing? Let’s say it’s only May. That’s different from September right?

Wait? How’s the crowd? Does it matter if there are 40,000 in the stands? What if there are 8,000? OK, but even beyond the numbers, does it matter if the game is at home or on the road? Is it more clutch to hit with the opposing crowd sending invisible FAIL waves are you? Or is it more clutch to deliver the big hit with the home crowd counting on you to make their night?

And then there’s the postseason, which used to be only the World Series, then the World Series and a championship series, then the World Series, a championship series and a divisional series, then the World Series, a championship series, a divisional series and a one game wildcard playoff.

Which at-bats are clutch in all of those games?

Joe Carter is instructive. Joe was a very good player, a five-time All-Star, and it was often said about him that he delivered in the clutch. This was because of his many RBIs. He had 100 RBIs or more in 10 seasons — only 12 players in baseball history have done that more often. Carter had more 100 RBI seasons than Joe DiMaggio, more than Mike Schmidt, more than Ted Williams, more than Mickey Mantle and Carl Yastrzemski combined.

Was Joe Carter a better hitter in clutch situations than he was the rest of the time? Let’s take a look:

Runners in scoring position: .271/..338/..467
Runners not in scoring position: .255/.294/.467

So, yeah, it looks like he was a little bit better! But, wait, there are a few statistical quirks to consider. For instance, with runners in scoring position, Carter had 105 sac flies and seven sac hits. So those didn’t count in his batting average. With those added in, his batting average with runners in scoring position drops to .259, which is about the same as the rest of the time. And Carter was intentionally walked 86 times with runners in scoring position, zero without. So his on-base percentage is pumped up by that.

This is not to say that Carter doesn’t deserve credit for the intentional walks or the sacrifice hits — of course he does. It is only to say we’re not measuring apples to apples. Digging even a little bit into the numbers tears away any illusion of Carter being a significantly better hitter with runners in scoring position.

How about when you look at leverage — high leverage being the situations that have the highest impact on the game’s result, medium leverage being in the middle, low leverage being when the at-bat isn’t especially significant.

High leverage: .262/.316/.444
Medium leverage: .270/.313/.476
Low leverage: .248/.295/.464

Again, you could argue, maybe, that Carter was a little bit better when the game was somewhat at stake than he was when the score was more or less out of hand but not really when it was the biggest situations or something. Realistically, he’s kind of the same ballplayer throughout.

How about postseason?:

Regular season: .259/.306/.464
Postseason: .252/..282/.445

OK, but how about World Series, Game 6, chance to clinch, ninth inning, two men on, one out, team trailing by a single run?

Joe Carter: 1.000/1.000/4.000

So it all depends on how specific you want to get, and how much faith you want to put in the power of narrative and a single moment? Joe Carter is a clutch hitter because the one time in his long career he was put in position to do something legendary, something baseball fans would never forget, he did it. Is that clutch hitting? You bet it is. He is celebrated for that hit, he should be celebrated for that hit. It wasn’t luck. It was a man rising to the moment.

That said if that exact situation arose again tomorrow, and I had the choose to put Joe Carter up there or, say, Mike Schmidt, yeah, no offense to Joe Carter who is a wonderful guy and player, but I’m going with Schmidt every single time. He’s the better player. Schmidt was often pummeled by people during his career for not being a clutch player. The numbers don’t bear that out either:

Mike Schmidt:

High leverage: .276/.385/.529
Medium leverage: .271/.379/.541
Low leverage: .260/.379/.514

Anyway, even if there was a shadow of truth to the idea that Schmidt tightened up in the big moment, I have a lot more faith in Schmidt’s greatness than I do in Joe Carter’s ability to rise to to the occasion.

But this is exactly what I mean when I say I think I’ve been looking at clutch hitting wrong. I’ve spent a lot of time comparing players to THEMSELVES. Maybe you have too. And, in the end, I think that’s self-defeating. Some players might like being in the big moment more than others, some might feel like curling up in a ball when the game is on the line, but dammit we just can’t find that in the numbers. That force, if it exists at all, is too small to register on even the most sensitive seismometers.

But are there clutch hitters? YES! DEFINITELY! UNQUESTIONABLY! Frank you are OK! Frank refers to basketball teams he covered and the coaches and players who were convinced that “certain teammates didn’t want the ball at the end of a close game or craved it.”

Well, this is absolutely true in baseball too. It just so happens those players who crave the at-bat in the biggest moments tend to also be very good always. Is Derek Jeter a clutch hitter? OF COURSE HE IS. He’s not necessarily clutch when you compare him to himself. But he’s an amazing clutch hitter compared to Juan Pierre or Orlando Cabrera or A.J Pierzynski or a bunch of other good players who are simply not Derek Jeter.

Would I want Derek Jeter (in his prime) up in the ninth inning with the game on the line? You better believe I would — as much as almost anybody in the game. Would I rather have Albert Pujols or Edgar Renteria up at the end of a game? Would I rather have Chipper Jones or Pat Burrell? Would I rather have Carlos Beltran or Jason Kendall? These are not hard questions. There are clutch players in baseball. And there are players are not clutch. Miguel Cabrera is clutch. Yuni Betancourt is not clutch. David Ortiz is absolutely, unquestionably and demonstrably a clutch player. I would infinitely rather him come up to the plate in the big moment than Stephen Drew.

That doesn’t mean that David Ortiz flips on some kind of Clutchiness lever that makes him great when it counts. He IS great period. He IS greater than almost every hitter of his time. It’s OK to compare it to basketball. Ortiz grew up idolizing Michael Jordan — and you could argue that Michael Jordan was the greatest clutch player in basketball history. It just so happens Jordan was pretty good the rest of the time too. That doesn’t detract from his Clutchiness. It enhances it.

64 thoughts on “The Tao of Clutchiness

  1. tombando

    Joe Poz always out there to carry the water for crony Bill James and etc. So again how is it that Black Jack Morris’ 56 WAR fangraphs lifetime is somehow never mentioned by you but Baseball Ref’s is? Oh that dratted Narrative bugaboo. George Brett isn’t a clutch hitter? Elway? Hmmmmmm

    Reply
      1. E. Jack Hewlett

        Still bouncing around the upper deck of the old Yankee Stadium, with Goose Gossage’s fingerprints on the seams.

        Reply
        1. Karyn Ellis

          Brett also hit a lot of home runs during the regular season. He’s likely to hit some in the post-season, too. That doesn’t mean he’s ‘clutch’. It means he’s good at baseball.

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      2. invitro

        (a) His regular season career Clutch number is 6.1. This is not large, but it’s positive.
        (b) His postseason OPS is 1.023 in 43 games (b-r doesn’t have a stat better than OPS for postseason games… well I guess I could use 1.8 OBP + SLG if I weren’t too lazy to compute that for all players right now). This is really good: the HoFers who did better (in at least 7 games) are Ruth, Aaron, Gehrig, Foxx, Pujols, Yastrzemski, Molitor, Simmons, Sandberg, McCovey, Greenberg, Brock, Beltran, Carey, and Lynn.

        Reply
    1. nscadu9

      Am I reading the wrong Fangraphs? Jack Morris has a 52.5 fWAR lifetime. So what? One season above 5 does not a Hall of Famer make. One great playoff game does not make him clutch either.

      Reply
    2. Matt Janik

      As for why he would cite one WAR and not the other. Plenty of reasonable people have decided they prefer one brand of WAR to the other. That’s why there are (at least) three different ways to calculate it; the most-used of them being Baseball-Reference’s, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. Different people value different happenings in a baseball game different ways. I’d assume, based on how he cites B-R’s most often, that’s the WAR metric he trusts the most.

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    3. KHAZAD

      It is probably because fangraph’s WAR for pitchers absolutely sucks. It is so bad that it takes away from the reputation of their otherwise fine site. I always look at baseball reference WAR. While it could be debated which one is better for hitters, there is no comparison for the pitchers. Until fangraphs stops basing their pitcher WAR entirely on their own flawed FIP stat, taking no actual performance into account, they have no place in the discussion.

      Reply
    4. buddaley

      I am not sure what the point of your comment is, but I read FanGraphs WAR for Morris at 52.5. The following non-HOFers have these WARs:
      Tiant: 53.9
      Kaat: 69.4
      John: 75.2
      Lolich: 61.5

      So why bring up Morris’s?

      Reply
  2. Matt Janik

    My frustration with the “Tao of Clutchiness” has so much to do with your closing points. Isn’t it a disservice to credit a great player’s “clutch” hits to some mythical, mystical “clutch factor” or whatever instead of crediting it to the fact that they’re awesome at baseball, like, basically all the time? In what world does it make baseball better that Jason Kendall can’t just will a home run in a big spot? Isn’t it more interesting that Carlos Beltran has the talent, reflexes, and power to hit them all the darn time?

    I mean, I agree that everybody should love baseball however they want to love it, but it seems to me it’s straight-up a thousand times more interesting WITHOUT clutch hitting being a skill.

    Reply
    1. RPMcSweeney

      I fully agree, but those who believe in Clutchiness might respond that Clutchiness is, like, the endocrinological response to certain environmental factors, and you can’t have the effect without the stimulus. And if you studied the brain waves of players thought to be clutchy and discovered that they were no different in clutchy situations than in normal situations, then they would find some other basis for their belief. Which just underscores the problem with Clutchiness—it’s nonfalsifiable, in the Karl Popper sense. Skeptics can amass all the evidence they want, but believers will just dismiss it and say that clutchiness can’t be measured.

      Which, as you say, is fine. There are infinite ways to take pleasure in the game. And they can be as irrational as any person chooses. But it’s tough to have it both ways, unless you’re the White Queen and can have six impossible things before breakfast.

      Reply
  3. tombando

    Remember many of these clowns want Jimmy Wynn to be in the Hall of Fame while bashing Garvey, Rice, Dawson, etc. round the clock. Yeah I wanna listen to that logic. Pretty Walk Totals! OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

    Reply
    1. Ed

      You apparently don’t know very much about baseball. Maybe if you took some time to learn the game, you’d understand.

      Reply
    2. bellweather22

      Jimmy Wynn was one of my faves a kid. But hes not a HOFer and I’ve yet to read one article about him being a HOFer… Though I’m sure some nut with a computer wrote one at some point. Your analogy is weak. Try using some actual facts to backup your point of view next time. Because some nut used advanced metrics to champion Jimmy Wynn does not mean advanced metrics themselves are invalid.

      Reply
      1. invitro

        Here are a few articles about Wynn being a HoFer that google grabbed for me:

        Jim Wynn: A Deserving Hall of Famer
        http://bleacherreport.com/articles/421457-jim-wynn-a-deserving-hall-of-famer

        Who is the best player to appear on a Hall of Fame ballot and not get a vote?
        http://www.baseballnation.com/2013/1/7/3847354/hall-of-fame-voting-jimmy-wynn-no-votes

        Jimmy Wynn: An Appreciation
        http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/primate_studies/discussion/keating_2003-03-27_0

        (I personally think he falls short… saying he was better than Puckett is not a good argument for him.)

        Reply
  4. lester bangs

    Clutchness isn’t about elevating to greatness in the big moments, it’s about maintaining the strong level you had. He who is not a choker very well may be clutch. The problem all along with clutch has been in the definition.

    And at any workplace, there are clutch editors and non-clutch editors, clutch cab drivers and choking cab drivers, clutch short order cooks and choking dogs. Not everyone handles stress and pressure the same. There isn’t a standardized level for that.

    Reply
    1. 18thstreet

      I absolutely believe there are baseball players who fail in big moments. I also believe that the systems by which players make it to the majors weeds them out. Every college and high school player knows when there’s a scout in the stands — and that is a far higher pressure situation than what they’ll face in the majors: it’s whether they’ll live their life-long dream of playing sports professionally. Players who fail when they know the scouts are watching don’t make it to the big leagues.

      Reply
    2. mdg

      I fully agree with this. Well said. It’s not (necessarily) about rising, it’s about maintaining your level, and not falling victim to the high-pressure circumstance you’re in.

      Reply
    3. jeff suffron

      Beautifully stated, at least in the way that I agree with it. I came up with that same theory in 1998 while watching the Astros. Bagwell caught a lot of crap about not being “clutch”, but the fact was that he was essentially the same player, outside of the fact that his walk rate increased dramatically in those situations. The reason? No 4-hole hitter. Meanwhile, Derek Bell, who was a very good player at the time, would disappear in the clutch. It wasn’t about getting better in tight spots, it’s about not choking. You can only be as good as you are, the key is to not be worse.

      Reply
      1. invitro

        Why do you think he disappeared in the clutch? His Clutch number for 1998 is 1.1. His career looks clutch-neutral to me.

        Reply
  5. Jon W

    I also heard Frank Deford’s commentary and disagreed with a great deal of it. Thank you for your articulate response.

    I have met many people who believe that certain athletes have the ability (or “clutchiness lever”, as you call it) to tap into some extra-extraordinary ability in a high-pressure situation. I always find this ironic and amusing. Whenever someone tries to convince me that their favorite gritty player has some special crunch-time ability, I reply that instead of praising him for this alleged skill, they should be frustrated with him. Show me a player who appears to have true clutch ability and I’ll show you a player who isn’t giving a full effort at all times.

    Reply
  6. BobDD

    You could erase all the history of baseball from everyone’s minds and with that fresh start there would soon arise the mystique of clutch hitting because it has always been the most natural fantasy of every kid I’ve ever known to either hit the game-winning homer, or strikeout the last batter with the bases loaded, or hit the 3 pointer at the buzzer while falling out of bounds, or . . . . Clutchiness is right out of primal heroism dreams.

    Frank says he ‘needs’ to believe in it? Yeah, I understand. The debunking of clutch hitting in baseball has been the biggest downer-knowledge of the whole otherwise entertaining Sabremetric extravaganza. I did not want to grow up quite that much; I liked it in Neverland.

    Reply
  7. E Watts

    I think that you are looking in the wrong place here. Clutchiness means performing as well or better in high pressure situations as one would do in other situations. Elite athletes do this all the time–so this would be something of a default for a major league baseball player. Stepping it up beyond your natural abilities is not likely something anyone can do consistently. What you will find better evidence for is the lack of clutchiness–people who demonstrably choke in high leverage situations. I suspect that the statistics for Armando Benitez or Byung Yong Kim will show that they are clearly not clutch. If clutch is the ability to be unaffected by pressure, you wouldn’t expect BETTER performance from a clutch player in high leverage situations but CONSISTENT performance in all situations. The statistical difference would be seen in the players who are not clutch…

    Reply
  8. Ben Wiles

    So if there is no such thing as “clutchness,” is there also no such thing as “choke-i-ness?” Perhaps the ability to perform AS WELL in high leverage situations is proof by absence, that is, some players have an ability not to choke in key moments that others don’t have.

    Who would you rather have up with the game/season on the line? Jeter or A-Rod? Or on the mound, Jack Morris or Byung Hung Kim? Mo Rivera or Trevor Hoffman? Which one is going to grip the ball a little tighter, try to overthrow his fastball, miss just a little on location? Who is going to grip the bat extra tight, or be extra loose?

    Was Joe Carter clutch, or did Mitch Williams choke?

    Reply
    1. RPMcSweeney

      Close call, probably A-Rod; I dunno, probably Morris, though Kim was for a while very good; Rivera, but Hoffman is no slouch. Neither; every so often in his career Joe Carter would hit a home run, and every so often Mitch Williams would give one up. Just so happened that those two events coincided in this case.

      The thing is that you are likely to get the same results no matter which of the options you propose is at the plate/on the mound. The differences can be explained by a mixture of natural talent and chance without resorting to mystical incantations like “clutchiness.”

      Reply
      1. Ben Wiles

        I guess my question hinges on whether we are looking in the wrong place for “clutch-ness.” If a set of players is able to perform as well in Game 6 of the World Series as they are in the fourth inning on May 31, while others recognize the gravity of the occasion and struggle, that may be the evidence we’re looking for.

        In other words, we’re not asking people to rise to the occasion. We’re just asking them not to shrink back from it.

        Reply
        1. RPMcSweeney

          Fair point, but presumably that would be observable in the data, too. Just as good players don’t get better in the clutch, bad players don’t get worse—their performances predictably fall somewhere within their career norms, with some random variance tossed in. Which is not to say that mental makeup doesn’t factor into performance—no doubt it certainly does. But if someone’s mental makeup meant that they observably performed worse in high-leverage situations, they would never make the big leagues in the first place. And if after making the majors they developed a mental block, they wouldn’t last long. At least, that’s my operating assumption.

          Reply
  9. Asherdan

    I’m really liking this discussion of what clutch is. I always figured it was the ability, despite circumstances, to employ your natural talent consistently. As has been brought up, that is something the statistics can show.

    Reply
  10. Chris Smith

    Regardless of the numbers, there’s something to it. How many big hits does David Ortiz need to have to convince people of it? How many Adam Vinatieri field goals does it take? How many winning shots did Reggie Miller have to drain?

    Yes, they were all great to begin with, but was Jim Leyritz great? Heck, look at Jonny Gomes. The guy doesn’t show anything in numbers but they win when he plays.

    There’s something to it….I don’t know what, but it’s there.

    Reply
    1. wee 162 (@wee162)

      David Ortiz hit .091 in the ALCS. He got a hit in 2 out of 25 plate appearances (and 3 walks). Now one of those hits was awesome and had me jumping out my seat at around 4am (I’m in the UK), but in a series where the Red Sox simply couldn’t get to the Tigers starters he didn’t even hit his weight. Those games were tight all the way. And every single hit was likely to be important in that series. So do we just ignore the rest of the at bats because of the 2 hits he got?

      As said above, it’s pure confirmation bias. David Ortiz gets lots of big clutchy hits that stick in the mind because he’s a damn fine baseball player who happens to play for a club who play in lots of big visible games. When he hits the ball he hits it hard. That’s what he does, it’s not about being clutch, it’s about being good.

      Reply
  11. shagster

    We’ve reached the limit of a particular tool. In this case, statistical measurement of baseball too has its limits. It’s a bit like a seafarer realizing the compass in itself won’t get him home (and the guys before him looking up at the night stars). Like how Joe (or an editor) acknowledges this possibility in the title. Tao of Clutchiness.

    Or clutchiness is another word for adrenalin.

    Reply
  12. Bill White

    Interestingly, I’ve seen baseball camps designed to teach young players how to hit with power, how to field, how to pitch. I’ve never seen a “Clutch Hitting” camp. And why is the clutchiness discussion limited to batting? How about clutch pitching or clutch fielding or clutch throwing out the runner trying to steal?

    Reply
  13. Chris H

    I’ve often thought that if one were capable of turning it on in the clutch, one ought to be able to do it all the time. I mean, granted, in basketball you might save your energy for the final eight minutes, particularly playing as many as 100 games a year. But as a hitter, seriously, what do you lose by focusing harder in the first inning vs the ninth? And so, how does it speak well of you that you loaf a little bit when the game doesn’t appear to be on the line. As if you know that the guy behind you isn’t going to homer, and that your pitcher isn’t going to give up just one run.

    Which makes me think of Albert Belle, who – for all his many faults – may never have given away an at bat in his entire career. He wanted to beat you if there were two out in the ninth and the tying run on second, and he wanted to beat you if there was nobody out in the ninth and the score was 14-1. I suspect this tendency was somehow related to his tendency to be angry at all times; he went through life with a serious chip on his shoulder and it showed up in his hitting the same way it showed up in his chasing after trick-or-treating kids. But whatever the reason, it led to him putting up astronomical numbers for a time, and being as feared as any hitter in the league.

    (Other thngs may have contributed to his hitting and his anger, as well as the brevity of his career; I have no actual knowledge of them and so won’t speculate more than this.)

    Reply
  14. Michael Green

    This discussion is one of the reasons that The Vin once said on a broadcast that statistics are too often used in the same way that a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than for illumination (that’s The Vin, all right). It is almost possible to prove two opposite points with the same statistics. Joe P. makes the great point about what constitutes a clutch at-bat or appearance, and I marvel at the people being credited now with game-winning hits for driving in the first run in the first inning for a team that never lost the lead, or how they now calculate saves. This goes back to Bill James’s point–and he isn’t always right, contrary to rumor–that a manager shouldn’t save a closer for the 9th inning if the 7th inning is when you’re facing a situation like having the tying run and the other team’s best hitter.

    To use a basketball analogy, I’ve read that Bill Russell used to throw up before Celtics games and that the players actually got nervous if he didn’t. I do know that Russell’s and Wilt Chamberlain’s relationship deteriorated for a while after Chamberlain didn’t come back to play with that knee injury. Would a “clutch” player have gone out there on one leg? Perhaps we need to insert Willis Reed’s name there.

    Reply
    1. Nick

      After listening to Vin Scully and understanding more about SABRmetrics, I definitely believe that if it didn’t have the negative connotation associated with it, Vinny would be a SABRmetrician. He questions what is “normal” all the time. The point of SABRmetrics is to question what is right, what is wrong, and why we believe these things, trying to quantify them and dispell false assumptions.

      I’m fairly certain that you’re taking his quote out of context. He usually talks about small sample size stuff (good in the nighttime, indoors, late innings, past matchups, etc.) and this is what he is talking about. “Non stats” guys use stats all the time, and bring premature conclusions due to them. This is what he is disagreeing with, which is in total agreement with SABRmetricians and their philosophy.

      Reply
    1. KHAZAD

      This is obviously an article that took alot of work and research. I like the fact that it highlights Bobby Murcer, a truly underrated player. I just don’t know that singling out high WPA games is statistically significant.

      A case in point is the game where Murcer had his highest WPA. He came up only twice in the game, and both times there were two runners on, with the Yankees down 2-0. The first was with one out in the 7th, and he flied out harmlessly. The second happened to be with two outs in the ninth, (and it was the bottom of the ninth-if he had hit the same home run in a road game, he would have been given less credit, as the percentage chance of winning the game could not have gone to 100%) when he hit a home run to win the game. The WPA comes from the fact that the Yankees had very little chance to win the game when he came up, but he actually had a chance to hit a go ahead home run at the right time. If he had failed (as he did in the 7th) he would have very little penalty for failing.

      How many times (other than in that very game) did Murcer come up with a chance to give his team a lead? He could have had basically the same game if the Yankees had won 3-2 and he drove in all 3 of their runs with a 7th inning home run, and then flied out to end their scoring chances with the lead already secure, the WPA would be much less.

      Murcer’s career numbers in late and close situations or with 2 outs with runners in scoring position are underwhelming, and make a case that these are nothing more than a handful of game highlights, including his alleged greatest game, where he came up only twice, with a chance to put his team ahead both times, and succeeded in the right instance.

      Reply
    2. flcounselor

      “Baseball’s best clutch hitter since World War II has been… Bobby Murcer.”

      I was surprised that your article was such a joke. I was expecting something serious, not a conclusion reached based on the outcome of 8 games, with a “tie” settled by six of those games, out of the 1511 you decided to look at.

      Khazad’s post here pretty much eviscerates the WPA method that you chose to determine the most clutch player of all time. The method fails two key tests of empirical measurement: It is neither valid nor reliable.

      Don’t get me wrong. I am glad you are a fan and like to write about baseball.

      But you really need to get some guidance on a couple of things:
      1. Learn to construct a fair test of your hypothesis
      2. Have a professional or peer review which takes an objective and analytical look as to whether your evidence supports your conclusion.

      Reply
  15. Carl

    And please think of the opposite of “clutchness”. Who hasn’t seen the young pitcher standing on the mound of a packed Yankee Stadium looking like a deer in the headlights? Compare that to the “been there, done that” veteran who can perform to the fullest of his abilities in the same situation.

    Reply
    1. Wilbur

      You mean like Rich Gossage when George Brett hit that “clutch” home run off of him?

      Because if one is clutch, then the other is necessarily choking.

      Reply
  16. Kit

    How about this for “clutch?”

    A player who runs into a wall and has to leave Game 1 of a series because of potentially broken ribs; luckily his ribs are just bruised. Player returns, after much doubt, in Game 2 and goes 2 for 4 while providing a much-needed insurance RBI. It’s obvious this player isn’t swinging the bat in his normal way, but he adjusts his approach at the plate to just make a difference in the game.

    “Papi” is doing what he is paid to do, and what he does better than most when he’s healthy. But, let’s see him track down a ball, steal a grand slam home run, bruise his ribs, and return the next night with a modified approach to hitting and still change the game.

    Reply
    1. wee 162 (@wee162)

      But the point is that Beltran is good to start with! And good players can make adjustments. Less good players can make less effective adjustments.

      And for what it’s worth Ortiz has completely changed his approach since injuring his wrist in 2008 (I think). He’s got lots better at hitting lefties, and traded that off for some power and being a lesser being against righties than he used to be. Don’t know if that counts as clutch though?

      Oh, and the reason Beltran was able to get that insurance RBI was due to a slightly errant throw which went to the first base side of home plate, which was then missed by a catcher trying to make an extremely difficult play to tag a runner out rather than just blocking it and keeping the go ahead run at second. Then a wild throw by the pitcher who was backing up the play and trying to again make an extremely difficult play to get the go ahead run out at third. So Beltran was in a position to get that clutch hit in the way he did to get that insurance run which was nothing to do with him. If there had been runners at first and second would he have changed his approach further to try and knock in a go ahead run from second rather than poking a hit out to right field which wouldn’t have got him home? If he hadn’t got him home and he had the exact same hit would he not have been clutch in that situation despite presumably doing as much as he could?

      I like Beltran for what it’s worth.

      Reply
  17. ksbeck76

    I agree that stats haven’t been able to prove that clutch hitters exist (leaving aside clutch performance in other aspects of the game), but I’m not sure this means there’s no such thing as a clutch hitter (absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence and all that). There seems to be two problems with measurements (apologies to all above who’ve made these points).

    1. Instead of comparing Player A’s performance in clutch situations vs. non-clutch situations, shouldn’t we look at Player A’s performance in clutch situations vs. Player B in clutch situations (or league average in clutch situations, etc.)? I realize this is counter to the narrative that clutch hitters reach deep inside themselves to elevate their performance in clutch situations, but it seems more relevant to how games are actually played. When I think of Derek Jeter performing well in clutch situations, I don’t think of him elevating his performance relative to himself, but rather playing better than anyone else. By this definition, it does seem like clutch hitters will of course be the best hitters in all situations. (Although it would be interesting to see which players perform better relative to their peers in clutch situations vs. non-clutch situations; i.e., Player A’s OPS+ is in the 50th percentile in non-clutch situations but the 75th in clutch situations).

    2. All that being said, I think it’s probably impossible to objectively and precisely define what a clutch situation is. I think most people would agree that a clutch hitter, if such a thing exists, performs well in high-pressure situations. I’m not sure there’s a way to capture “high pressure) through measurements like number of outs, score, inning, etc. To quote Potter Stevens, we know “high pressure” when we see it (and of course, we probably never agree on it.

    In my gut, I feel like clutch players must exists. In all walks of life, there are people who are less affected by stress and this perform better in high-pressure stressful situations than their peers. I imagine that’s the same in baseball, but I can’t really think of a way to quantify a “high-pressure, stressful situation.”

    Reply
  18. Orange and blie

    I imagine that this is also the case for pitching? I ask because a friend of mine thinks that Nolan Ryan was not clutch, and is overrated because he sometimes had more losses than wins even on good teams.

    Although as far as I can tell the numbers suggest he was a pretty dominant pitcher.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
  19. wordyduke

    I agree that players who get to the majors have, by and large, been weeded out so that those who get stage fright on the big stage are gone.

    I agree that players aren’t capable of becoming better players in high-leverage situations. There will be a few instances where the data show postseason improvement, but if Mo Rivera had pitched as many innings of postseason as in regular season, he would have regressed to his mean.

    Those things said, it’s surely possible that a player might fail to concentrate in ordinary situations and then bear down in the Series. That’s hardly “clutchiness,” however. It’s failure to make an honest effort for your everyday salary, and it’s unlikely it would be long tolerated.

    Also, it is surely possible that sometimes a player might wilt when put under an intense spotlight. But if everyone else performs consistently, that doesn’t make everyone else “clutch.”

    As Joe says, show us the numbers. And the numbers (plural) are not one instance where George Brett goes yard, or Bill Mazeroski goes yard, or Aaron Boone, etc., etc.

    Reply
    1. Rick R

      Mariano Rivera pitched 141 post-season innings—2 full years worth for a reliever. These were October innings, when his arm was most tired, he was more prone to multiple inning appearances, and he was facing the best teams in the tightest spots. Somehow, he did not “regress to the mean”. He simply went out there and dominated for 20 years.

      Reply
      1. bellweather22

        since he is an elite closer, who almost always enters the game in “clutch” situations it’s not hard to imagine that his results were elite. That was the point of Joes article. Great players are clutch, because they have a history of delivering in pretty much all situations.

        Reply
  20. Rick R

    There may not be such a thing as clutch hitting, but there is certainly a thing as clutch pitching. That’s because, while hitters must react to a pitch, a pitcher initiates the action. It is all up to him to execute his pitches in high pressure situations. With men on base, they must pitch from the stretch, which robs them of some of their stuff, while keeping an eye on the runners, which robs them of some of their concentration, all the while knowing that one bad pitch can lead to multiple runs. Some pitchers can handle the stress, some can’t. We’ve all seen pitchers suffer meltdowns in tight spots. Meanwhile, Mariano Rivera, who only sports the lowest adjusted ERA in major league history, has an ERA which is ONE THIRD of that stellar mark come playoff time. That, my friend, is clutch pitching.

    As for hitting, the key is to maintain your level of excellence in the toughest spots. Not everyone can do it. Willie Mays had a 660 OPS in 25 playoff games (one of my favorite stats—his playoff OPS is the same as his career HR total). Small sample size? Perhaps, but maybe if Willie had been more clutch, the Giants would have made more playoff appearances. Ted Williams Red Sox never seemed to get the better of Joe D’s Yankees, and in the one World Series Williams played, he sucked (Williams most famous clutch performance didn’t come in a tight pennant race, but in an effort to bat .400). Jeff Bagwell may have failed in his first bid for the Hall due to steroid rumors, but it may have been just as likely that voters remembered Bagwell the putrid playoff performer and didn’t think he was that good. Meanwhile, I remember Derek Jeter blowing a bubble as he rounded first base on a hit in the playoffs, the coolest player in the stadium. It was no wonder he came up big so many times, being so relaxed on the big stage. He didn’t become Superman in the playoffs, but he remained Derek Jeter, which was plenty good enough.

    Reply
  21. likedoohan

    “Clutch” is all about selective memory. A good hitter is more likely to get a “clutch” hit than a lousy hitter because he is a better hitter. A fan is more likely to remember a winning hit than an out occurring in a losing game. People who refuse to accept statistics which prove their beliefs to be incorrect are never going to be convinced otherwise.

    Reply
  22. John Leavy

    Since someone mentioned Adam Vinatieri…

    Look, has Vinatieri been a very good NFL kicker? Sure. But is he a “clutch” kicker who always delivers when championships are on the line?

    A lot of people think so, because they remember him kicking 4th quarter field goals to win Super Bowls over the Rams and the Panthers. But lest we forget, Adam Vinatieri MISSED two field goals in that Super Bowl against the Panthers.If he had hit either of them, the “clutch” last minute field goal wouldn’t have been necessary.

    Didn’t those two missed field goals come in a “big game”? Didn’t those opportunities come at “clutch” moments?

    I repeat, Vinatieri was and is good. Damn good. But he has NOT been 100% reliable in the biggest moments of the biggest games. Nobody is.

    Reply
    1. DjangoZ

      100% agree. It’s the same with Kobe sinking game winning shots. People only want to remember the ones that were made. They want the hero narrative and will selectively forget whatever they have to in order to enjoy that story.

      Reply
  23. DjangoZ

    The problem is that we project ourselves into the position of athletes and imagine how we would perform in those situations. Most of us would perform horribly, we would choke in the worst ways imaginable. So when we see an athlete perform well we grant them special “clutch” powers.

    But all the athlete is doing is performing a task they have spent tens of thousands of hours practicing. They perform pretty much the way they always perform.

    It’s no different than people at work performing their job when it’s more stressful. We’re not shocked when we do okay at our jobs under stress (okay being we do well sometimes and not so well at other times). We just can’t see that athletes are doing the same thing.

    Reply
  24. Richard Aronson

    I looked at bRef career splits for Pat Tabler. His batting average with RISP was .317. Without was .261. Career BA was .282. BA with bases loaded was an insane .489. He only had 37 SF in over 1,000 PA with RISP, so you’re still significantly better. His nickname, by the way: Mr. Clutch.

    Then I looked at George Brett, since he’s much discussed above. He starts with .307 with RISP, .297 without. But his BA was improved by 120 SF in 3387 PA, and 227 IBB helped his OBP. So I don’t think Brett was clutch; he was just pretty much George Brett, which is awfully good. They call him Mr. Brett.

    Finally, this year Yasiel Puig. Yes, he’s a rookie, and you might expect maturity to lead to better performance in the clutch. His OPS with RISP was 247 points lower than without RISP, and that’s with 3 SF and 6 IBB in 99 AB with RISP; without thus numbers, he’s much worse than that. So he is clearly NOT clutch. That argues a lot for batting him first or second, even though he has the power to bat further down. I hope Don Mattingly reads this.

    I think there are a few players who improve in the clutch, some who get worse, and most probably are close enough to be statistically irrelevant. But the number of true clutch hitters, guys who go from bench warmers to All-Stars in the clutch, are probably pretty few.

    Reply
  25. Bob Lince

    There’s another angle to the clutch question, and that’s the “so what?” factor.

    A few years ago – maybe it was two, maybe it was five – I spent a half-hour at Fangraphs comparing supposed clutcher Jeter to supposed choker ARod.

    Sure enough, Jeters “clutch” (late innning situational, high leverage, etc) numbers were better than his career numbers, and ARod’s were worse.

    But here’s the funny thing: ARod’s choker numbers were still better than Jeter’s clutch numbers. In those situations, choker ARod was more productive than clutcher Jeter.

    Reply
  26. Donald A. Coffin

    The other issue is that in basketball, or hockey, or football, you can decide who’s going to take the crucial shot, or the crucial carry, or have the crucial pass thrown to them. But in baseball, Ortiz has to bat when it’s his turn, and Stephen Drew has to bat when it’s his turn, and (unless Ortiz has had the rest of the day off) if Drew comes up in the top of the ninth with the Red Sox down by 2 and runners on second and third, Ortiz *will not* be hitting.

    And, even in basketball, isn’t there the marvelous story of the time in the playoffs, with the game on the line, Jordan passed to John Paxton, who hit the clutch 3-pointer? So, on that occasion, was Jordan’s decision *not* to take the shot an example of his lack of character, or of his recognition that Paxton, who had an excellent shooting percentage, had a better chance to make the shot?

    Reply
  27. Frank

    I heard Frank’s commentary and I think you are totally misrepresenting it. He acknowledges that there are no “clutch” hitters. But he wants one anyway. So he chooses to believe in it. It is an act of faith.

    And this is the part that I think riles you up so much. You can’t argue an act of faith. You put the numbers down… You adjust variables… You do everything to make prove the “argument” of clutch true… Yet they treat you like the enemy. Hard Hearted indeed.

    But it must be admitted in debasing baseball myths you are doing more than changing the game, you are ruining memories, and killing Gods.

    The strange thing to me is that it seems to be an issue of symantics. One camp says Carter and Brett are “clutch” and the other says, no they are just “good.” Whatever.

    Reply
  28. wogggs

    Thank you, Joe. This is what I have been saying for a long time. I just had this debate with a guy commenting on the piece on Deford’s commentary on Hardball Talk. I think I finally got him to admit that there are players who do better in clutch situations than other players, and those are the guys I want up.

    Reply
  29. invitro

    “Joe was a very good player,”

    Well, Joe Carter has a career WAA of -10.9. This is substantially below average. So one of the following must be true:
    (a) You believe substantially below-average players can still be very good.
    (b) You don’t think WAR accurately captures Carter’s goodness.
    (c) You’re full of horse manure.

    p.s. His career Clutch number is -4.8, so he’s not a clutch player; he’s even more below average in clutch situations.

    Reply

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