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.
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
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:
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.