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Began In '96

Reconciling the conflicts of ‘clutch’

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By Adam Cancryn

Settling the “clutch” debate, once and for all.

Joe Posnanski, an NBC Sports columnist and one of the great thinkers (and writers) on baseball today, just hit on an issue I’ve struggled with for some time. In short, the issue is this:

As a student of baseball and a believer in the power of advanced statistics, I agree that there is more than enough evidence the back up the fact that there’s not really such thing as a “clutch” player. There is no subset of athletes who suddenly become superhuman when the game is close and late, who can tap into the “guts” or the “determination” or the "secret stuff" that only they possess and that’s only available in the biggest moments. It’s simply a fact. The statistics bear it out.

Derek Jeter doesn’t hit demonstrably better than normal with the game on the line. Neither did Manny Ramirez, or Babe Ruth for that matter. They might be remembered for a particularly “clutch” moment, but when you look across their entire careers, they’re no more clutch than anyone else. 

And yet…

I played baseball for a long time. I know what it feels like to walk to the plate down by one with two outs. I know that sometime I wanted that moment, and I know that other times I would’ve rather been anywhere else. And I know that some of my teammates felt one way or the other for their entire playing careers. Some played great when the pressure was on. Others routinely came up short. Based on my personal experience, could I really deny that “clutchiness” didn’t play some role, even if it was small?

It’s the classic brain v. heart dilemma. Statistics v. personal experience. And it’s one that has defined the divide between old school fans and the newer, more statistically inclined. I’m firmly in the latter group, but I couldn’t help but sympathize a little with the former.

Luckily, I think Posnanski has found a way to bridge that gap. In a response to (the equally great) Frank Deford, he points out that maybe we’ve been thinking about the issue all wrong:

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.

The whole piece is worth your time. But that essence right there was a true a-ha moment for me, and hopefully for those like me. Of course some of the guys I played with rose to meet the biggest moments. They were typically the guys who rose to all moments. That’s why they were batting in the No. 3 hole to begin with, or why they took the mound with bases loaded and no outs in the first place. 

It seems a simple thing now that it’s out in the open, like grasping a complex math problem once somebody has already solved it in front of you. As my co-editor Joe put it, there is no such thing as “clutch players,” only “clutch performances.” And those clutch performances almost always come from the players playing at the highest levels of the sport, even when nobody’s watching.

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Adam Cancryn is an editor and co-founder of Began in ‘96.