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Clutch Hitting, Clutch Hitters, David Ortiz, and Unicorns

It's been suggested during the recent offensive struggles that the A's don't have a very 'clutch' team. I respectfully disagree. No, it's not that I think the A's hitters are 'clutch', it's that I don't think they have been good...period. In all situations, and that doesn't make them 'un-clutch', it makes them lousy hitters.

I don't believe in clutch hitting. I think the idea was made up by a combination of the DJITBBPEE (Derek Jeter is the Best Baseball Player Ever EVER) club to justify his salary and 'intangibles', and players-turned-broadcasters/analysts who love any chance to remind the common fan that there is a mythical element to baseball that we can never understand; the idea that they alone can pick out a player of immeasurable worth, even though the actual numbers may tell a different story.

Measuring 'clutch performance' is a nebulous science, at best. Ask ten firm believers in the theory and you will get ten different definitions on what exactly constitutes `clutch'. It is this conveniently shifting definition that allows for the propagation of this concept, and the cherry-picking of stats. Some people (Rex Hudler) think that 'clutch' hitting is any time a player gets a hit with men in scoring position and two outs, regardless of the inning. Others (Joe Morgan) believe that the true measure of `clutch' is getting the always-important `big hit' in a `big game' in a `big spot'. Those compiling statistics for the Major League Baseball website have attempted to nail a definition down using the numbers: including hitting with RISP, hitting with 2 outs, hitting in the seventh inning or later, and game-winning hits.

Eric Walker, in The Sinister First Baseman, had his own theory, using the numbers to back his point up. I wrote a diary on the whole subject last year, using his book:

"Coming through in the clutch" has always been held out as one of the clearest hallmarks of a quality ball team or individual for that matter. This is one of a large number of baseball superstitions, most of which arise from a common source, a failure to grasp the elements of random-phenomenon patterns ("stochastic theory," the science types call it)...

The tale of Derek Jeter should be all you need to read regarding the New York situation. Make no mistake about it; Derek Jeter is an amazing hitter, shown in large part in that his playoff numbers rival his regular season ones. On the biggest stage, facing the best pitchers, Jeter still hits his numbers. But is this `clutch'? If anything, the idea of clutch reflects negatively on Jeter, in that, if he has the ability to step it up `when it counts' (which by the way, the numbers do not show--they show that Jeter is a good hitter, all the time, without any discrimination of who is on base or what inning it is), why doesn't he hit like that all the time?

From the comments after the same article:

The notion of the clutch player, especially in Jeter's case, is downright insulting. Why? Because with Jeter's OPS, if you're saying his hits all come close and late, then he's basically dogging it the rest of the way. I don't buy it. People are known to have faulty memories. I'd say that's more likely than Jeter only bothering to show up and play in the 8th and 9th innings against the Red Sox and Mets.

While clutch hitting may not exist, I can see the argument on the other side; 'un-clutch' hitting, of sorts. Players are human, and despite playing on a big stage all the time, I certainly believe the idea that there are times when a player can have a terrible at-bat in a big situation has some credence. Of course, any player at any time can have a `bad' series, and unfortunately, in the sports world, failures are minimized for those labeled `clutch' (when was the last time a Derek Jeter strikeout or error was broadcast on ESPN?), and maximized when the player is seen as a choker (see: all footage on A-rod).

But like any absolute, if I'm going to draw a line at what I'm willing to believe, then it must be true in all circumstances, not just when it's convenient. Which leaves me with the case of David Ortiz.

Fire Joe Morgan puts it best:

KT: This kills me to write, but...there is no such thing as clutch hitting. The reason it kills me is because I have watched David Ortiz win thirteen games with walk-off hits in the last three years, including three in the playoffs, and two in the last two days. David Ortiz/clutch hitting is like one of those magic eyes holograms - you know there is no 3-D space shuttle in the book you are holding, but holy [crap] does it look like there is a 3-D space shuttle.

Isn't that the truth? Maybe the solution is that Ortiz simply gets his pitch when it counts. Maybe opposing batteries just expect Ortiz to get the hit, and this is unconsciously reflected in their pitch selection. Maybe Ortiz is just a great hitter, and it follows naturally that a great hitter is going to win you some games. And if you look a little closer, you'll find that managers don't pitch him maybe the way they should, both in pitch selection, and choice of bullpen arms, seeing that the vast majority of this takes place against righties. To quote David Arnott, from the article above, David Ortiz against lefties is basically Brad Wilkerson.

But MAN!, he makes the 'clutchness' (used ironically) of Derek Jeter pale in comparison. And against a right-handed pitcher in a crucial at-bat, David Ortiz probably would high on my list of batters I'd want up there (A-rod and Pujols fight for the top spot). Yet I think I'd choose Ortiz simply because he's a really good hitter, not because of any mythical, magical `clutch' ability...I think.

So what is `clutch'? Do players really `rise' to the occasion when needed? Are some players just overall good players, and naturally they're also good in the big situations? Is it possible for a player to be average most of the time, but somehow turn it up when he needs a 'big hit'? Is David Ortiz a great hitter all the time or a clutch hitter when it counts? Or both? And more importantly, can you back it up?


And reminder: Day Game today! A's try for the Detroit sweep at 12:35 against...yeah, you know.