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Already this postseason, we've seen some huge game- and perhaps series-turning hits by a pair of hitters who are old hands at this when it comes to October: the Cardinals' Carlos Beltran and the Red Sox' David Ortiz.
Beltran has been a one-man wrecking crew for St. Louis this postseason against the Pirates and Dodgers, while Ortiz, Boston's designated hitter, has likewise terrorized the Rays and Tigers. By any popular definition, both men are considered "clutch," players who consistently rise to the occasion to perform better than expected. It's worth considering the extent to which the statistical evidence backs their cases, though it shouldn't obscure the sheer number of hair-standing-on-end moments that they've given us thus far. The most recent of those include Beltran's walk-off hit against the Dodgers in NLCS Game 1 on Friday night (which came a few innings after he had cut down the potential go-ahead run at the plate with a strong throw from rightfield) and Ortiz's game-tying grand slam in the eighth inning of Sunday night's ALCS Game 2, sparking the Red Sox to a 6-5 win that tied the series.
Sabermetricians from Bill James on down have spent decades seeking proof of the existence of clutch hitters, those who routinely perform better than they otherwise would under pressure. Anecdotally, we tend to remember the big hits by players like Beltran, Ortiz, Derek Jeter, etc. but it's a much taller order to find definitive evidence of improved performance in the clutch in a satisfactory sample size. A hitter who performs much better under some clutch circumstances — with runners in scoring position, with the score within one run in either direction, in the late innings — over the course of a season isn't more likely to keep doing that year after year.
That's not to say that clutch hits don't exist. They most certainly do, but predicting who will be clutch -- who will sustain improved performance to the point that we can identify it as a skill instead of randomness -- is generally a fool's errand. The best players tend to hit better than those around them regardless of the circumstances, in the regular season as well as the playoffs
Looking more closely at the two players in question, Beltran and Ortiz both rank among the top 10 in postseason home runs, aided by the addition of a third tier of playoff games during the Wild Card Era. The former has 16, which ranks eighth all-time, while the latter has 15, which is tied with Babe Ruth for ninth (Manny Ramirez is first with 29). Five of Beltran's homers have come in the seventh inning or later, three of them when the score was within one run in either direction. Seven of Ortiz's homers have come in the seventh inning or later, five of them when the score was within two runs in either direction. Both have had other big hits in their postseason careers as well. Seven of Beltran's 51 hits have given his teams the lead and another four have tied the game. Fifteen of Ortiz's 75 hits have given the Red Sox the lead — including a record three walkoffs, two of them homers in 2004 — and another three have tied the game.
A closer look at Ortiz's stats shows that his overall postseason performance (.284/.394/.542 in 315 plate appearances) is very similar to his regular season output (.287/.381/.549 in 8,249 PA); his OPS is all of six points higher in the playoffs. That gap is maintained even if you consider only his time in Boston, where he has cemented his reputation to the extent that in 2005, in the afterglow of the franchise's first world championship since 1918, the organization presented him with a plaque identifying him as the "Greatest Clutch Hitter in the History of the Boston Red Sox." Ortiz has hit .292/.390/.572 in 6,556 PA during his regular season career with Boston, and .285/.406/.562 in 286 PA in the postseason — still a difference of six points of OPS. Even if the numbers were unchanged, simply replicating regular season performance in the postseason is impressive, since players face a higher caliber of pitching that produces a lower-scoring environment.
For Beltran, the gap between his regular and postseason stats is bigger; he has hit .283/.359/.496 in 8,949 regular season PA and .340/.448/.740 in 181 postseason PA, a whopping difference of 263 points of OPS. Beltran's slugging percentage ranks second only to Ruth's .744 among hitters with at least 100 postseason PA, and his 1.118 OPS is third behind Ruth's 1.211 and Lou Gehrig's 1.208 using the same cutoff. Still, he's done that in a sample that's about 43 percent smaller than that of Ortiz, roughly one-quarter of a season (41 games) compared to Big Papi's near half-season of 72 games.
No doubt the two players rank among the best postseason performers by many measures, though when we look at their regular season stats, it's tougher to find evidence that they're especially clutch, in part because there's no single definition as to what "clutch" means. Across several of Beltran's key splits, he's actually underperformed relative to his overall line. In tie games, he's hit .275/.352/.474, a drop of 29 points of OPS from his overall line. When the score is within one run, he's hit .282/.358/.480, a drop of 17 points. In innings 7-9, he's hit .274/.356/.470, a drop of 29 points. In Late and Close situations (seventh inning or later, with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or with the tying run at least on deck), he's hit .264/.358/.432, down 65 points. To be fair, in all situations with runners in scoring position, he has hit .306/.392/.529, up 66 points, and in High Leverage situations — those that have the biggest potential impact in terms of Win Probability Added — he has hit .294/.373/.505, up 33 points. In other words, we can find evidence that supports both positions, clutch or not clutch.
Looking at Ortiz in the same light, in tie games he's hit .297/.401/.578, up 49 points of OPS from his regular season line. When the score is within one run in either direction, he's hit .298/.394/.370, up 34 points. Yet in innings 7-9, he's hit just .254/.356/.484, down a whopping 90 points, likely due to the frequency with which he faces southpaws under such circumstances; he has just an .816 OPS against lefties, compared to .980 against righties (the switch-hitting Beltran is at .878 versus lefties, .847 against righties). Similarly, in Late and Close situations, Ortiz has hit .260/.373/.502, down 57 points from his overall performance. In all situations with runners in scoring position, he's hit .300/.412/.532, up 14 points, and in all High Leverage situations, he's at .292/.390/.546, up six points.
In isolation, any of those splits can make the case that Beltran or Ortiz is or isn't especially clutch, which is a problem in that it relies on a selective sample rather than a total picture of sustained performance. Given the loose definition of the category, fans and media can argue until they're blue in the face about the extent to which those two — or any other player — are clutch without being entirely right or wrong. But even if we can't prove definitively that either is clutch, that shouldn't stop us from appreciating the spine-tingling moments they continue to provide in October. Both bat in key positions in their respective lineups (Beltran second, Ortiz third), and their very presence in the batting order changes the way teams approach hitters ahead of them. When they come to the plate under such circumstances, all else stops, because we want to see if they'll write yet another line on their lengthy fall resumes.