Is there such a thing as clutch hitting? Bill James, senior baseball operations advisor for the Boston Red Sox, now thinks maybe there is. Here is his provocative article "Mr. Clutch," as it appears in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2008, available from booksellers as of Dec. 1, 2007. James is also working on a new book to be published in February, titled The Bill James Gold Mine 2008. For further information on these books, go to http://www.actasports.com/.
Back in the early days of sabermetrics, when dinosaurs roamed the American League Western Division, we made a very fundamental mistake. A friend of mine wrote an article asserting, essentially, that clutch hitters don't exist. At the time, we lacked any real ability to study the issue. We didn't have access to play by play of the games. No one could plausibly assert that clutch hitting did exist, because we couldn't document it without access to the game accounts, but Dick Cramer had finagled access to a couple of seasons of old data, studied the data and concluded that it didn't. There was nowhere for the discussion to go.
It was about seven years after that before we began to have access to play by play, long before the data began to come on line, the discussion had stalled out at the assertion that clutch hitting did not exist.
In retrospect, this may not have been the best place to begin the discussion. A logical path for the discussion, it seems to me, would have been more like this:
1. Do you think clutch-hitting ability exists? 2. I don't know, what do you think? 3. I don't know. How would we study that? 4. Define a clutch situation and accumulate data on how players perform over a period of years? That would seem to work. 5. How would you define a clutch situation?
We would then proceed to debate the definition of a clutch situation, and gradually we would develop data, and perhaps even an understanding of the data.
Instead, the discussion went more like this:
(A) Clutch hitting doesn't exist. (B) Umm...OK. (C) I don't know...I think maybe it could exist. (A & B in unison) Prove it. (C) I can't prove it. (A) OK then, it doesn't exist. (B) If you can't prove it exists, we have to assume that it doesn't.
The discussion has been premised upon an assertion, rather than flowing from the question itself. What I have been trying to do for the last couple of years is to back up, define a clutch situation, begin accumulating data, and gradually go down the other path.
Some people find this confusing. "Why are you publishing this clutch data," they will ask, "when you don't have any reason to believe that there is such a thing as a clutch hitter?" But that's the thing: We're publishing the data because we don't know.
The other question everybody asks now is "How do you determine what is a clutch at-bat?" I'll have to stiff you on that one for right now. I'll explain it generally and leave the details for some other time.
"Clutch" is a complicated concept, containing at least seven elements:
1. The score, 2. The runners on base, 3. The outs, 4. The inning, 5. The opposition, 6. The standings, 7. The calendar.
Sometimes people look at things like batting average with runners in scoring position, batting average with runners in scoring position and two out, batting average in the late innings of close games. Those things are all interesting, but Tampa Bay playing Texas in April is not the same as San Diego playing Los Angeles in September.
We made up a system giving weight to each of these seven factors; not saying it's perfect, but you have to start somewhere. Baseball's most famous clutch hitter is David Ortiz, so let's start with him. The Big Papi's batting record in clutch situations, over the last six years.
That's the regular season; I understand he's had a couple of hits in postseason as well. It's a pretty good record; in fact, you kind of have to see more data to understand how good it is. We've started an award for the major leagues' clutch hitter of the year, based on the data, and David could pretty much win it any year. Only a handful of players a year drive in 30 runs in clutch situations. As to whether these data prove that David is a clutch hitter ... I ain't going there. This discussion has been messed up for 30 years because we got our shoulders way out in front of our shoelaces. From now on, I'm holding back.
One thing you just have to accept in order to study this: "Clutch" is not an equal opportunity employer. Mike Sweeney has hit very well in the clutch, too --arguably better than Ortiz -- but few people have noticed because the canvas is so small:
Ortiz has had more than twice as many clutch at bats as Sweeney -- again, not counting the postseason. The statistician's tendency is to want to adjust that difference out of existence, but you can't. It's a fact of a life: The Royals don't play as many critical games as the Red Sox do. When the Red Sox wiped out in August of 2006, Ortiz' clutch at bats for the 2006 season dropped sharply because the Red Sox September games just did not mean as much as they have in the other years. The same thing happened to Albert Pujols in 2007. The Cardinals were out of it early, so Pujols did not have nearly as many clutch opportunities as he has had in other seasons. This is not a statistical artifact. That's the way it really is.
Who hasn't hit well in the clutch? Juan Pierre hasn't done great.
Nobody would confuse Juan Pierre with David Ortiz anyway, but that's not a great clutch record for a guy who gets 200 hits a year. Ken Griffey Jr.'s clutch record is not impressive:
But it may be better than his teammate Adam Dunn's:
What Griffey's record would have been in his salad days, I don't know; we'll get to that, praise Retrosheet, but we haven't figured it yet. One guess from the little bit of data I have had the opportunity to study is that there may be a decentralization under pressure, the good hitters getting better and the weaker hitters struggling to stay where they are. This might be suggested by the clutch-hitting record of, for example, Chipper Jones:
Chipper's clutch-hitting record, apart from the RBI count, is close to a match for Ortiz'. It may be that most outstanding hitters tend to be even more outstanding when the game or the season is on the line. Albert Pujols certainly doesn't contest the point:
Eleven clutch homers in the Cardinals' championship season. Ortiz' career high is eight.
One reason that I have been reluctant to write about clutch hitting, in the absence of hard data, is that I am reluctant to interpret sporting events as tests of character. If you write that Johnny Baseball is a poor clutch hitter, what you are implicitly saying is that Johnny Baseball lacks courage. I am extremely reluctant to impugn the character of any player based on what could be a random data outcome.
And, in all candor, I am reluctant to buy into the other side of that, too. There is a strain of journalism as hero worship, a strain that asks us to believe that sports are tests of character, that those who come through at key moments of the game have reached down deep inside themselves and found the strength and courage to succeed. I don't want to get into that. I am willing to look at the data and see what they have to tell us, but I want to keep at arms' length any judgments about the character of the athletes. Sports talk show hosts may be comfortable doing that, but that's their job, it's not mine. This discussion has been fouled up for a long time, and my only goal is to straighten it out just a little bit.