My Take on Clutch Hitting

In Sunday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt reports on an article my Bill James that has caused a mild stir in the sabermetric community. For years, the stathead chorus has espoused the view that clutch hitting does not exist. In the article for Baseball Research Journal, Underestimating the Fog (which I have not read), James argues that just because we have been unable to identify “clutchness” using statistical methods does not mean it’s not there. Leonhardt spells out James’s argument

In baseball, luck and randomness – weather, ballpark dimensions, the pitcher – play the role of the winter coat. And the search for clutch hitters involves not just one comparison that compounds the statistical noise. It has two: the differential between a player’s normal and clutch batting averages and the difference between this differential across seasons.

I’m not sure what to make of this assertion, because, well, it’s obvious. In a theory of science you can’t prove a null hypothesis (e.g., clutch hitting doesn’t exist). But the fact that people have searched for so long and generally found little — there are a few exceptions — certainly gives me more reason to be pessimistic than optimistic about the existence of clutch hitting. I understand that there is much noise in statistics, but I still think the burden of proof is on those who believe in clutch skill, and here’s why.

I think that clutch hitting does not exist for a reason that has nothing to do with numbers or any type of statistical test. Let me pretend to be a baseball player for a moment. Consider two situations:

• It’s the third inning of a game that my team is winning by three runs with no runners on base.
• It’s the bottom of the ninth with my team down by a run with runners on second and third, two outs.

The first situation is certainly not a clutch situation, while the second one is. (Please, let’s put aside the debate of what “clutch” means for a second; clearly, this situation qualifies.) Why should I expect any player to exhibit any type of different behavior in these two situations? I don’t think any player would approach these situations differently at all. Hitting, is not an endurance sport. Players stand up and do it 5 times a game. I think they put forth the exact same amount of effort no matter what the situation, and it seems silly to me that players would exhibit some level below the maximum at any time (which is what clutch hitting theory requires) . Every at-bat appears in the box score equally and is used to calculate stats that will determine the salary a player will receive. So, unless there is some reason for players to preserve some hitting effort until crucial times, and it does not seem that there is such a reason, I think batters put forth 100% effort 100% of the time. There is no incentive for a player to ever hold back, therefore there is no room for clutch ability to exist.

But what about the nerves factor. The first situation has lower stakes than the second and maybe this can cause some players to be unclutch or chokers. In this sense, clutch ability is really un-unclutchness. I’ll grant that maybe there is some nerves factor, even aided by some physical characteristics such as adrenaline production, but I just can’t see major league ballplayers differing in this area. By the time even the worst major league hitter reaches the big show, he has endured so many nerve-racking situations that the lining of his stomach must be nearly gone. It’s a requirement to get into the show. I suspect young players may be slightly more bothered by it than veterans, but I don’t think among veterans there exist classes of clutch and unclutch players due to nerves. They’ve all been there. It’s their job.

Now pitching, on the other hand, has some room for clutch ability. Pitchers clearly do vary effort from batter to batter based on the players involved and the game situation. I do think some pitchers throw 90% most of the time to save gas for the times when some extra gas is needed. While we have yet to identify clutch pitching yet, I have tried and been unable to observe it, I certainly think it is plausible for it to exist, unlike hitting.

So while I hope the quest for clutch hitting skill continues, I don’t expect there to be anything there. And as sabermetricians continue their non-findings I hope that the burden of proof remains solely on proving clutch hitting exists.

8 Responses “My Take on Clutch Hitting”

1. Marc Schneider says:

I disagree with you about clutch hitting, although I acknowledge that no one has apparently been able to find a statistical correlation. But I do think hitters can and do approach different situations differently. It’s not a matter that hitters try harder in “clutch” situations, but how they adjust to different situations. In the first situation you describe, a hitter should probably go up looking for a ball to hit out of the park. He is not looking for a single necessarily. In a situation where the game is on the line, e.g., 8th inning score tied, runner on second, it seems to me quite conceivable that a good “clutch” hitter might change his approach to the at bat, ie, shorten up his swing, try to take the ball to the opposite field, etc. Or he might be more disciplined in a clutch situation. It doesn’t mean he will always be successful in those situations obviously. And it’s not impossible that hitters might focus more in clutch situations–it’s probably humanly impossible to have the same intensity for 600 at bats a season. And there are certainly hitters that a pitcher fears more or less in given situations. I suspect that pitchers love seeing Andruw Jones up in clutch situations because of his propensity to swing at bad pitches, as opposed to Chipper Jones; a pitcher would generally pitch around Chipper to get to Andruw in a clutch situtation.

I’m not saying that clutch hitting is necessarily something that exists or that can statistically proven. I’m just saying that you can’t dismiss the possibility that hitters do perform differently in different situations.

2. JC (not the blogger) says:

I still don’t understand why the point needs to be made by Bill James. Sabermetrics doesn’t need to prove that cluth hitting doesn’t exist; someone who believes in it has to prove it does. Until there is such proof it doesn’t. End of story.

I thought that was a fairly obvious position.

I’m not directing my comments at you per se, you seem to be saying the same thing, I’m more just surprised that James felt he needed to write anything at all.

From JC (the blogger): Sorry for goofing this up. Please bear with me. ðŸ˜‰

3. Maestro says:

I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not sure if it’s relevant. When I played volleyball, I was a poor server in practice. I’d concentrate 100%, and I’d barely get in over 50% of my serves. In games, though, I’d get in about 90%. You might say the situations are different and I wasn’t really trying 100%, but I was. I’d grab a basket of balls and drill myself, I tried punishing myself with pushups for each miss, and still I’d miss often. In games, I was money. I don’t what the difference was exactly in my head, but there was one.

4. Marc Schneider says:

So, basically, what you seem to be saying is, if you can’t prove statistically that something exists, then it must not exist. So, that there is no such thing as leadership or hustle because there are no metrics by which to measure it.

5. jp says:

Hustle probably could be measured given the proper data, we just dont have it. Leadership should be able to be measured, as long as it has some relevance to winning. Say Jason Varitek or Derek Jeter, the alleged leaders of teh Sox and Yankees were traded, and replaced with position players of equal value in terms of defense and hitting. If the two teams won at the same rate, than any leadership the players may have provided did not contribute to winning.

Does clutch ability exist in other sports? We all “know” Reggie Miller was one of the great clutch shooters of all time. Or was he just a great shooter who got a lot of chance to hit big shots, and made them by merit of his shooting skill, not his “clutch” skill.

6. josh says:

“So, basically, what you seem to be saying is, if you canâ€™t prove statistically that something exists, then it must not exist.”

No, it’s just that there isn’t any reason to believe they do if there isn’t any evidence that they do. JC overstated the case. While you can’t prove a negative, the probability of something for which there is no evidence existing is one out of infinite possibilities. I’m not sure if clutch hitting meets this criteria. There is at least anecdotal evidence. Right now, I’d probably put it on par with Bigfoot or the Yeti.

7. josh says:

I meant JC “not the Blogger”, by the way

8. JC says:

Marc,

You make a good argument on the situational correlation with clutchness. I have often wondered if “clutch hitting” might be that some players are better equipped for different situations. We know that players do have skills in hitting at different counts, but I’m not sure they do in base-out runner configurations. That ought to be a fairly simple thing to test using Retrosheet. I suspect someone has and found nothing. I may take a look.