Clutch. Ah... the great sports term, clutch. Basically how well a player does when the pressure is on. Does he strike out with the bases loaded in a 1-run ball game, does he drive his team down the field on the final drive of the Super Bowl. Clutch. Some debate it's existence, to a certain extent I agree with those people. But a part of me still believe there is something to it. I'm going to focus on baseball for the purpose of this story because I am passionate about my thoughts on baseball's version of clutch.
Like many things in baseball, clutch is more debatable than with the other sports. Clutch in football isn't hard to figure out, you look at 4th quarter drives, you look at athletes like Joe Montana or Tom Brady and it becomes pretty obvious what makes a quarterback clutch. In basketball, it's a little harder no doubt, but still relatively simple, game winning shots, points scored in the fourth quarter, Michael Jordan, Robert Horry. While many times you'll see commercials featuring Jordan saying that he missed 40-50 game winning shots in his career, there is still not a whole lot of debate about it.
Then we get to glorious baseball. First off, I want to say I'm absolutely a stat-geek, sabermetrician, whatever the hell you want to call me. I like stats and I believe stats are a great way to evaluate baseball players. However, I do lean on the fence on some mom's basement living stat geek vs. old timey, tobacco chewing scout stuff. I believe stolen bases are sometimes important, I get kind of sick of home run or nothing hitters, I believe there's a time for sacrificing or bunting, etc.
One stat geek vs. scout debate I've always been on the fence about is clutch. Stat-heads tend to believe clutch doesn't exist, it's in our minds, no player in different than another. I don't buy into that. I really don't. There takes a certain amount of skill and mental strength to not be broken down by pressure.
I know from personal experience, in my years of playing basketball I've maybe hit one or two game winning shots, maybe more... not many though. I'm more inclined to pass the ball in a pressure situation. Baseball, I'm the same way, I would in no way relish the opportunity to have the bases loaded, full count, 4-1 Game 7 World Series. I'd likely pee my pants in such a situation and would just about guarantee a strike-out looking 99 out of 100 times.
So in my mind, clutch absolutely exists in baseball. There are players with a better ability to hit in pressure situations, players that are more mentally tough than others, not a single doubt in my mind that it exists.
However, there is one thing that I believe gets mixed up in the clutch debate: What is clutch in baseball? What constitutes a clutch situation? One problem that I think happens when fans determine if a player is clutch is previous situations. Derek Jeter obviously had some great postseasons in 2000 and 2001. Absolutely dominant performances in those playoff games. Likewise, he was deemed clutch. Now, here in lies the problems. Derek Jeter hits a single up the middle in the 6th inning of a 3-2 ballgame, he's clutch. I get it in Chicago with Joe Crede, 5-3 ballgame, two men on base, 7th inning Crede hits a dinger. Clutch. Nick Swisher hits a 3-run homer in the 7th inning are people praising his clutchness, are they even mentioning it? Hardly. Once you're deemed clutch by the masses anything you seemingly do after the 5th inning is building your clutchness.
To me, that's a joke, because it puts a static definition on when a clutch situation is in baseball. Previously regarded clutch players get a window of time that other players do not to be deemed pressure situations. It's a bit frustrating to me, at least.
I believe you absolutely need to have a definition of when a player is in a clutch situation, that's why I love ESPN.com "Close and Late" stat: Close And Late - results in the 7th inning or later with the batting team either ahead by one run, tied or with the potential tying run at least on deck. To me, that works, it's a clear definition, everyone is on the same playing field, it works for me. You cannot call a 6th inning 7-4 game a clutch situation just because Jeter ripped a double down the line. I like it.
Now, the big part. Are the supposed clutch players in this league really that clutch or are they a product of media and the masses nit-picking a few home runs down the stretch or great playoff performances?
First I'll start off with the New York Yankees and the Derek Jeter vs. Alex Rodriguez debate. To me, A-Rod is the best player in the league and in about 4-5 years SHOULD be regarded as one of the best players of all-time. However, when you mention his name you get the old "he's not clutch" "he doesn't perform when they need him" "he only cares about money" blah... blah... blah. A San Diego Union-Tribune article entitled "Mr. Clutch or Mr. Choke?" in June 2006 put it perfectly.
“Rip away,” he dared the media Thursday following another typical performance. “You can write the worst article, and say the worst things, and you're probably right.”
That day, with the bases empty in the seventh inning and the New York Yankees trailing the Cleveland Indians by five runs, Rodriguez crushed an estimated 500-foot homer – the kind of awe-inspiring swing that validates his standing as the most talented player in the game.
But an inning later, with the Yankees down by only two and with the tying runs on base, Rodriguez struck out with a meek swing, cascades of boos trailing him back to the dugout.
The article goes on to defend Rodriguez which we will get to late. Anyway, back to the story... A-Rod sucks remember, he's really really bad when the pressure is on. While Jeter on the other hand, who I'm not too fond of, great hitter, overrated defender and as I'll show not as "clutch" as people love to make him out to be. I've always felt it extremely unfair that Jeter is label clutch and A-Rod is a piece of crap, money-hungry, selfish player.
Hell, Derek Jeter has an entire SI.com video countdown of his top 10 clutch moments. "Some baseball fans say there is no such thing as a clutch hitter. Have they ever seen Derek Jeter play?" By the way, in this countdown are such clutch plays as a two-run single in the fourth inning of an All-Star game and a witty SNL line.
Since A-Rod and Derek Jeter have been teammates (2004), here are their Close and Late splits.
Sir Clutchington of Clutchville Derek Jeter
Rich Uncle Pennybags Wilter of Pressure
Yes sir, what a world of difference. I know what you're saying. What about their playoff performances? You're right. Jeter had some great postseasons that many baseball fan remember and Rodriguez has had some that many people regarded as some of the worst ever. I believe the playoffs in general are high-pressure situations. Obviously there aren't do or die, one and dones like in football, but every at-bat means something in the playoffs. In my mind, you can count almost all the playoffs as a clutch situation. But it doesn't matter Jeter is clutch, A-Rod isn't... surely their splits will tell the tale! So here we go, career playoff numbers, up against career numbers, to see if these guys truly rise or fall in playoff situations.
All-American, Baby-Kissing, Pressure-Loving Derek Jeter
Baby Eater, Playoff Pissy Pants Alex Rodriguez
Hmmm? Not that far off. Odd. Bark louder than it's bite, reputation louder than results.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette April 2007: Is there clutch? Or is it the reverse?
It was a week ago today, fewer than 24 hours after the Pirates had put down a sizzling St. Louis rally in the ninth inning, that catcher Ronny Paulino reflected upon it and offered this surprising tidbit ...
"You know what the key was to that whole inning?" he said. "When David Eckstein got hit by that pitch."
Hitting Eckstein -- not intentionally -- loaded the bases and, ultimately, forced closer Salomon Torres to pitch to Albert Pujols with a one-run lead.
"Doesn't matter," Paulino said. "Eckstein's the guy you don't want to face there."
"Can't let Eckstein beat you there," shortstop Jack Wilson said.
OK, so, just to be clear here: The Pirates are happy to duck a 5-foot-7 career .282 hitter to take on the sport's most imposing hitter?
And why, exactly, is this?
"Because," Wilson said. "Eckstein's clutch."
Albert Pujols Close and Late 2005-2007
.318/.458/.678, 68 Hits, 66 RBI, 24 K, 214 AB
David Eckstein Close and Late 2005-2007
.351/.422/.426, 71 Hits 20 RBI, 16 K, 202 AB
I'll take Pujols' extra base hits and RBI. Yes, Eckstein is indeed a great player in close and late situation, he has a pension for getting hits. But to think that Eckstein is more dangerous in that situation because he's clutch, is a joke.
The point of this article was not to bad mouth Derek Jeter or David Eckstein, those players have their niches as I said Jeter is a great hitter, an unbelievable hitter. Eckstein, well... no I really don't like Eckstein. The point though isn't that they are clutch or not, but that their reputation far exceeds their results. Eckstein is not more clutch than Albert Pujols and Jeter isn't more so than A-Rod. I could go farther into details with different players, different teams, but the point is clutch exists, it absolutely 100% exists. Does it exist to the point that the masses make it out to be? No way. Do great players still have great, near career numbers in postseason or close and late situations? I believe so. Do some guys get favorable definition of clutch, while others do not get that same benefit? Unfortunately, yes.
Until next time,