What Is Clutch? A Look at the Most Overused Term in Sports

Rob Goldberg@TheRobGoldbergFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 28:  Third baseman Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees fouls off a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during a Grapefruit League Spring Training game at George M. Steinbrenner Field on February 28, 2009 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

What is clutch? It is heard all the time on ESPN and talk radio shows. Fans will complain or praise players for being clutch. So it must mean something, right?

In my opinion, clutch is the most overused term in sports. It is the product of short-term memory among fans and analysts. People will watch the end of a game and see a player strike out, miss a shot, or drop a pass and that player will be labeled as not being clutch.

So does a play at the beginning of a game mean less than a play at the end of a game?

Let’s examine baseball first. A run at the beginning of the game counts the same as one at the end of the game. The problem is that time is working against the hitters. The eighth and ninth innings consist of the teams’ top pitchers who are coming in full strength throwing in the upper 90’s.

In the playoffs, only the best starters on the best teams are still playing. With all of these factors, it should come at no surprise that a batting average will go down. If a player remains consistent, or does better, it is an extraordinary accomplishment.

So does this mean the only way to be clutch is to hit or pitch well in late innings? Not necessarily. Although all runs count the same, not all hits count the same. Ryan Howard of the Phillies exemplified this more than anyone else last season.

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Many mocked his .251 batting average last season. However, he improved from .196 with the bases empty to .309 with runners on. Even better, he finished .322 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Regardless of the inning, the most important thing to do is to get runners home. This should be a better measure of clutch than hitting a walk-off in the ninth inning.

In baseball, each player in the lineup gets an even chance late in the game. In most other sports, coaches will strategically place the ball in the hands of their best players when the game is on the line.

Analysts will praise quarterbacks who come back late in games on a long drive ending with a field goal. Now is this because they are playing better in the last minute of the game? Or is it because defenses switch to a prevent formation with the safeties giving up medium range passes to avoid the deep pass?

Or is it because the two-minute-offense eliminates the chance for defenses to substitute and virtually eliminates a pass-rush due to fatigue? Many times a clutch player is one who is still in the game at the end and simply doesn’t make a bad mistake.

In basketball, a player is considered clutch only after seeing him make a buzzer-beater on Sports Center. Most times the last shot will go to the team’s best player, putting even more pressure on him to perform.

One of Michael Jordan’s famous quotes included, “26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” So great players are allowed to fail? For someone who grew up in New York this is a new concept.

This leads to the biggest problem with the idea of clutch, that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy to athletes. This is when something only happens because you believe it will. If an athlete hears enough times that he will fail when the game is on the line, he will start believing it himself and will soon fail.

New York Yankee fans, writers, and talk show hosts vilified Alex Rodriguez over the past few years. Becoming the Most Valuable Player was not enough until he won every game, especially in the playoffs. Unfortunately, booing and mocking him does not make him more likely to come through in those tough situations.

Fortunately, this can seem to have the same effect on the positive end. Many fans know seven time NBA champion Robert Horry by his nickname “Big Shot Bob.” Although he never was a major scorer during his career, coaches would consistently put him in at the end of the games. Time after time he earned his nickname by making three-point shots in the last minute of the game.

So is clutch real? Michael Jordan missed game-winning shots, but Alex Rodriguez has walk-off home runs. It is something that is immeasurable in sports, yet discussed so often.

Maybe the big secret is that every little thing can help a team to victory. Not just a home run, but also a sacrifice fly in the third inning. Not just making an open shot but setting a screen to create space. The late game pressure might hinder some athlete's abilities, but the players that rise above it are the ones who are most prepared mentally. Coaches know what it takes to win, maybe someday the fans will too.