The Clutch Myth and Why We Buy Into It

Josh SaboContributor IApril 6, 2010

BOSTON - APRIL 06: Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees prepares for batting before a game  against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on April 6, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

It has become impossible to watch a baseball game without hearing the term “clutch” uttered by an announcer or baseball expert.

While never defined, being clutch is understood as a player who performs well under pressure.

Despite the popularity of the term, statisticians have yet to create a stat to measure a player's ability to perform in the clutch, leaving the media to decide who and what is clutch.

The fact that no stat can measure or prove the phenomena of clutch should lead people to stop using it as a way to value players.

Dick Cramer, a pioneer of statistical research, was the first baseball analyst to attempt to disprove the existence of clutch hitting.

In The Baseball Research Journal from 1977, Cramer published a now classic study on clutch hitting. He looked at the best clutch hitters in 1969 and found that, on average, players' production in the clutch went down the next season.

Cramer stated that since clutch hitting didn’t stay consistent, it wasn’t a skill but a random occurrence.

Eight years later, the Elias Sports Bureau challenged Cramer’s view in its annual book. Elias came up with its own definition of "clutch," defined as any at-bat in the seventh inning or later, with the batter's team trailing by three runs or less (or four runs if the bases were loaded).

Elias called this a Late-Inning Pressure Situation (LIPS). Elias listed the 10 best and 10 worst clutch hitters in both 1983 and 1984, and checked to see what the groups did in both seasons.

However, Elias’s new definition of clutch left them with a small sample size for each hitter, as some of the players on the list had as little as 30 LIPS at-bats in one of the seasons.

Elias concluded that they found "a definitive statement in favor of the existence of the clutch hitters." However, Elias refused to reveal the names of the players in each group.

Elias did identify ten hitters, who the media portrayed as clutch, and ran a chart using their LIPS averages and their overall batting averages from 1975-1984.

The list of players included Steve Garvey, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Tony Perez and Willie Stargell, all considered by their fans to be the most clutch players in baseball. The report, the “Elias Analysis,” determined that of all these players, only Eddie Murray’s LIPS was higher than his average. However Elias still wouldn’t announce which players they considered clutch.

Four years later, in 1989, Elias finally released the list of the greatest clutch hitters from the 1980s.

The list contained 25 major leaguers, whose batting averages in LIPS at bats were 25 points higher than their normal averages. To qualify for the study, batters needed a minimum of 250 at bats in LIPS.

Rob Neyer, a columnist at ESPN, states that the 25-point differential between average and LIPS is insignificant, and he feels that 250 at bats are too small of a sample size.

According to Neyer, one would need 35 points differential in batting average, and 400 LIPS at-bats to have a significant sample size.

Under his stricter sampling system, only 2 of the 25 “most clutch” players remain valid.

The two players who hit best in the clutch, according to the list, were Tim Raines and Steve Sax.

While they were both quality players, they certainly were two guys no one would guess would be most clutch players of their generation. This is probably why Elias didn’t want to share the results at first; they didn’t want everyone to see that the media’s conceived notion of who is clutch was misleading.

Cramer, however, isn’t the only statistician to try to disprove the term clutch.

Pete Palmer, the author of The Hidden Game of Baseball , a book that started the sabermetric trend, which analyzes baseball with objective evidence (i.e., stats), performed a study in 1990.

In it, he compared the actual distribution of players' clutch stats to what would be observed if performing in the clutch was completely random. He found almost an exact match.

The biggest breakthrough in proving the clutch ability came from the publication of The Book written by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andy Dolphin.

The three authors proved that by using on-base percentage instead of batting average, they discovered one in six players will have a .008 percent chance of performing better in the clutch.

However Philip Birnbuam, another sabermetric expert, found two problems with the authors' methods.

“First, that they used on-base average instead of batting average; second, and more seriously, their result of .008 is significant only at the 14 percent level, which is only moderate evidence against the competing view that clutch talent does not exist.”

The problem with using OBA is that it implies that walks can also be clutch, which is an entirely different argument. Using walks is dangerous, as some hitters are pitched around and that by itself could cause a difference of .008.

According to Birnbuam, “The effect The Book found is about 1 standard deviation from zero, which is certainly not statistically significant. It's at the 14 percent level, not the traditional five percent. This doesn't mean it can be ignored, but that it constitutes fairly weak evidence.”

Additionally, one would just have to watch this year’s playoff series to realize that the term clutch, shouldn’t be used to value players.

Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and CC Sabbathia have all been labeled as “unclutch” by the media.

Conversely certain players such as Josh Beckett, Jonathan Pappelbon, and David Ortiz have been labeled as clutch gods.

However, both groups of players have proved the preconceptions wrong and proved that clutch ability isn’t consistent, nor is it predictable.

Additionally, one would be surprised to learn that A-Rod is actually a better playoff hitter than Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson. After the 2009 postseason, A-Rod’s numbers are almost identical to his own regular season stats, leading to main problem of valuing a player without the use of stats.

The fact that the media and fans label a player a certain way, based on their own memory, can be deceiving and biased.

For example, in the 2001 post-season, Derek Jeter became the first player to hit a home run in November, an accomplishment that branded him Mr. November in the media's and fans' mind.

If one were to look at the stats of that World Series, one would see that Jeter struggled immensely at the plate, but that is forgotten because he hit a walk off HR.

So why does the media and the fans create false mirage of clutch?

According Rob Neyer, “it’s yet another manifestation of what I will call our 'need for explanation.' "

We humans simply aren't content with thoughtless gods like Dame Fortune and The Great Unknown.

They scare us.

In my opinion, everyone wants to look at the game and make a hero out of a certain player; it makes their favorite player seem special, as if he could overcome pressure that other players can’t.

However, in reality, all players in sports have already overcome immense pressure. After all, it’s no easy task to make the big leagues.

Furthermore, baseball’s general managers have said for a while now they don’t look at a player’s ability to perform in the clutch before signing or trading for players.

If the people who make the teams don’t use this to value players, then how important can it really be?


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