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Bill James: Could Clutch Hitting Actually Exist?


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http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/baseball/mlb/11/30/james.clutch/index.html

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.

© I don't know...I think maybe it could exist.

(A & B in unison) Prove it.

© 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.

It goes on from there, using player stats.

Doesn't say much either way, but eye-opening anyway. Especially after hearing for so long that mantra of "clutch hitting doesn't exist."

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http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/baseball/mlb/11/30/james.clutch/index.html

It goes on from there, using player stats.

Doesn't say much either way, but eye-opening anyway. Especially after hearing for so long that mantra of "clutch hitting doesn't exist."

One thing I admire about Bill James is that he's smart enough to consider that statsitical analysis isn't the be all and end all. He always shows respect for analysis by scouts and old time students of the game, often questioning the validity of some of his own conclusions.

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Great quote. It's about time. Everybody who ever watched baseball for any length of time knows it exists. Just because stats couldn't prove it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Lotsa of things are real that stats can't prove. People confuse the best-available-model of reality with reality. It happens all the time. Maybe one day the model will improve enough that it can see what we already know.

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People confuse the best-available-model of reality with reality.

Great point, well put.

Makes me think of a quote I came across recently, which reminds us not to confuse data with reality...

"The map is not the territory." -Alfred Korzybski

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Everybody who ever watched baseball for any length of time knows it exists.
Way to completely miss the point of the article. He's not saying it exists, he's saying it might. Nobody has ever denied that clutch hits exist, people deny that hitters that are far better in clutch situations exist, or at least are very rare.

Defining clutch situations will be very difficult. Not only is each "clutch" situation different from every other one, but each player's personal feel for how important or "clutch" a situation is will be different.

Its basically impossible to quantifiably define a clutch situation and have it apply well across the board.

Also, if clutch hitting exists, would we expect "clutch" hitters to hit better in really clutch situations as opposed to just sort of clutch situations? Where is the magic level of clutchness that a player all of a sudden becomes far better than he is in normal, mundane situations?

I think this debate will continue on for quite some time, with pretty much the same arguments coming from both sides.

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Way to completely miss the point of the article. He's not saying it exists, he's saying it might.

Way to completely put words in my mouth. I never said he endorsed it.

I think very highly of Mr. Bill James. In a previous career, I introduced more-than-several non-baseball people to how Mr. Bill James thinks about things... how he asks questions, and how he strives to find good answers to them. But, for me, he's not the arbiter of what's real and what isn't. He's just a guy... a special guy, but just a guy. (I believe he would agree with this.)

... people deny that hitters that are far better in clutch situations exist, or at least are very rare.

Some folks use stats to claim that clutch hitters are a myth. IMO, that idea is a silly myth. Nothing against stats, just against what some folks do with them. In that quote, I think he did an excellent job of characterizing what's wrong with what some people do with them. The crux of it is the part below...

Instead, the discussion went more like this:

(A) Clutch hitting doesn't exist.

(B) Umm...OK.

© I don't know...I think maybe it could exist.

(A & B in unison) Prove it.

© 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.

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I don't like the idea of the opposition factoring into clutch. I mean, in general I'd expect that David Ortiz is going to hit better against the Orioles, Devil Rays, and Royals than against the Yankees, but that's more to do with the pitching staffs than his being a clutch hitter.

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I don't like the idea of the opposition factoring into clutch. I mean, in general I'd expect that David Ortiz is going to hit better against the Orioles, Devil Rays, and Royals than against the Yankees, but that's more to do with the pitching staffs than his being a clutch hitter.

But maybe it has to do with if you're chasing that team for division lead / wildcard, or vice versa. :confused:

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Way to completely miss the point of the article. He's not saying it exists, he's saying it might. Nobody has ever denied that clutch hits exist, people deny that hitters that are far better in clutch situations exist, or at least are very rare.

Defining clutch situations will be very difficult. Not only is each "clutch" situation different from every other one, but each player's personal feel for how important or "clutch" a situation is will be different.

Its basically impossible to quantifiably define a clutch situation and have it apply well across the board.

Also, if clutch hitting exists, would we expect "clutch" hitters to hit better in really clutch situations as opposed to just sort of clutch situations? Where is the magic level of clutchness that a player all of a sudden becomes far better than he is in normal, mundane situations?

I think this debate will continue on for quite some time, with pretty much the same arguments coming from both sides.

Well, since "clutch" hitting has a greater amount of pressure applied to the at bat, you would think that just delivering normally in those situations would be considrered as such as well.

I think it will never come to a conclusion because everyone will value the amount of pressure on the at bat different.

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Well, since "clutch" hitting has a greater amount of pressure applied to the at bat, you would think that just delivering normally in those situations would be considrered as such as well.

I think it will never come to a conclusion because everyone will value the amount of pressure on the at bat different.

There's good evidence I've seen from studies in educational psychology that show performance increases with "pressure", or stress -- up to a point. Then the stress hurts performance. Different people respond this way at different stress levels.

Maybe that explains the phenomenon of clutch hitters, if they exist -- some hitters' performance increases under the presence of additional stress while others decline.

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I've always believed that clutch hitting existed on the lower levels, but once you get to the MLB, it no longer exists. I think that clutch hitting exists because some people can't concentrate totally in each at bat. By the time people get to the majors, they can control their emotions, and have an incentive to perform at their best in every at bat. The people who can't control their emotions, and don't always perform at their best never make it to the majors or never get noticed to be drafted.

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They should include postseason hitting in their calculations as well. ARod has proven time and time again that he can't get it done in the divisional series' and if you have clutch hitters you should certainly have the opposite I would think, choke artists.

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They should include postseason hitting in their calculations as well. ARod has proven time and time again that he can't get it done in the divisional series' and if you have clutch hitters you should certainly have the opposite I would think, choke artists.

He has an .844 OPS overall in the postseason, and a 1.024 in the LCS.

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