The two truths of clutch-hitting

Denis Poroy

The first rule is you don't talk about clutch-hitting. The second rule is ...

Here's a video of monkeys riding dogs herding sheep. You've seen it before. So with that out of the way, let me tell you about my theory about a way to get monkeys riding dogs herding sheep riding goats. Now, the first thing you have to remember is …

Wait, wait, wait. You mean some of you have never seen monkeys riding dogs herding sheep? It was kind of a thing on the Internet a while ago. I just assumed everyone knew about it.

It's like that with baseball-related stuff, too. I just assume that everyone knows that both Stan Musial and Ken Griffey, Jr. were born on November 21 in Donora, Pennsylvania -- a town of about 6,000 people -- 49 years apart. I mentioned it once, I think, and everyone pretty much knows about it, and … wait, some of you didn't know that? Well, certainly you remember that day when everyone was talking about how Mark Lemke was never hit by a pitch in his 11-year career, and … no? Huh. I guess some things aren't as obvious or as widely accepted as I thought.

This is true for big-picture stuff, too. There has never been an article titled "Why RBI Don't Measure Individual Performance Well" on Baseball Nation. Seems like an argument from 1988, and we figure that if you're here, you know that already. Except, there's someone reading this right now thinking, "Wait, what's this about RBI?" Maybe he or she is 15 and getting heavy into baseball for the first time, or maybe he or she is 35 and has followed baseball for decades, but has somehow managed to avoid that particular debate. Maybe it's the monkeys riding dogs herding sheep of baseball arguments. They just weren't on Twitter the day that was going around, so to speak.

Today isn't about RBI, though. It's about clutch hitting. I'm not sure if there's been an article or not about clutch hitting on Baseball Nation. This was a big thing back at the turn of the millennium, right as the Internet was becoming the preferred way for folks to follow baseball. And all the nerds were pretty satisfied they won the argument, moved on, and now we're here, not talking about clutch hitting because we figure you've heard it all before.

Except that's not right. Giants beat writer Henry Schulman tweeted that he disagreed with Jonah Keri's selection of Buster Posey as the first-half MVP in the National League because of Posey's performance in the clutch this year. Schulman typed that it's foolish to consider clutch hitting a myth, and that baseball players are not robots. People agreed and disagreed with him. Which hints that a post on clutch hitting isn't so crazy after all.

So with all that in mind, here are the Truths of Clutch Hitting as I see them.

1. Clutch hitters might exist
That is, players who might have an extra switch that flicks on when they need to concentrate more. These players might exist. Adrenaline surges, endorphins fire, the brain gets clearer … heck, it could happen. Players aren't robots.

2. You have no idea how to tell those guys from hitters who just appear to be clutch
They keep track of in-game situations at Baseball-Reference.com, and you can search for win probability added -- that is, how much players contributed to a win by getting a hit in a specific situation. A single with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a tie game is worth more than a single with the bases loaded in the fourth inning of a blowout. Do more of the former over your career, and you'll do well in WPA.

Naturally, the players who get more hits and homers will have higher WPAs because they're already better than everyone else. But there's also a way to find if a player racked up more of his big hits in high-leverage situations. Baseball-Reference.com calls the stat "Clutch." If a player has more of those ninth-inning doubles than fourth-inning doubles over a season or career, he'll rank higher in this stat.

Here's a list of Hall of Famers over their careers. Tony Gwynn is near the top of the list. You probably would have expected that. Frank Robinson is at the absolute bottom. You probably would not have expected that. Ted Williams did a little more damage in low-leverage situations than high-leverage situations, as did Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, and Mike Schmidt. By this metric, they're not clutch.

But notice that the list is almost a perfect bell curve. There are outliers. Then there's a solid middle. This is what you would expect. It's pretty unlikely that Nellie Fox was more skilled than Frank Robinson in the clutch; that's just how it happened. If clutch hitting did not exist, we would have to invent it. And the distribution would look a lot like that.

Here's the list of the leaders in Clutch last year. Again, these are the players who had more of their hits in high-leverage situations than low-leverage situations. Forty hitters did substantially better in high-leverage situations last year. Of those 40, 36 have also had below-average clutch seasons in their careers. The other four? Brandon Belt, Asdrubal Cabrera, Yoenis Cespedes, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Three of those players got their first full-time job just last year.

Which means that either a) Asdrubal Cabrera is the only player in baseball who can consistently hit better in high-leverage situations, or b) this stuff can vary so wildly that everyone gets sucked under in one season or another. Every player goes up to the plate trying to hit a baseball hard. The goal is usually the same every time, productive outs aside. And sometimes that goal will happen at the right place in the right time. Sometimes the hard-hit ball will be a tree falling down in a six-run-deficit forest, and no one will hear it.

The players who can't handle the pressure, who can't fight through the adrenaline, who choke up at the wrong time, are probably the type to choke up when they're being watched by scouts. Or when they're competing for a job. Or when they're in line for a promotion. Or when they're trying to crawl out of the minor leagues because they want to make millions of dollars and succeed at something they've been successful at for their entire lives. Baseball is a self-selecting pool of players who can hit baseballs well at the right time. That's how they got there.

Those are two truths of clutch hitting. There might be hitters who can focus better with the game on the line. We'll never be able to tell them apart from the hitters who just happened to distribute their hits better by chance. It's entirely appropriate to base awards on clutch hits -- hey, they happened, and they helped their teams more than the other hits -- but it's silly to expect players to hit consistently in the clutch every year.

You expect Albert Pujols to hit 30 home runs every year because he has power. You expect Michael Bourn to steal 20 bases every year because he has speed. But you can't expect anyone to have more hits in high-leverage situations year after year. It's just not consistent. Maybe because clutch hitting is not a tool that hitters can possess, or maybe because it's just not a tool we can measure accurately enough. If it's either of those, maybe there's no point to pretending we can tell the clutch hitters from the unclutch.

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