When no one is clutch, everyone is

Kevin C. Cox

Lamenting the random nature of sports outcomes because it rips the soul of it is backwards: chaos provides the very excitement we yearn for.

The econometric revolution in sports has led to any number of laments in the years since Moneyball took the debate mainstream. There's the old scout vs. stats canard, which somehow survives despite the people actually involved in both camps consistently claiming there is no such battle.

But the issue with the new world order I'm most sympathetic to is the argument that advanced stats and some findings have made sports less fun. Given that sports is first entertainment, and a business only because so many are entertained by it, that's a serious accusation to make.

This concern has been voiced consistently the past decade, but I've never seen it put more eloquently than when Frank Deford, the sportswriting legend, explained his position in an NPR oral essay for his regular "Sweetness and Light" segment. The four-minute piece is well worth a listen; a transcript is also available. Here's an important snip that explains the Deford's problem with the new age:

As a child, your heart is broken when you learn that your grandfather really can't pull real quarters out of your ear. And if you're a baseball fan that disillusionment happens once more to you in life, when you first hear the numbers mavens tell you that there is no such thing as a clutch hitter - none, no such thing. Oh my.

But if you have any romance in your soul, you do so want to believe that there are people in all walks of life whom we can count on to rise to the occasion. Don't you want that?

You could swap Deford's baseball and Derek Jeter with basketball and Kobe Bryant (or Robert Horry, for that matter) and have the same argument. Studies have suggested there is no clutch in basketball. Randomness chaos plays a large role in how games are decided. Not the only role play-calling, personnel, individual decisions and, yes, skill all matter. (On skill: randomness is unlikely to allow Dwight Howard to make a game-winning three. Or free throw, for that matter.) There's just such a heavy element of randomness involved that no evidence of clutch is likely to ever be found. If there is a skill or gene that allows some people to perform better under pressure, in sports it has been swamped and concealed by randomness.

But this does not create a vacuum of special ability. In fact, it does the opposite. From Deford:

But stats guys are hard-hearted brutes, they are. And especially now at World Series time, far from going out the window, they come out of the woodwork to make sure that we silly dreamers understand that numbers don't lie, that the clutch is all a random crap shoot. You can't count on nobody no how.

The thing is that the rejection of the presence of clutch and embrace of chaos theory in sports doesn't mean that you can't count on nobody no how. It means that you can count on everybody who puts themselves in a position to succeed. And isn't that a helluva more compelling situation?

Take the clutch argument all the way. Imagine a sequence in the human genome coded for, say, performance under pressure. If the gene was turned on, you have the clutch gene and make every clutch shot you take. If the gene is turned off, you don't have the clutch gene and you miss every clutch shot you take. We'd find out quickly who has the clutch gene and who does not, and man, the ends of games would be boring as hell to watch. Glory would be birthright.

Man, the ends of games would be boring as hell to watch

That sounds unfair, but it's the inverse of what Deford accuses the "hard-hearted brutes" of the stats movement of believing and proselytizing. In reality, Deford doesn't believe in a pure clutch gene any more than a sports econometrician believes in total equality in clutch performance. In reality, both positions are more nuanced. In painting the stats guys as absolutists who believe only in chaos, Deford obscures the real debate, which is whether some people are predisposed to sporting heroism.

What folks like Deford embrace is that some people handle pressure better. Why is that comforting? Because we all believe that we handle pressure better than most in our own lives. Deford's sign-off betrays this position.

It's revealing that when somebody gets a big hit, we invariably say: He delivered. Fool that I am, I still think some of us can deliver better than ever when the chips are down, the count is full, and the game is on the line.

Emphasis added. To dismiss the existence of clutch isn't only to doubt the make-up of Jeter or Horry: It's an accusation against all of us who believe ourselves more cool, more bold, more clutch. Why does Deford or anyone believe himself more clutch in his profession than the next guy? In all likelihood, it's for the same reason we as a sports-loving nation turn Horry's fantastic results over the years into some narrative mythology about clutch, coolness and pressure, when really it was all a basic combination of opportunity, preparation and randomness.

The brilliant Nassim Taleb has written about this at length, about our primal, sometimes destructive need to create narratives to explain what is actually caused by the inescapable randomness that surrounds us. The stakes are obviously much smaller on the court than in the global financial markets, which is what Taleb largely writes about. But narratives do hurt performance.

"Hero ball" is a common pejorative in stat-minded NBA circles, for example. It is a criticism of the type of uncreative, hand-the-ball-to-the-designated-clutch-shooter-and-watch play that, until very recently, dominated crunch time. "Hero ball" is unequivocally destructive to a team's chances because defenses have a much easier time stopping you when they know exactly what your offense is going to run. When it's a a high screen to pull-up jumper for the two-guard wearing No. 24 every time down, it becomes pretty easy to sniff and challenge. That lowers the probability of a make, though a make is still possible. (Randomness, you know.) It's better to run a legit play, even if that means giving the ball to a player who hasn't been bestowed with the crown of clutch.

(Good news: if he makes it, he will get the clutch moniker! And for what it's worth, we're seeing less "hero ball" in the wild: More and more coaches are running discrete plays with the game on the line, hoping to catch the defense by surprise.)

This gets back to Deford's central argument, that if clutch is a myth, "you can't count on nobody no how." No! In the absence of a specific skill or gene for clutch, you can count on everybody. If you're in the NBA, you likely have the skill and physical attributes to hit a shot, so by extension you have the goods to hit a big shot, to win the game, to be a hero, to enter lore. Randomness has a lot to do with whether you'll do that or not. Why is that a problem? Why can't we admit that chance plays a major role in our lives?

It doesn't take a recurring hero to amaze, it just takes a hero

Even more, why is that a problem for mere fans? Did Deford enjoy Aaron Boone's star turn any less than if it would have been Jeter? Really, it can be argued that the added unpredictability of a clutchless viewing of sports makes things even more entertaining. We really have no idea who will be the hero. It's not a binary "will Kobe be clutch again?" result. It's totally wide open to myriad possibilities, any of which could be spectacular and surprising. It doesn't take a recurring hero to amaze, it just takes a hero. And in a world without clutch, that could be anybody.

If you have any soul, you want to believe that we can count on anybody given the right tools and opportunity to rise to the occasion. Don't you?

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