Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

Quick thought on “clutch”

Posted by dannmckeegan on December 20, 2010

A clutch hitter is the kind of guy you always want coming up with the game on the line. Big situations demand big-time players with big-time confidence. Or so conventional wisdom dictates. Sabermetrics has yielded many zealots both defending and denying the existence of clutch hitters. On one side is the sabermetric majority (and baseball fan minority, I presume) that accepts evidence that clutch performances exist despite a lack of long-term consistency in individual “clutch” numbers for a given player. The other side consists of the faithful, the true believers, those who want to believe in the Clutch Player in the same way one buys into historical clean-up jobs on national or sports heroes.

Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus puts it beautifully when he writes:

In trying to get across the notion that no players possess a special ability to perform in particular situations, the usual line we use is that clutch performances exist, not clutch players. That’s wrong. The correct idea is that clutch performances exist, and clutch players exist: every last one of them.

What he’s saying is that, by virtue of making it as far as the big leagues, all of those guys have passed the tipping point at which pure skill is no longer the only factor. They have intangibles that go along with skill and a hefty side dish of luck. Another way of putting it is the analysis provided by Tom Tango on The Book blog:

[E]ven though we have determined that clutch skill exists in that population of players, it is simply too hard to identify the specific players that it makes any practical difference.

Basically, any reasonable amount of plate appearances from which to glean any information is too small a sample size for clutch ability to normalize. Furthermore, the difference between a clutch hitter and not-clutch hitter is pretty much the same difference you’ll get from the platoon advantage with mirror-image doppelgangers. A ten-year career for a full time player is the bare minimum for getting a legit sample size.

One shorthand statistic has been developed, however, that is pretty useful. It’s called “Clutch,” and you can find it over on FanGraphs player pages. It is simply the difference between Win Probability Added and “WPA/LI,” or the ratio of Win Probability Added to Leverage Index. That’s a fancy way of saying that, through years of analysis, sabermetricians have assigned leverage values to different game situations and win probability adjustments to play results. No one denies the existence of clutch performances. I refer anyone who questions that to game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

So What?

Well, I wanted to glance through some of baseball’s “known” clutch and un-clutch hitters to gather their 2010 Clutch stats to see what kind of variation from the public perception we get in a random year. Let’s start with the most common comparison of clutch vs. un-clutch, Yankees infielders Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez:

A-Rod: 1.44, led team by 0.90 (6th positive year against 11 negatives; career -6.72 regular season +.90 postseason)

Jeter: -0.40, 3rd-lowest on team among regulars (10th negative against 6 positive; career +1.37 regular season, -1.14 postseason)

Interesting to see not only that A-Rod was clutchier in 2010, but also that the two men have comparable year-to-year variations, but quite different cumulative tallies. Basically, when Jeter is good, he’s truly clutch, while his Mr. November moniker might not be so well-deserved after all.

Now let’s jog over to Boston to compare the reputedly clutch immobile DH and the supposedly soft, fragile and choke-prone right fielder:

David Ortiz: -0.18 (7th negative year against 7 positives; +2.44 regular season, 0.96 playoffs)

J.D. Drew: -0.17 (9th negative year against 4 positives; -2.87 regular season, -0.03 playoffs)

Drew and Ortiz were equally ineffective in clutch situations, but the difference we need to recognize is that Ortiz had significantly more WPA and WPA/LI than Drew. Thus, his lack of “clutch” was counter-balanced by his greater propensity for finding himself in such situations and coming through quite often. Drew’s opportunities were far fewer and further between. Also, Drew joins both Yankees in having a more-or-less 2:1 negative-to-positive ratio of Clutch seasons. Further study would then, perhaps, be to look across the board at long-tenured veterans with enough PA to qualify as at least close to a valid sample, and to see if such a trend emerges beyond this group. That is, might we measure clutch best as a meta-narrative for a whole career? Hypothesis: while similar approach/contact can lead to varying results, over time those variances will balance out. Whether the sum total of single or multiple seasons in positive or negative, “clutchiness” might best be found within those who outperformed expectations over the course of individual seasons at a greater frequency than their peers.

Until next time…

Remember to tune into The Dann and Twan Show on Slam Internet Radio (http://www.slaminternetradio.com/) this Tuesday at 8pm CST. Yes, it’s a special holiday edition, complete with the Festivus traditions of grievance-airing and the feats of strength.

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One Response to “Quick thought on “clutch””

  1. Jerry Porzemsky said

    Good going Dan–Hope you have a wonderful holiday season. Be well, and keep it going. Jerry

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