A
clutch hitter is a
baseball player with a knack for coming up with the
"big" hit. The big hit is typically a game-deciding hit, sometimes
a
home run, often coming with two outs.
Being known as a
clutch hitter is a
position of high honor and responsibility, as the clutch hitter is
recognized as the "go-to guy" for the team, and his exploits in
pressure situations are celebrated by both fans and players
alike.
Famous clutch hits
Notable instances of clutch hitting include:
- Bobby Thomson,
for the New York Giants against
the Brooklyn Dodgers at the
Polo
Grounds. In the final game of a three-game playoff
series to determine the National
League champion, Thomson, with two men on base in the bottom of
the ninth inning and the Giants trailing 4-2, blasted a line-drive
walkoff home run off Ralph Branca to clinch the pennant in dramatic
fashion for New York. Although the Giants would eventually lose the
1951 World Series in six games to
the New York Yankees, this home
run, known as the Shot Heard 'Round the
World, is considered to be one of the sport's greatest
moments.
- Vic Davalillo,
for the Los Angeles Dodgers
against the Philadelphia
Phillies at Veterans
Stadium. In Game 3 of the 1977 National League
Championship Series, the Dodgers trailed the Phillies 5-3 with
2 outs in the 9th inning. With an 0-2 count, Davalillo surprised
the Phillies by executing a drag
bunt and beat the throw to first base. Manny Mota drove Davalillo home with a double,
then scored on a single by Davey Lopes
to tie the game. The Dodgers eventually won the game and went on to
win Game 4 to clinch the series and earn a berth in the World
Series.
- Bucky Dent, for the
New York Yankees against the
Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. In a one-game playoff for the American League Eastern division championship, Dent, an
unlikely candidate for clutch hitting, came up with two outs and,
after a lengthy at-bat, sent a ball over the
Green Monster for what would
eventually be the game-winning run. The Yankees would go on to win
the World Series.
- Dave Henderson,
Game 5 of the 1986 American League
Championship Series for the Boston
Red Sox against the California Angels at Anaheim Stadium. In the bottom of the ninth, with the Angels
one strike away from their first trip to the World Series and Rich
Gedman on first, Henderson drilled a two strike Donnie Moore offering into the left field
stands to give Boston a 6-5 lead. The home run proved to be the
turning point in the series, as the Red Sox took the momentum from
the Angels and used it to propel themselves to a seven-game ALCS
triumph. Boston would go on to lose the 1986 World Series, with Henderson
delivering another clutch home run in Game 6, to the New York Mets.
- Kirk Gibson, Game
1 of the 1988 World Series for the
Los Angeles Dodgers against the
Oakland Athletics at Dodger Stadium. Coming to bat in the bottom of the ninth
inning with two outs, one baserunner and a deficit of one run, and battling
with a recent injury, Gibson hit a walk off home run off Dennis Eckersley (who would later coin the
term "walk off"). The Dodgers would go on to win the series.
- Joe Carter, Game 6
of the 1993 World Series for the
Toronto Blue Jays against the
Philadelphia Phillies at
SkyDome. Coming to bat with the Jays trailing 6-5 in
the bottom of the ninth, one out, and two men on base, Carter hits
a walkoff home run off Phillies closer Mitch Williams to win the Series for the Blue
Jays, giving Toronto back-to-back World Series titles (1992,
1993).
- Aaron Boone, for
the New York Yankees against the
Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. In the last game of an aggressive and
violent ALCS, midseason acquisition Aaron Boone hit a walk off home
run against the first pitch of Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield in the bottom of the 11th
inning. The opposing team and situation lead many people to compare
it to Bucky Dent's home run, leading Boone to get the playful
nickname "Aaron *Bleeping* Boone.
Does clutch hitting exist?
Various baseball analysts, including
Bill
James,
Pete Palmer,
Dick Cramer, and the
Baseball Prospectus editors, have
found so-called "clutch hitting" ability to be a myth. This is not
to say that clutch hits, like those listed above, do not exist, but
rather that some kind of innate ability for a player to perform
above his true talent level in high-pressure situations is nothing
but an illusion. In his 1984
Baseball Abstract, James framed the
problem with clutch hitting this way: "How is it that a player who
possesses the reflexes and the batting stroke and the knowledge and
the experience to be a .260 hitter in other circumstances magically
becomes a .300 hitter when the game is on the line? How does that
happen? What is the process? What are the effects? Until we can
answer those questions, I see little point in talking about clutch
ability."
Most studies on the matter involved comparing performance in the
"clutch" category of statistics (production with runners in scoring
position, performance late in close games, etc.) between seasons;
if clutch hitting were an actual skill, it would follow that the
same players would do well in the clutch statistics year in and
year out (the
correlation
coefficient between players' performances over multiple seasons
would be high). Cramer's study was the first of its kind, and it
found that clutch hitting numbers between seasons for the same
player varied wildly; in fact, the
variance
was the kind one would expect if the numbers had been selected
randomly. Since Cramer published his
results, many others have tried to find some evidence that clutch
hitting is a skill, but almost every study has confirmed Cramer's
initial findings: that "clutch hitting," in terms of certain
players being able to "rise to the occasion" under pressure, is an
illusion.
Despite the evidence, though, most people in baseball steadfastly
cling to the idea of the clutch hitter. "You can take those stat
guys,"
Derek Jeter once told
Sports Illustrated after SI informed the
Yankees shortstop that many analysts deny clutch hitting
as a skill, "and throw them out the window." While many do not
believe clutch hitting actually exists, supporters of it cite
Jeter's teammate,
Alex Rodriguez's
(A-Rod) perceived struggles in clutch situations as proof that even
great statistical hitters like A-Rod (who was the 2005 MVP) are
different players in the clutch.
Jeter is perhaps a prime example of the difference between
perception and reality when it comes to "clutch hitting." Widely
considered a "clutch player," Jeter's career BA/OBP/SLG (through
the end of the 2007 season) numbers are .317/.388/.462, while his
playoff numbers are in fact marginally worse at .309/.377/.469.
Teammate Bernie Williams had equal or better numbers to Jeter in
the time they played together but it is Jeter who is deemed
'clutch'. Jeter's home run to win Game 4 of the
2001 World Series helped earn him the
nickname "Mr. November," but his offensive numbers for the series
were very poor .148/.179/.259. (It is notable that few of the
Yankees were able to produce at their normal level in this series,
in part due to Arizona's pitching, which included the co- World
Series MVP's of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. The
New York Yankees ultimately went on to lose
the series in seven games.)
The problem with clutch hitting is that some people interpret it as
always getting that big hit in a critical situation, while the
reality is that it is unreasonable to think a player can get a hit
each time out. To many, being "clutch" is being able to handle the
pressure and getting that game tying/go ahead/ or winning hit. No
one remembers a poor batting average in a series where a player
hits a game winning home run.
The fact that a player shows improved statistics in "clutch"
situations is also not proof that clutch hitting exists, because
random statistical variations can produce such occurrences. For
example, using the
binomial probability
distribution, one can calculate that there is about a 4.8% chance
that a .300 hitter will bat .500 or better in 20 at-bats, based
merely on random chance. This is analogous to the fact that there
is always some nonzero probability that a fair coin will produce a
surprising amount of consecutive flips, e.g. there is a chance that
one will get 20 straight flips of "tails", without attributing any
"clutch" characteristics to the coin. Given the great number of
players who have played the game, players who have average career
statistics but seemingly exceptional statistics in certain
situations (e.g. the playoffs or with the bases loaded) are
expected without providing proof that "clutch hitting" skills
exist.
Conversely, the perceived struggles of Alex Rodriguez are easily
explained as a statistical anomaly. Rodriguez is a career .306
hitter in the regular season with 41 hits in 147 post-season at
bats (.279). Based on a
binomial
probability distribution, one can calculate that there is a 26.9%
chance that a career .306 hitter like Rodriguez would have 41 or
fewer hits in 147 post-season at-bats. While this does not prove
that Rodriguez is exactly the same player in the post-season that
he is in the regular season, the statistical arguments that say
otherwise are not particularly strong.
In addition, the cause of "clutch" situations must be considered.
For example, if a player hits better with the bases loaded, it may
be in part because the bases are only loaded because the other
team's pitcher is not pitching well at that time, thus giving the
batter a better-than-average chance for a hit in the first place.
Furthermore, a pitcher may pitch differently with runners on (from
"the stretch" rather than a full wind-up pitching motion),
resulting in a strategic advantage for a batter.
This is not to say that it is impossible for a player's mental
state to have some impact, either positively or negatively, on
their performance---e.g. confidence leading to "clutch hits" or a
lack of confidence leading to "choking". However, there is
little-to-no statistical evidence that shows this to be common,
favoring the idea that any such impact is frequently overstated and
most "clutch hits" are simply cases where success occurred at
fortunate moments, and players perceived as "clutch" are simply
players who have been lucky enough to get an above-average number
of these hits.
Notes
- 1977 National League Championship Series Game
3
- You Can't Lose 'Em All: The Year the Phillies
Finally Won the World Series by Frank Fitzpatrick
References
- Richard D. Cramer, "Do Clutch Hitters Exist?," SABR Baseball Research Journal (1977).[181299]
- Silver, Nate. "Is David Ortiz a
Clutch Hitter?" in Jonah Keri, Ed., Baseball Between the
Numbers (New York: Basic Books, 2006): 14-35.
- Verducci, Tom. "Does Clutch Hitting Truly Exist?" Sports
Illustrated, April 5, 2004: 60-62.