Playing in the Playoffs: Dustin Pedroia came to the plate with the bases loaded in the Bosox game against the Belinski’s last night and TBS immediately told us that the second bagger was 13 for 28 with the bases loaded. “Wow,” I thought, “this kid is clutch.” The fact that Pedroia lined out did little to dampen that impression, but in the wake of the Halo’s loss to “the Nation” I started to wonder whether the stat was actually that useful. Going 13 for 28 with the bags bulging is red meat for sabermetricians, but the stat itself does little to actually explain why Pedroia is a great clutch hitter — while others aren’t.
One recent study tells us that five of the top six clutch hitters since 1956 were, in order: Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Willie Stargell and George Brett. Fantastic: except that McCovey and company not only hit well with runners in scoring position, they hit well all the time. The ardor we thus enjoy from throwing the stat mafia out the window is dampened by hearing that the top clutch hitter of that era was Rusty Staub.
Staub was an excellent hitter, a phenomenal game-changer, an important baseball personality, but he’s not part of the McCovey-Mantle-Mays club; not even close. And I can’t think of any manager so dependent on stats that they would pinch hit Staub for, say, Jim Rice — who had a reputation of being lousy in the clutch. Rice’s reputation was well-earned; he led his league in grounding into double plays in four straight seasons. But why pinch hit for him? These were the seasons in which he 309, .305, .280 and .291.
Even so, pointing to stats is not the same as pointing to explanations: saying that Rusty Staub was good in the clutch doesn’t really tell us anything except maybe that “clutch hitting” is unquantifiable or (better yet) that any player’s performance in any given situation is, ultimately, unpredictable. To give credit where it’s due, Sabermetricians understand this as well as we do and have concluded that “clutch hitting” doesn’t really exist: “In clutch situations, few players vary much above or below their overall performance,” one stat hound wrote last July. That is to say, hitting well with runners in scoring position is probably as much a matter of confidence (or luck) as it is of actual tough-situation talent. Clutch performance variations decline as plate appearances increase: given another one hundred at-bats Rusty Staub would have hit what he had always hit — a very good, but not great, .279. When we see a hitter hit well over his average with runners in scoring position we shouldn’t say he’s a “clutch hitter,” we should say he’s “hot” — and understand what that means. It means that, inevitably, he’ll cool off.
Which brings me to my point: what holds true for “clutch hitters” probably holds true for teams. “Clutch” performances are as overrated as “chokes.” This is no more obvious than in the current post-season. There is no question that both the Halo’s and North Siders have stunk in the post-season and that, therefore, we might conclude that they’re not “clutch performers.” The view is reinforced by the fact that the Angels have ponied up zeroes in their last nine post-season performances, while the Cubs are a pathetic 0 and 8. Even so, I would still maintain (as I have all year) that the Angels and Cubs are still the two best teams in baseball — and will remain so until they are eliminated.
So . . . what’s the problem?
The problem is that some teams get hot and that you best not play them when they are. The problem is not with the Halos and North Siders, the problem is with the Bosox and Dodgers. They’re “hot.” But teams that are hot can suddenly go cold. It’s happened before. In 1985, the Cardinals were one game away from a clinch in their series against the Royals and seemed dominant in every aspect of the game. George Brett was undeterred: “We have them right where we want them,” he said. The Royals went on to win their next three games, embarrassing the Redbirds 11-0 in game seven. In 2003, the A’s led the Red Sox 2-0 in the American League Division Series, but the A’s went on to get swept by the Bosox in the next three games. Were the Royals and Red Sox “clutch” performers? I doubt it. Rather, I view both “clutch” performances and “chokes” as anamolies: very good teams get beaten in short series while mediocre teams (like last year’s Rockies, or the galactically lucky Marlins) end up grabbing the brass ring. That’s the way it goes.
Of course, this may all be hogwash. That a team’s performance is inherently unpredictable in any given situation says as much about the game as “clutch” hitting does about hitting. Which is to say: it says nothing. Teams win and lose because they’re either good or they’re not (or they’re hot or they’re not) and the belief that things even out over time is simply not true. I’m sure that the Cubs will win the series at some point in the next thousand years (if even by sheer accident), but the problem is I won’t be here to see it. Which is why I continue to scream at the television (“oh for God’s sakes, Ryan, will you please, please, please throw a strike“) and wonder when Alfonso Soriano is going to decide that it’s time to start playing.
Or maybe (maybe!) the Dodgers and Red Sox are just better.