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The concept of “clutch” is one of the clearest dividing lines
between traditional coverage of baseball and what you’ll find here at
Baseball Prospectus. In the mainstream, performance in important
situations is often attributed to some wealth or deficit of character that
causes a particular outcome. Here, we’re more likely to recognize that when
the best baseball players in the world go head-to-head, someone has to win and
someone has to lose, and it doesn’t mean that one side has better people than
the other.

Clutch performances exist, to be sure; you can’t watch a day of baseball
without seeing a well-timed hit, a big defensive play or a key strikeout that
pushes a team towards victory. The biggest moments in baseball history are
almost all examples of players doing extraordinary things in extraordinary
circumstances. Those moments make the game great and the players responsible
for them deserve credit, and even adulation, for their heroics.

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
.

All major-league players have a demonstrated ability to perform under
pressure. They’ve proven that by rising to the top of an enormous pyramid of
players, tens of thousands of them, all trying to be one of the top 0.1% that
gets to call themselves “major leaguers.” Within this group of
elite, who have proven themselves to be the best in the world at their jobs,
there is no discernable change in their abilities when runners are on base, or
when the game is tied in extra innings, or when candy and costumes and
pumpkins decorate the local GigaMart. The guys who are good enough to be in
the majors are all capable of succeeding and failing in these situations, and
they’re as likely to do one or the other in the clutch as they are at any
other time. Over the course of a game, a month, a season or a career, there is
virtually no evidence that any player or group of players possesses an ability
to outperform his established level of ability in clutch situations, however
defined.

The statistical studies of clutch have supported this point. David Grabiner
did the
seminal work
more than a decade ago, defining clutch as performance in the
late innings of close games. From the article:

The correlation between past and current clutch performance is .01, with a
standard deviation of .07. In other words, there isn’t a significant ability
in clutch hitting; if there were, the same players would be good clutch
hitters every year.

A study by Ron Johnson, which is not currently online but is quoted here,
covered a 15-year period and concluded that just two players, Paul
Molitor
and Tony Fernandez met the statistical
criteria to be considered clutch hitters. (Johnson didn’t argue that the two
had this trait, just that of the players in the study, they were the only two
whose performance with runners in scoring position showed a statistically
significant improvement.)

You can see this yourself if you like, and you don’t need to understand
correlations to do it. Pick any five players at random, and check out their
splits for the last few seasons (you can do this fairly easily at any of the
major sports portals). You’ll find that their statistics from year to year in
the various clutch situations (RISP, late-inning pressure, September) can vary
widely, with no rhyme or reason to the splits. But over a large enough sample,
players will hit in given situations pretty much as they do overall.

Of course, these statistical arguments assume both numeracy and a quest for
the truth. Too often, neither of these things is in play. The notion of clutch
persists because it allows for a storyline with a hero and a goat, and that’s
both an easy tale to write and an easy one to read. While it’s a facile
concept, players buy into it because it’s flattering. No one wants to believe
that they’re successful just because they hit the genetic lottery and that, on
a particular day, they performed better than the other, equally-gifted guys.
It’s much more enjoyable to extrapolate a certain moral superiority from
on-field success, to attribute that game-winning double to your heart and
desire, rather than to your fast-twitch muscles and hitting the fastball at
just the right angle to push it past the diving center fielder. It’s this need
to turn physics and physicality into a statement about the character of
people–to stick labels on them based on their day at work and the bounce of a
ball–that is the most damning thing about the myth of clutch.

The idea that players’ abilities do not change in the clutch is one of those
things that gets the anti-stathead crowd riled up, gets them talking about
pocket protectors and people who take the fun out of the game. I don’t buy it;
the fun is the game, in the performances and the competition and the talent
that we get to watch.

When you have that, who needs a myth?

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