My Thoughts on “Clutch”

By | August 11, 2006

The other day, I said this in a post about David Ortiz:

Please note that I wrote an entire article praising David Ortiz without ever using the word “clutch”? I think that “clutch” is ridiculously overrated — for reasons I will explain in another post, sometime soon…

Well, “sometime soon” is now. There are three main reasons I believe clutch hitting is overrated. The first comes from the book “Baseball Between the Numbers,” written by the experts at Baseball Prospectus. As that book says: “Hitters who rate as good clutch hitters in one season have no disposition to rate as good clutch hitters in the next one.” Simply put, there is no evidence that clutch hitting is a skill — that is, something you can learn and become good at, like reading a pitcher’s pickoff move or throwing a curveball. There is no doubt that David Ortiz has been a great clutch hitter from October 2004 until right now; the problem is, there is nothing in the history of baseball to suggest that he will still be a great clutch hitter next year. Clutch hitting is a combination of coming up in the right situations and being a good hitter. David Ortiz has turned himself into a very good hitter, and he has been fortunate to come up in a lot of big spots. Does it help that he is not cowed by the pressure of those big spots? Absolutely. But the fact that he is a great hitter helps a whole lot more.

The second reason I think clutch hitting is overrated it simple: a run in the ninth inning doesn’t count any more than a run in the first inning — and a case can even be made that an early run is more valuable. Let’s look at it this way: Let’s say David Ortiz comes up with a runner on first in the top of the first inning, and he hits a two-run homer to give the Red Sox a 2-0 lead. All of a sudden, Curt Schilling has a two-run lead to work with before he even takes the mound. This allows him to be more aggressive with his pitch selection. As a result of that added confidence and aggressiveness, he keeps his pitch count down. The Red Sox tack on another two runs on a Manny Ramirez home run in the fourth inning, and Schilling pitches eight innings, giving up single runs in the third, fourth, and fifth innings. Jonathan Papelbon comes on in the ninth for the save, and the Red Sox win 4-3.

Now let’s look at our second hypothetical game. In this game, Ortiz grounds out to end the first inning. Manny still hits his two-run homer in the fourth inning, which gives the Sox a 2-1 lead. This time, when Schilling gives up a game-tying run in the fourth, he gets a little rattled and starts nibbling, throwing several more pitches than he needs to. Then in the fifth, he gives up his third run, which gives the opponents a lead, and Schilling starts to lose it. Because he didn’t have that early lead, he has thrown several more pitches than he did in the first scenario, and he starts to get a little tired. That means that in this game, he gives up two runs in the fifth instead of one, and he leaves the game after six innings, with his team losing 4-2. The Red Sox use three pitchers to get through the seventh and eighth innings, and in the top of the ninth, David Ortiz comes up with two runners on and hits a three-run homer to take the lead. Papelbon then comes in to pitch the bottom of the ninth for the save.

In both games, the Red Sox won, Ortiz hit a big homer, and Papelbon got a save. So what’s the difference? Well, Schilling doesn’t get a win on his record, and three Red Sox pitchers didn’t get a night off in game 2 like they did in game 1.

This is obviously a hypothetical set of games, but everything in there is accurate as far as pitching psychology, etc. So early runs can be more valuable than late runs, and they certainly aren’t any LESS valuable.

The third and final reason I think clutch hitting is overrated is this: over the course of a season, a batter will get twice as many at-bats in innings one through six as he will in innings seven through nine. Going along with point number two, that means that a batter who is great in the first six innings and terrible in the last three is twice as valuable to his team as someone who is lousy early and awesome late. A guy with four RBI in a game always drove in twice as many as a guy with two, no matter what inning it happened in.

Why does it matter? Why does it bother me that there is so much talk about clutch hitting? Well, I think we do a great disservice to guys like David Ortiz by focusing on the late-inning heroics, because it ignores the fact that he has become a great hitter. What happens next year or the year after, when he doesn’t get as many clutch opportunities, and he doesn’t pull through on quite as high a percentage of the ones he does get? All he will have left is the fact that he is a great hitter, and if we overlook that fact now, we may accidentally forget how good he is when he comes back down to earth.

2 thoughts on “My Thoughts on “Clutch”

  1. Richie

    I agree with the reasoning behind your second argument, but is there any evidence to suggest that pitchers pitch better (and with fewer pitches) when they have a lead? (By the way, I have that BP book on hold at the library, so if it’s in there just let me know because I’ll be reading it soon.)

  2. Jeff J. Snider Post author

    I don’t know of any studies about the number of pitches thrown with large leads compared to small leads. It would be fascinating research to do, the sort of thing I would spend time on if I were independently wealthy. I am just guessing that it would lead to fewer pitches, although I can see situations where a pitcher challenging hitters more could lead to more hits by the opposition and, therefore, more pitches thrown. But either way, I think it is undeniable that there is less pressure on a manager to go to the bullpen when he has a large lead. (This is especially true in the National League, untainted as it is by the DH.)

    As for the BP book, all I have read is the excerpt they had on a few months back, which is where I got the quote. I plan on checking it out soon, too. Or maybe reading it in a comfy chair at Barnes & Noble.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *