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Illogic 101: Argument by Distraction

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Course Description: Learn cheapshots, strawmen and flat-earth rhetoric with Professor Dejan Kovacevic! This course is essential for future corporate lawyers, chairpersons of national political party committees, and cult leaders.

Funny thing is, you are not going to have much luck in finding hard evidence to support the notion that [Humberto] Cota is clutch, other than, of course, watching the games. I have seen various numerical attempts, and they all fall short...

I have received emails from a handful of readers and read some articles in which the very existence of clutch hitting is challenged. Those who believe clutch hitting is a myth argue that it is simply a matter of luck and timing as to when a hitter delivers his hits...

But, being blunt here, I find this clutch debate to be positively laughable.

When a human being holding a bat steps to the plate and sees runners on base, he knows his team is counting on him, knows the fans could torture him if he fails, knows his livelihood might be at stake in extreme cases. Conversely, he also knows he can be the hero, that he will be respected if he comes through, that big money can be his.

Either way, there is pressure. And there is no way that is the same as a pressure-free situation.

Some handle it well. Some do not.

Only in baseball is the ridiculous concept that clutch does not exist even discussed...

And yes, there is a reason that players such as Cota -- and countless others who would provide much better examples -- perform just as well, if not better, under pressure than when there is none. It can be in their personalities, in their temperament, in their level of passion.

But it really cannot be measured by numbers, and I have a feeling that is what frustrates those who view the game exclusively through that prism.

Class TA: First of all, students, a point of clarification. Professor Kovacevic (or his readers) seems to be confused here. The debate is not over whether "clutch hitting" exists - clearly it does - but whether clutch hitting is a skill, and how much that skill matters.

Now on to the good stuff: notice what Professor Kovacevic did in that last paragraph. He implied that a number of people who read his column (and care enough about it to write him) care only about numbers, not about actual baseball. Kovacevic has done this before:

I am not big on emphasizing statistics above all else. Seems to me there is an entire segment of the baseball-loving community that feels completely comfortable analyzing the game from a cubicle rather than getting out to the stands and watching it. I find such practice to be preposterous. The game is played by humans, not by matrix dots on your PS2 screen.

These types of arguments are very clever. On one hand, they must seem extremely patronizing and off-putting to those who care enough about baseball to read Kovacevic's writing and respond when they disagree, only to be told they don't actually watch baseball or care about anything except numbers. Also, these arguments are easy to see through for anyone who bothers to read them closely and has an IQ over 90: honestly, does anyone actually know a baseball fan who doesn't watch baseball?

But, for those that don't read them closely, these sorts of ad hominem attacks can be extremely effective - they allow Kovacevic to dismiss an entire segment of his letter-writers without actually engaging with their arguments. Brilliant.  

Now, class, let's look at Kovacevic's first sentence: "Funny thing is, you are not going to have much luck in finding hard evidence to support the notion that Cota is clutch, other than, of course, watching the games."

You see, class, Professor Kovacevic really should be in trouble. In the following paragraphs - which I've spared you here - he massages the numbers this way and that, trying, and failing, to find evidence to back up his claim.

The trouble, of course, is that the numbers are really just an account of all the things that have happened on the field. If Cota really has been clutch this year, then the numbers should show it. Kovacevic's proficiency with numbers is rather limited, however, as is my own - neither of us really knows how to do anything more complex than go to espn.com and look at a player's batting average with running in scoring position or his performance in "close and late" situations. Neither of us really knows whether Cota has been "clutch" this season or not.

But this does not distract Kovacevic for long. Rather than admitting he has no idea what he's talking about, he returns to his earlier non-argument, which is that you know what he's saying if you actually watch the games - which, remember, his opponents don't do.

(Note, however, that Kovacevic is expecting the reader to remember the games he remembers, not the ones that are inconvenient, like the June 29 game the Pirates lost 3-2 against the Nationals, in which Cota went 0-3 with an HBP, left four runners on base, and popped out to end the sixth with a man on and the game tied. Or the April 20 game that the Pirates lost 6-4 against the Reds, in which Cota went 0-4 and left four men on base.)

But this, dear students, is the gem:

But, being blunt here, I find this clutch debate to be positively laughable.

When a human being holding a bat steps to the plate and sees runners on base, he knows his team is counting on him, knows the fans could torture him if he fails, knows his livelihood might be at stake in extreme cases. Conversely, he also knows he can be the hero, that he will be respected if he comes through, that big money can be his.

Either way, there is pressure. And there is no way that is the same as a pressure-free situation.

"Laughable!" This is pure brilliance. Having provided no evidence for his position - or even evidence proving that Humberto Cota has been "clutch" in the first place - our fine professor simply calls the entire debate "laughable"! Kovacevic is to be praised for his flair, his swagger, his... balls.

Elsewhere in this excerpt is more gasbaggery of the highest order! Rather than engaging with the mountain of data that suggests that the "clutch hitting" skill doesn't account for much if it exists at all, Kovacevic spits up sentence after sentence of half-formed thoughts designed to appeal to the common sense of his readers. Why will his readers believe it to be common sense? Because they already believe clutch hitters exist, of course! Because any former amateur athlete has felt "pressure," and because it's easier to follow professional sports if you can assign narratives and moral qualities (courage and so on) to explain the results, most fans believe that clutch hitters exist in major league baseball. Kovacevic provides no evidence, only appeals to unproveable little chestnuts with which his readers already agree.

What actually has happened on the baseball field doesn't matter to Kovacevic, despite all the condescension about "getting out to the stands and watching" baseball. Because if clutch hitting was a skill and it had a dramatic impact on the game, it would be easy to detect from our records of the games. The same batters would do the same things in the same situations, and those patterns would persist for years. But no, or at any rate few, such patterns exist! What Professor Kovacevic has done is to create several utterly irrelevant paragraphs that distract us from these facts and manage to advance an utterly baseless, yet distracting, argument for the opposite point of view!

Students, please keep Kovacevic's tactics in mind in your future careers as used car salesmen, cable-news pundits, and public relations executives.