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On "Clutch"

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I disagree with much of the Post-Gazette's long new article about "clutch," but it's nonetheless pretty illuminating. The article begins with an explanation of the position, held by many sabermetric types, that "clutch hitting" is a skill that's so minor that it easily gets buried under other factors, like the skills of the players involved and natural variation in performance. It's a pretty fair description of the position that many take, except that I don't know any baseball fan who has seriously argued that Michael Jordan or John Elway weren't clutch.

The Post-Gazette then presents another side of the debate, quoting a number of players and former players who believe that clutch hitting is an important skill. The funniest quote comes from Jim Colborn:

Of those who feel otherwise, Pirates pitching coach Jim Colborn said, "Dead wrong. There is an element in certain people that allows them to focus at their peak and get into a zone when the situation is more important."

He cited, from his playing days, Joe Rudi, a career .264 hitter who elevated his level every postseason for the Athletics. [NOTE: Since I wrote this article, the Post-Gazette's sentence has changed.]

"Believe me: For all the great players in that lineup, Joe Rudi was not the one you wanted to face. He just had a knack."

Rudi played in the postseason every year from 1971 to 1975, and he posted a career postseason line of .264/.329/.386, giving him a .713 OPS. That's lower than his regular-season OPS for every one of those years except 1971 and much lower than his regular-season OPSes in 1972, 1974 and 1975. It's true that a lot of Rudi's clutch reputation is based on his defense, but I don't think anyone denies that clutch defense exists. In fact, I don't know of anyone who has studied it. The debate about clutch being a skill in baseball has focused almost exclusively on hitting, because that's the only area where sabermetricians are making counterintuitive claims. And at least as far as Rudi's hitting is concerned, the notion that he "elevated his level every postseason" is flat wrong. That Rudi is the first player who comes to Colborn's mind is telling, I think.

You may think that it's silly of me to argue this point with Pirates players and coaches, but it isn't, because a lot of their decisions are apparently based on some pretty ridiculous thinking about clutch hitting. The Post-Gazette's description of Jim Tracy's position is worth quoting at length:

When his team wins, Jim Tracy invariably points to "big" hits that were delivered. When the team loses, he points to the lack of same. Even after the Pirates were blanked on three measly hits in their home opener April 9, Tracy lamented, "We had chances."

Tracy's view is reflected in how he forms his lineup, bucking the modern thinking that the highest on-base percentage players should be stacked at the top. Instead, he favors the more traditional approach of getting the runner on, moving him along and getting a "big" hit.

"Isn't that what makes teams good?" Tracy said when asked about his value of clutch. "It's what separates you from the pack, your ability to take the big at-bat. You don't expect somebody to hit 1.000 with runners in scoring position, but you have to get your share of hits in those situations. Look at the upper echelon of clubs, and that's what you look for. And if we can get to that point, we've got a chance to become a pretty decent team."

Got that? The Pirates' lineups and offensive strategy are based on ideas about "clutch"-ness for which there is very little evidence. Jack Wilson hits second either because he's good at moving runners over or because he delivers in clutch situations.

Well, with the excellent and (apparently) clutch-tacular Freddy Sanchez hitting third most of last year, the Pirates still finished 17th in the majors in runs scored from the leadoff position and 25th in runs scored from the #2 slot. Why? Because, #$(%*&-it, they finished 28th in the majors in OBP from each of the first two spots in their order. It simply will not do to put a speed demon in the leadoff spot and Wilson in the #2 spot, and then to hope that Sanchez will come through in the rare instances in which one of those players actually gets on base. It doesn't work. We know it doesn't work. But Tracy would rather continue to cling to this absurd belief about the way games are won than get real about the situation and get Wilson's sorry act out of the #2 spot.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: the Pirates finished 29th in the majors in runs scored in 2006. They finished dead last in OPS. In 2005 they finished 28th in runs scored and 24th in OPS. In 2004 the Pirates were 27th in runs scored and 26th in OPS. And this year, they're 28th in runs scored and 25th in OPS.

There's a very obvious pattern here, and if Jim Tracy hasn't figured it out despite being with the organization for well over a year, he shouldn't be running a Dustbuster, let alone a professional baseball team. "Big hits" are not the problem. A lack of offensive talent is the problem.

This matters. It matters because I have to watch Wilson try to hit four or five times a game instead of three or four. And it matters because, if you think that your team's problem is its failure to capitalize on its chances rather than the inadequacy of its players, you misdiagnose your problems. You run the risk of getting too complacent and waiting too long for bad players to start executing in key situations, when in fact the problem is not that they don't hit well enough in key situations, but that they're simply bad players.