Frank Deford’s weekly NPR hit deals with the clutch hit today. And of course it’s ridiculous. You can hear it all here. Here’s the intro:
As a child, your heart is broken when you learn that your grandfather really can’t pull real quarters out of your ear. And if you’re a baseball fan, that disillusionment happens once more to you in life when you first hear the numbers mavens tell you that there is no clutch hitter. None. No such thing.
Oh my, but if you have any romance in your soul, you do so want to believe that there are people in all walks of life whom we can count on to rise to the occasion. Don’t you want that?
He then goes on to cite the numbers about clutch hitting, acknowledging that no study has ever shown that players predictably and consistently — and those qualifiers matter — perform better in the clutch than they do in normal circumstances. Deford doesn’t dispute it. He just doesn’t like it and spends the next few minutes wishing it to not be so, citing “Faith, Benjamin Disraeli, and Derek Jeter” and the manner in which all three of those things discount statistics.
Which would be fine if he didn’t then set up a total straw man argument, calling statisticians “hard-hearted brutes” and “zealots” who are dismissive of his romantic notions. Biggest problem? No statistician ever claims what Deford says they claim: that all players respond exactly the same to pressure situations. Indeed, statisticians will tell you that they have no idea how players respond to pressure situations. They don’t have and can’t have the data. All they can day is what they do in terms of baseball production. Production that may come because of their response to pressure. Or may come despite their response to pressure. Or may be random chance.
More importantly, Deford makes the same mistake so many others do when it comes to talking about clutch hitting. And he does it knowingly, I believe, because he’s too smart to simply miss it. Specifically: he conflates the idea of clutch hitting as a skill and clutch hits as things that actually happen. Indeed, the latter happens all the time. Players come through in the clutch. It’s pretty fantastic when it happens too! All the statheads say is that you can’t really predict when that will happen and who will do it, thus rendering the idea of clutch hitting as a replicable skill non-existent in the data.
Which does nothing to make statheads “heard-hearted brutes.” Indeed, in my view it makes them far more amenable to surprise and wonder. Knowing full well that, man, ANYONE could get that big clutch hit and not presuming at all to know it was coming. Tell me: when David Ortiz hit that grand slam last week, did you think “HOLY CRAP!!!” Or did you think “Well, David Ortiz is a clutch hitter, so of course he did it. Knew it was coming.”
I, and all the statheads I know, felt the former. And it was anything but a dispassionate moment. Too bad Deford, one presumes, had his heart set on that outcome already and would have had his romantic notions dashed if, instead, Ortiz struck out.