Frank Deford offers some nonsense about clutch hitting

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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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 9, Twins 3; Twins 4, Indians 2: Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis each had three hits and a homer in the first game, helping the Indians win their sixth straight. That streak ended in the second game, however, as Aaron Slegers, making his big league debut, allowed only two runs while pitching into the seventh and Max Kepler hit a go-ahead homer that inning. Eduardo Escobar knocked in two on a 3-for-5 evening.

Diamondbacks 4, Astros 0: Patrick Corbin fell one out short of a shutout, allowing only four hits in eight and two-thirds, and Archie Bradley retired the final batter to make it a team effort. Jake Lamb homered. Daniel Delscalso hit an inside-the-park homer. Lamb called that weirdness and raised by striking out on a wild pitch that allowed David Peralta to scores from third.

Reds 13, Cubs 10: The Reds scored nine runs in the second inning. Normally that’d be enough to ensure a win, but this one was wild, with the Cubs coming back to tie it in the fifth. The Reds kept scoring, however, winning it going away. Lots of crooked numbers in this box score, with Reds outfielder Phillip Ervin driving in four, including the two-run homer which broke the 9-9 ties, and Jose Peraza and Joey Votto each driving in three for Cincinnati. The Cubs hit six homers: Ian Happ had two and Kris Bryant, Alex Avila, Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber each hitting one. Jon Lester gave up nine runs — seven earned — and left before he could finish two innings. Scott Feldman allowed six in less than four.

Braves 10, Rockies 4Ender Inciarte hit two of Atlanta’s four homers as the Braves bounced back from Wednesday’s rout. Freddie Freeman and Tyler Flowers also homered as Colorado and Atlanta split their four-game set. A scare for the Rockies: Nolan Arenado had a ball smack his hand as he tried to field it at third, forcing him out of the game. X-rays came back negative, however, which is positive.

Blue Jays 5, Rays 3: It was tied 3-3 in the eighth, thanks in part to two solo homers from Josh Donaldson, when Justin Smoak hit a two-run homer. Donaldson is on fire, having hit 11 home runs over his past 19 games, including four times in this series. He’s batting .400 (20 for 50) with 21 RBI in the month of August. There are nine teams in the AL realistically competing for two Wild Card spots, with the Blue Jays — previously written off for dead — among them, three games out of the second spot. September is gonna be nuts.

Cardinals 11, Pirates 7: Dexter Fowler drove in three, two of which coming on a triple, as the Cardinals come back after being down 5-0. Game highlight, though, was Josh Harrison dancing.

Yankees 7, Mets 5Gary Sanchez homered and drove in five runs as the Yankees sweep the Mets in the Subway Series. Which is misnamed, as I figure that few if any of the players involved actually take the subway to the games anymore, what with the subway being an absolute disaster these days.

Rangers 9, White Sox 8: Nomar Mazara homered in drove in five too, hitting a tie-breaking three-run homer in the fifth. The Rangers have won four straight and seven of eight, climbing back to .500. Mazara has 25 RBI in his past 19 games and is on a pace for 111.

Nationals 2, Padres 1: The Nats only had four hits in the game, but one of them was a Ryan Zimmerman homer to break a 1-1 tie in the eighth. Edwin Jackson — who, at this point, we must refer to as “Edwin Jackson of all people” every time he’s mentioned — allowed one run over seven, scattering eight hits.

Giants 5, Phillies 4Jeff Samardzija was solid, winning for the fourth time in his last five starts and Jarrett Parker hit a two-run double in the fifth that led to Denard Span and Hunter Pence scoring within seconds of each other after Pence almost caught up with Span on the base paths:

Don’t look back, somethin’ might be gainin’ on ya.

Kris Bryant on Joey Votto: “He’s the best player ever … He’s a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

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The Cubs wrapped up a four-game series against the Reds at Wrigley Field on Thursday afternoon, suffering a 13-10 loss to split the set. They’ll match up again against the Reds next week for a three-game series in Cincinnati. That’s good news for Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, because that means he’ll get to see Reds first baseman Joey Votto some more.

As CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney reports, Bryant has grown quite fond of Votto. Bryant has already won a World Series ring, a Rookie of the Year Award, and an MVP Award, but he still looks up to Votto. According to Bryant, Votto is “the best player ever.” He added, ““He’s my favorite player. I love watching him. I love talking to him, just picking his brain. He gets a lot of (heat) about his walks and working at-bats and some people want him to swing at more pitches. But, gosh, I mean, he does an unbelievable job. You know that he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time he goes up there. It’s definitely a guy that I look up to and I can learn from.”

Bryant said that Votto is “a future Hall of Famer, that’s for sure.”

Bryant also explained how his approach changed by watching Votto. He said that in his rookie season, he was “swinging at everything.” Votto, however, is “aggressive, but he’s not going to swing at a pitch until he wants it.”

Indeed, in Bryant’s rookie season, he struck out in nearly 31 percent of his 650 plate appearances. This season, he has struck out in only 19 percent of his PA. His walk rate has also increased by more than 2.5 percent since his rookie campaign. Compared to last year, Bryant is down in HR and RBI, but his average is the same, his on-base percentage is markedly better, and his slugging percentage is only down by a minute amount.