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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.

Yordano Ventura represented the best and worst of baseball’s culture

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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It was reported this morning that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Former prospect Andy Marte was also killed in a separate car accident. Along with Jose Fernandez and Oscar Taveras, the baseball world has lost a lot of young, exciting talent in a very short amount of time.

Ventura was, like all of us, a complex human being. At his best, he was an exciting, talented, emotive pitcher who featured an electric fastball which sat in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 100 MPH. At his worst, he was an immature, impressionable kid trying to fit in by exacting revenge against batters he felt had wronged him by slinging those electric fastballs at vulnerable areas of their bodies.

Baseball needed Ventura when he was at his best. It is players like him and Fernandez, not Mike Trout, that bring in new fans to the sport. To baseball die-hards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the pinnacle of entertainment because we know he’s an otherworldly talent. But to the average fan, Trout is just another player who hits a couple of homers and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting otherwise. Trout is milquetoast. Ventura was never an All-Star, but fans knew who he was because he made his presence felt every time he made a start. He was fun, if sometimes vengeful.

Ventura’s baseball rap sheet is rather lengthy for someone who only pitched parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Early in the 2015 season, Ventura found himself in a handful of benches-clearing incidents in quick succession. On April 12, he jawed with Trout, apparently misunderstanding the motivation behind Trout yelling, “Let’s go!” Though catcher Salvador Perez intervened, Trout’s teammate Albert Pujols ran in from second base and the benches cleared shortly thereafter. On the 18th, some drama between the Athletics and Royals continued. Ventura fired a 99 MPH fastball at Brett Lawrie, resulting in his immediate ejection from the game. More beanball wars ensued in the series finale the following day. Finally, on the 23rd, Ventura hit White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a 99 MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Ventura was not ejected… until after the completion of the seventh inning. Walking back to the dugout, Ventura barked at White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and — you guessed it — the benches cleared. All told, Ventura was fined for his behavior with the Athletics and suspended seven games for the White Sox incident.

In August 2015, Ventura called Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista a “nobody” and accused him of stealing signs. He apologized shortly thereafter. Two months later, during his start in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, Ventura got into it with Jays first base coach Tim Leiper. Nothing happened beyond that, but apparently it was part of the Jays’ plan to try to put Ventura “on tilt.”

Most recently, in June this past season, Ventura hit Orioles third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch. Machado charged the mound and got in at least one punch before the players spilled out onto the field in a blob of royal blue and orange. Ventura was suspended for eight games.

Ventura was by no means a model of civility, but he was a product of baseball’s intransigent culture forcing players to assimilate or be ostracized. The old culture taught players to never show emotion. Hit a home run? Put your head down and circle the bases in a timely fashion or risk taking a fastball to the ribs. Players like Fernandez and Bautista — typically players from Latin countries — challenged those old cultural norms and are, as a result, the vanguard of the new culture. Ventura displayed aspects of each, the worst of the old culture and the best of the new. He was not a one-dimensional person; he was strikingly complex. At one moment willing to use a fastball as a weapon, the next stopping by some kids’ lemonade stand and giving out fist bumps. Baseball is made more entertaining and more interesting by its personalities and Ventura’s was a behemoth, for better or worse. His absence from the sport will be felt.

MLB remembers Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Following the tragic passing of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and 33-year-old Andy Marte, both of whom were killed in separate car crashes on Sunday morning, players and executives from around Major League Baseball expressed an outpouring of grief and support for the players’ families and former teams.

Fans have gathered at Kauffman Stadium in memory of the former pitcher.