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.

AL West champion Athletics finally get their playoff series

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Marcus Semien and the Oakland Athletics earned themselves a full playoff series at last as division champions.

For two years now, the A’s have stressed how they absolutely needed to win the AL West to increase their chances of a deep postseason run following consecutive defeats in the wild-card game.

“It’s a little different than last year for us and also in ’18 where it’s just one game and you want to be so perfect and win that game,” Semien said. “It’s a three-game series, we’re at home and play good baseball.”

Oakland gets its shot against the Chicago White Sox in the best-of-three wild-card round having advanced just once during 11 previous playoff trips since 2000, when they reached the 2006 AL Championship Series before being swept by Detroit.

Both clubs navigated a challenging 60-game regular season, bolstered often by their top sluggers. The A’s finished 36-24, Chicago at 35-25.

Oakland will send 22-year-old lefty Jesus Luzardo out to start Game 1 on Tuesday. The White Sox went 14-0 facing left-handed starters this season.

“To be able to do it at a young age is a blessing,” said Luzardo, whose season was briefly delayed by a positive test result for the coronavirus despite never having symptoms. “I hope this is just the first of many.”

Right-hander Lucas Gioloto (4-3), who pitched a no-hitter against the Pirates on Aug. 25, takes the mound for Chicago.

“It’s time to go to work,” Gioloto said of his playoff debut. “This is what we’re playing for. Now that we’re here, it’s a brand new season. Everything that we did up to this point doesn’t matter any more.”

Here are some things to watch for in noon local time games this best-of-three round at the Coliseum, with A’s manager Bob Melvin saying “I don’t like it” regarding the early schedule:

ABREU’S BIG BAT

Jose Abreu hit 19 homers – second in baseball – and topped the majors with 60 RBIs while playing in all 60 games and batting .317. Yes, he averaged an RBI per game.

Chicago lost seven of eight ending the regular season, two on walkoffs.

“It’s a fresh start,” shortstop Tim Anderson said.

Matt Olson led the A’s with 14 homers.

“I think a lot of the teams feel they’re just getting going,” Semien said.

OLD SOX

Semien and right-hander Chris Bassitt, Oakland’s Game 2 starter, both were drafted by the White Sox and came to Oakland in the same December 2014 trade.

The connection might mean a little more if they had played with Chicago recently, but “that was so long ago,” Semien said. He has certainly paid attention to the White Sox from afar.

“They’re going for it this year,” Semien said. “I know a lot of those guys over there, primarily the same coaching staff besides the manager. It’s going to be a battle. It’s nice to be at home. I think we played them well at home in the past. Even though there’s no crowd I just feel like it’s a tough place for an opponent to come into.”

JIMENEZ UPDATE

White Sox manager Rick Renteria sounded optimistic about left fielder Eloy Jimenez playing Game 1 though he has been nursing a sprained right foot that kept him out of the final three games.

Jimenez went through baseball work and was scheduled to run on the field Monday.

“So far so good,” Renteria said of Jimenez’s status in Chicago’s first playoff appearance since 2008. “I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll be able to report something positive.”

LUZARDO’S CHANCE

Luzardo (3-2) has the opportunity to help Oakland get over a big hurdle: advancing. The A’s want to show the baseball world they have the talent to go further – much further.

Sean Manaea returned last September to go 4-0 and earn the wild-card start over Mike Fiers before faltering. Liam Hendriks lost it the previous year at Yankee Stadium.

Luzardo struck out four in three innings of relief in the 5-1 loss to Tampa Bay in last year’s AL wild-card game.

“I think getting my feet wet in postseason baseball last year really will help me a lot throughout this year and moving forward in my career,” he said. “I’m glad that they trusted me and gave me the confidence to go out there and throw three innings last year.”

CHAPMAN MISSED

The A’s are missing a key part of their infield without Gold Glove third baseman Matt Chapman, sidelined by a season-ending hip injury that required surgery. He hit 10 homers and drove in 25 runs.

Midseason additions Tommy La Stella and Jake Lamb have filled key voids.