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.

Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich win MVP Awards

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Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts and Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich were announced on Thursday evening as the winners of the 2018 Most Valuable Player Awards as voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Betts, 26, led baseball with a .346 batting average, a .640 slugging percentage, and 129 runs scored. He also put together a .438 on-base percentage with 32 home runs, 80 RBI, and 30 stolen bases while ranking among the best defensive outfielders. According to Baseball Reference, Betts was worth 10.9 WAR, the highest total by a position player since Barry Bonds in 2002 (11.8). It was the 21st time a player compiled a 10.9 WAR or better since 1871. The others to do it along with Betts and Bonds: Cal Ripken, Jr., Joe Morgan, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner.

Betts is the first Red Sox player to win the MVP Award since second baseman Dustin Pedroia in 2008. Other members of the Red Sox to win the award include Mo Vaughn (1995), Roger Clemens (1986), Jim Rice (1978), Fred Lynn (1975), Carl Yastrzemski (1967), Jackie Jensen (1958), Ted Williams (1946, ’49), Jimmie Foxx (1938), and Tris Speaker (1912).

Angels outfielder Mike Trout and J.D. Martinez each received one first-place vote with Betts receiving the other 28. Trout finished in second place with 265 overall points, Indians infielder José Ramírez finished third with 208, and Martinez finished fourth with 198. They were followed by Alex Bregman, Francisco Lindor, Matt Chapman, Khris Davis, Blake Snell, Justin Verlander, Mitch Haniger, Aaron Judge, Xander Bogaerts, José Altuve, Blake Treinen, Andrelton Simmons, Whit Merrifield, Edwin Díaz, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Jed Lowrie, Trevor Bauer, Aaron Hicks, and Chris Sale.

Trout is now one of four players to finish second in MVP Award voting four times, joining Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Albert Pujols. Trout was the runner-up behind Miguel Cabrera in 2012-13 and Josh Donaldson in 2015.

Yelich, 26, led the National League with a .326 batting average, a .598 slugging percentage, and a 1.000 OPS. He also put up a .402 on-base percentage with 36 home runs, 110 RBI, 118 runs scored, and 22 stolen bases while playing above-average defense in the outfield.

Yelich is the first member of the Brewers to win the MVP Award since outfielder Ryan Braun in 2011. The other Brewers to have won the MVP Award are Robin Yount (1982, ’89) and Rollie Fingers (1981).

Nearly a unanimous choice, Yelich was voted in first place on 29 of 30 ballots with NL Cy Young Award winner getting the other first-place vote. Cubs infielder Javier Baéz finished in second place with 250 points and Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado finished in third place with 203 points. They were followed by Freddie Freeman, deGrom, Paul Goldschmidt, Lorenzo Cain, Trevor Story, Matt Carpenter, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Ronald Acuña Jr., Aaron Nola, Justin Turner, Max Muncy, Jesús Aguilar, Anthony Rizzo, Nick Markakis, and Eugenio Suarez.

Coincidentally, both MVP Award winners hit for the cycle this season. Betts achieved it on August 9 while Yelich did it twice, on August 29 and September 17. Yelich also finished two home runs and one RBI short of the Triple Crown.

The BBWAA voters submitted their ballots before the start of the postseason, so the fact that the Red Sox won the World Series and that the Brewers made it to Game 7 of the NLCS had no impact on the award results. That the Red Sox won a franchise record 108 games during the regular season and the Brewers won the NL Central tiebreaker over the Cubs certainly could have been factors for many voters, however.