My problem with the 'clutch' argument
October, 15, 2013
By Keith Law | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaDavid Ortiz is amazing at hitting baseballs. Can we just leave it at that?David Ortiz's game-tying home run on Sunday night in Game 2 of the ALCS spawned a discussion about whether he's a clutch hitter, something I don't believe exists, but many people inside and outside the industry do, pointing to Ortiz and Carlos Beltran as exemplars of the species.
The statistical arguments here are largely unsatisfying to both sides, but I dislike the idea of the "clutch hitter" not just because I see no evidence he exists, but because of what this term says about how we watch and enjoy the sport itself.
One huge problem with the "clutch" narrative is that its proponents define clutch as needed to fit the situation. There is no clear definition of the term, no threshold for the scenario, so an at-bat is clutch if someone says it is, and arguing the other side is pointless because clutchness can't be proven or disproven. This also leads to extensive cherry-picking after the fact, where at-bats may be discarded as insufficiently clutch because they don't provide the desired results.
We can look at high-leverage situations, or "close and late" statistics, but those may be tossed because they include situations too early in games, or in games deemed unimportant.
We can look at postseason statistics, but those samples are small even for the most prolific playoff producers -- only about a dozen players have even reached 300 plate appearances in October, which isn't even half of a full season of playing time.
So we're left with clutch-is-as-clutch-does arguments -- it was clutch because we called it clutch. These are inherently unsatisfying because there is no rigor to them at all, and because we can simply redefine situations post hoc if we're not getting the answer we want. If you're telling me that Player X has magic powers, then show me magic. Either he's better in some empirically demonstrable way, or you might as well tell me he can bend spoons with his mind