The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Bill James and Clutch Hitting

There has been a veritable firestorm in some SABR circles lately about the existence of clutch hitting ability and clutch hitters. Actually, this is a debate that has probably raged for the past twenty or thirty years (at least with data to support the argument).

In his latest work on the subject (please feel free to download, link to, and share the linked file), which hasn't been officially published anywhere, but which James has shared via SABR and is willing to share with anyone, James clarifies something that I think many of us miss when discussing clutch hitting:
random data proves nothing—and it cannot be used as a proof of nothingness

This statement was made to clarify an assumption that has often been made about clutch hitting: that since it cannot (or at least it hasn't been done so far) be proven, clutch hitting must not exist. Instead, James is pointing out that studies of clutch hitting often merely find random data - which doesn't prove anything.

James goes on to say:
I take no position whatsoever about whether clutch hitting exists or does not exists. I simply don’t have any idea

In his article (link above) James references some criticsm and other articles that have been written in response to his work. Those can be found here.

Personally (and while I cannot quantify it), my belief is that clutch hitting exists. However, there is so much clutch ability in major league baseball that it is difficult to identify and quantify. Major League baseball players are a very select group. Even the "worst" major leaguers are among the most elite baseball players in the world. The difference in ability between the best and the worst big leaguers is not that great. To make it to the majors, a ballplayer has to (typically) succeed in his youth and earn his way up through multiple levels of the minor leagues. In my opinion, those players who lack clutch ability (whether they are hitters or pitchers) don't make it to the majors (or if they do, it doesn't happen very frequently).

To give a more "real world" example, it's like being in a graduate program at Harvard (or I'm assuming this is how it is) and trying to figure out who the smart people are. The answer is not that some people are smart and that other people are not. It's pretty likely that everyone in the room is highly intelligent - probably in the upper one or two percent of world-wide intelligence. Sure, there will be some variability in intelligence and abilities, but I'm willing to guess that nearly everyone is very smart.

I think the same holds true in Major League baseball, but in terms of "clutch" ability instead of intelligence. The players who are clutch make it. You have to perform in front of scouts - that's the first clutch test. Plus there are big games as little leaguers. All of the bench guys who you rag on used to come through in the clutch at lower levels. Now they're just not the best of the best anymore. And when we see a clutch pitcher go up against a clutch hitter in a clutch situation, someone is going to have to fail. That's what makes Major League Baseball so great; the players are at the top of their field and imperceptible subtelties often make all the difference.


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