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Monday, October 22, 2012

Knapp: Do You Believe In Clutch?

Screw Bobby Elvis and his Screamin’ Eagle performance clutch system…we got Fat Elvis with his clutch kit!

“They have the guys who have done it, too,” the Cardinals’ Lance Berkman said, “which is one of the things that makes tomorrow night so intriguing, because I don’t think you’re going to see a choke factor.”

Berkman, recovering from an injury and inactive in this series, gave an eloquent tutorial on one of the most controversial concepts in sports. He does not acknowledge “clutch,” a mystical element that marks players and teams that succeed under the ultimate pressure. For true believers, a Game 7 would be the ultimate test of an athlete’s ability to elevate in big games. Berkman is not a true believer.

“Instead of clutch, there are guys I would call gamers,” he said, “guys that are just the same on Tuesday nights in the middle of June as under the brightest lights.”

... Berkman, recovering from an injury and inactive in this series, gave an eloquent tutorial on one of the most controversial concepts in sports. He does not acknowledge “clutch,” a mystical element that marks players and teams that succeed under the ultimate pressure. For true believers, a Game 7 would be the ultimate test of an athlete’s ability to elevate in big games. Berkman is not a true believer.

“Instead of clutch, there are guys I would call gamers,” he said, “guys that are just the same on Tuesday nights in the middle of June as under the brightest lights.”

.. Berkman validated his credentials by telling a rare truth among athletes: revealing vulnerability.

“I know for me, I don’t like hitting in the playoffs because it’s scary,” he said. “I mean, there’s a lot of things you want to do well. There’s a microscope on you. But I feel like some of the best at-bats I’ve ever taken have come because of that, because you’re really focusing on every pitch. Your mind’s not wandering and you’re laser-focused on what you’re doing. That doesn’t happen every time in the regular season.”.

Repoz Posted: October 22, 2012 at 04:12 AM | 42 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: cardinals, giants

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   1. escabeche Posted: October 22, 2012 at 09:36 AM (#4278782)
I think Berkman's perspective here is one you don't hear often enough. It sounds good when you say "Player X steps up his performance in the playoffs or with runners on," but why shouldn't it be just as much of a complement to say the opposite, which is "Player X gives his all in every game situation?"
   2. Mike Emeigh Posted: October 22, 2012 at 10:24 AM (#4278811)
I think Berkman's perspective here is one you don't hear often enough.


I've certainly used it enough :)

The normal expectation in clutch situations (which I define as a plate appearance with a Leverage Index of 2.0 or greater) is that performance declines after you account for intentional walks. A player who maintains his established level of performance in said situations is doing better than we should typically expect.

-- MWE
   3. SoSH U at work Posted: October 22, 2012 at 10:30 AM (#4278819)
The normal expectation in clutch situations (which I define as a plate appearance with a Leverage Index of 2.0 or greater) is that performance declines after you account for intentional walks. A player who maintains his established level of performance in said situations is doing better than we should typically expect.


So pitchers should be expected to perform better in clutch situations? Why do you suppose that is?

   4. Bob Tufts Posted: October 22, 2012 at 10:30 AM (#4278821)
For true believers, a Game 7 would be the ultimate test of an athlete’s ability to elevate in big games. Berkman is not a true believer.


I guess losing two games in a row due to big innings caused by errors when you could have clinched the NL title and moved on to the World Series doesn't matter - only what happens in Game 7? "True believers" would have finished the job in Game 5 or Game 6.
   5. Ray (RDP) Posted: October 22, 2012 at 10:39 AM (#4278832)
The normal expectation in clutch situations (which I define as a plate appearance with a Leverage Index of 2.0 or greater) is that performance declines after you account for intentional walks. A player who maintains his established level of performance in said situations is doing better than we should typically expect.


Have you accounted for the fact that closers and specialty relievers are brought in during high-leverage PAs after the 6th inning?
   6. Mike Emeigh Posted: October 22, 2012 at 10:59 AM (#4278862)
Have you accounted for the fact that closers and specialty relievers are brought in during high-leverage PAs after the 6th inning?


Yes - but that change really has less of an impact than you think. Remember that the majority of LI >= 2.0 PAs occur when the defensive team has the lead and the batting team is trailing - and by 1960 teams were using firemen in those situations almost all the time in the late innings, with the exceptions being when you had a top-line starter on the mound.

-- MWE
   7. Ray (RDP) Posted: October 22, 2012 at 11:14 AM (#4278885)
What percentage of LI>=2 situations occur before the 7th inning? Do we really think hitters feel pressure hitting with the bases loaded in the 3rd, down 2 runs?
   8. Mike Emeigh Posted: October 22, 2012 at 11:16 AM (#4278891)
So pitchers should be expected to perform better in clutch situations? Why do you suppose that is?


It's not really that pitchers perform better - it's that the distribution of events changes.

Basically, pitchers give up more walks (both unintentional and intentional) and singles, and fewer extra-base hits. The net result is that BA is relatively constant, OBP goes up, SLG goes down.

-- MWE
   9. Eric J can SABER all he wants to Posted: October 22, 2012 at 11:25 AM (#4278901)
“I know for me, I don’t like hitting in the playoffs because it’s scary,” he said.

This is interesting, because Berkman has been an exceptional hitter in the postseason.
   10. Mike Emeigh Posted: October 22, 2012 at 11:45 AM (#4278919)
What percentage of LI>=2 situations occur before the 7th inning? Do we really think hitters feel pressure hitting with the bases loaded in the 3rd, down 2 runs?


As to the first point - I don't remember off the top of my head and my database is at home. I'll check when I get home tonight; I should be online since the ballgame is on :)

As to the second point - probably not. I admit that LI is a crude tool to measure the relative "clutchness" of a situation and that it does group unlike PAs together - but you have that kind of issue in any study that you do of "clutch". Either you use a broader definition that gets you a decent sample size at the expense of bring in some plate appearances that don't quite fit the concept, or you use a narrow definition that gets you closer to the intent but that's going to limit the sample size to a relative handful of PAs, where it becomes difficult to tease out any signal amidst the noise.

Berkman's comment suggests that we shouldn't be treating "no decline in performance" as the normal expectation when evaluating "clutch" vs "non-clutch", but rather as an indicator that a player may very well be "clutch" (or a "gamer", to quote Berkman). So maybe we need to reframe the question - rather than trying to identify "clutch players", maybe what we need to do is to do a better job of characterizing what a typical player actually does when faced with a "clutch situation" and compare performance relative to that expectation.

-- MWE
   11. AROM Posted: October 22, 2012 at 01:31 PM (#4279018)
In 2012, the overall MLB batting line was 255/319/405.

BBref defines "late and close" as 7th inning on, batting team tied, ahead by one, or tying run at least on deck. The batting line in those situations was 238/314/368.

As for the effects of pressure, both the hitter and the pitcher would feel it. I don't know if that would generally favor the pitcher, the hitter, or be a wash. The lower batting line is best explained simply by better pitchers being used in those situations.
   12. Eric J can SABER all he wants to Posted: October 22, 2012 at 01:45 PM (#4279032)
The lower batting line is best explained simply by better pitchers being used in those situations.

It may also be that "late and close" as defined will feature more at bats from the team that's losing, and the team that's losing is likely to be worse.
   13. thetailor Posted: October 22, 2012 at 03:02 PM (#4279125)
There is no clutch. Only choke. And those who don't choke appear clutch.
   14. AROM Posted: October 22, 2012 at 03:40 PM (#4279171)
It may also be that "late and close" as defined will feature more at bats from the team that's losing, and the team that's losing is likely to be worse.


That seems like a pretty small effect. Tied, up or down by one could be either team. The losing team gets more qualifications since down by 4, 2 runners on still qualifies. But the very best teams in 2012 were still losers in 65-70 games, and the worst were still winners in 55-70 games. Then the really bad teams would be more likely to take themselves out of this situation by getting blown out more often.

There is no clutch. Only choke. And those who don't choke appear clutch.


Not disputing that. But is there any evidence for whether pitchers or hitters are more likely to choke? If not, then overall league splits for these situations, however defined, are what they are because the mix of hitters/pitchers used in these situations is different than the overall mix.
   15. BDC Posted: October 22, 2012 at 04:22 PM (#4279219)
more at bats from the team that's losing

IOW because a home team that wins a close game often doesn't bat in the bottom of their ninth? That might be a small effect, but as AROM notes, these games are close anyway, so they're not games in which one team is playing markedly better than another. Close games are tossups, and there are a lot of them, and both teams look pretty evenly good or bad in them.
   16. Eric J can SABER all he wants to Posted: October 22, 2012 at 04:34 PM (#4279228)
IOW because a home team that wins a close game often doesn't bat in the bottom of their ninth?

No, because the sample only includes at bats from teams ahead by 1, but could include at bats from teams down by as much as 5 (albeit not a lot of these, but every at bat from a team down by 2 in the late innings, and quite a lot from teams down by 3 or 4).
   17. SoSH U at work Posted: October 22, 2012 at 04:37 PM (#4279234)
IOW because a home team that wins a close game often doesn't bat in the bottom of their ninth? That might be a small effect, but as AROM notes, these games are close anyway, so they're not games in which one team is playing markedly better than another. Close games are tossups, and there are a lot of them, and both teams look pretty evenly good or bad in them.


Aren't these lower batting lines compared against the individual players' performances, so the quality of the teams will be irrelevant?

(Edit: Sorry, wrong line of discussion).

And, granting that I'm not a math whiz, I still don't really get Mike's point in 3 (and his answer in 8). If a PA is defined as a clutch one, and one set of players (batters, I presume, based on his phrasing) is performing below established expectations, than another must be performing above expectations. Either that, or the reason isn't the nature of the situation, but the changing nature of the performers (the use of high-lev relievers, as Ray notes).
   18. Eric J can SABER all he wants to Posted: October 22, 2012 at 04:39 PM (#4279237)
Of course, checking the splits for a few teams (not exactly a definitive sample, but still), the Nats had 139 more PA in late-and-close than the Astros did this year, and the Cubs had a few less than Houston. So the effect may not be there at all.
   19. Eric J can SABER all he wants to Posted: October 22, 2012 at 04:56 PM (#4279247)
Looking at the entire NL, the correlation between percentage of total PA in late-and-close and winning percentage is positive (which runs counter to my initial guess) and quite small; there are two playoff teams (Washington and St. Louis) in the top 3, and two (San Francisco and Atlanta) in the bottom 3. If anyone wants to run numbers beyond that, feel free, but I'm inclined to concede that the effect is at least mostly due to better pitchers.
   20. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: October 22, 2012 at 05:12 PM (#4279265)
“I know for me, I don’t like hitting in the playoffs because it’s scary,” he said. “I mean, there’s a lot of things you want to do well. There’s a microscope on you. But I feel like some of the best at-bats I’ve ever taken have come because of that, because you’re really focusing on every pitch. Your mind’s not wandering and you’re laser-focused on what you’re doing. That doesn’t happen every time in the regular season.”.

Yeah, but what does Lance Berkman know? He's only played in 1800 regular season and 52 postseason games. What's that, as against a bunch of lawyers and stat dorks who insist a postseason AB is just like an AB up 6-0 against the Royals on a Tuesday in May?
   21. Fred Lynn Nolan Ryan Sweeney Agonistes Posted: October 22, 2012 at 05:14 PM (#4279267)
This headline put a Huey Lewis song in my head. SCREW YOU, HEADLINE WRITER.
   22. Ray (RDP) Posted: October 22, 2012 at 05:17 PM (#4279270)
Yeah, but what does Lance Berkman know? He's only played in 1800 regular season and 52 postseason games. What's that, as against a bunch of lawyers and stat dorks who insist a postseason AB is just like an AB up 6-0 against the Royals on a Tuesday in May.


Did you actually read Berkman's statement? He said that despite him not liking hitting in the playoffs because it's scary and there's a microscope on him, that actually locks him in to every pitch such that he's had some of his best at bats ever. That is exactly in line with what I've said, which is that if players feel pressure from the postseason, it doesn't show up in their performance. What "shows up" is the fact that anything can happen in a small sample of PAs.

Did you note, SugarBear, that this player Lance Berkman, he of the .953 career OPS during the regular season, he who thinks the playoffs are "scary," has a .949 OPS during postseason play? What, did this Scary Factor cost him .004 points of OPS? Is that what you're arguing?
   23. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: October 22, 2012 at 05:30 PM (#4279281)
Did you actually read Berkman's statement? He said that despite him not liking hitting in the playoffs because it's scary and there's a microscope on him, that actually locks him in to every pitch such that he's had some of his best at bats ever. That is exactly in line with what I've said, which is that if players feel pressure from the postseason, it doesn't show up in their performance. What "shows up" is the fact that anything can happen in a small sample of PAs.

But the very same differences between the regular season and postseason can (and do) show up in other people's postseaason performance. Berkman points to the playoffs being "scary," there being the feeling of having a "microscope" on you, your "focus" being impacted, and your mind acting differently in the postseason. I have no clue why you'd expect everyone to react in the same way to that change. Berkman performed well under the changed conditions. Other players might not. (And don't)

Berkman did not say that postseason pressure doesn't show up in players' performance, and I have no idea how you could have possibly read it that way. Moreover, he's attesting to the changed mental state of major leaguers in the postseason, which you and your fellow travelers have spent years denying the existence of. Baseball is played under different conditions in the postseason.

   24. thetailor Posted: October 22, 2012 at 05:40 PM (#4279287)
Not disputing that. But is there any evidence for whether pitchers or hitters are more likely to choke? If not, then overall league splits for these situations, however defined, are what they are because the mix of hitters/pitchers used in these situations is different than the overall mix.

Yeah, it's a really interesting topic. And Berkman's take on it is refreshing. I think that comment [23] above is attacking a strawman here, because I don't think even the basement-iest of BBTFers ever thought that baseball players don't feel the pressure in the postseason.

My theory, AROM, in response to your question above? I suspect that, although there is pressure on both hitters and pitchers, that a since pitcher's job relies less on snap decisions (implicating the "choke" possibility) than a hitter's does (e.g. swing or not swing, and make that decision in 0.3 sec), that the hitter would be more likely to choke.

Pitchers, although they can pull an Ankiel every now and again, merely need to pitch. Nobody interferes with them, there is no stimuli, there is no reaction. They just do what their bodies have had a lifetime of muscle memory to do.

I suspect also that what you said above was true, that the presence of better pitchers can be used to mostly explain a hitters' worse batting lines in close-and-late.
   25. thetailor Posted: October 22, 2012 at 05:44 PM (#4279291)
Can somebody look up swing % statistics in close-and-late situations? I think that would shed a lot of light on it if it were possible. I suspect anecdotally that the % of swings on balls outside the zone would be a little higher (overly aggressive chokers) and % of swings on balls inside the zone would be the same or a little lower (Carlos Beltran... I kid, though).
   26. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: October 22, 2012 at 05:54 PM (#4279301)
Yeah, it's a really interesting topic. And Berkman's take on it is refreshing. I think that comment [23] above is attacking a strawman here, because I don't think even the basement-iest of BBTFers ever thought that baseball players don't feel the pressure in the postseason.

The denial comes in the form of denying that the postseason pressure is any different than the "pressure" they've faced at any other point in their baseball career, going back to Little League. A-Rod had to impress the scouts in high school to have a baseball career, and proved himself the conqueror of that "pressure." That experience has steeled him, such that he doesn't feel anything different in the major league postseason. See?

Of course, actual players say no such thing -- you don't hear people like Lance Berkman saying such nutty things. The postseason is still "scary," even though his heart skipped a beat and his hands shook a little when he realized cute little Polly Sue was at his Little League game when he was 10.
   27. Mike Emeigh Posted: October 22, 2012 at 07:44 PM (#4279395)
I prefer to use LI rather than the BBRef definition of "late and close" because LI (at least the version I'm using, which I've pulled from Dave Studenmund's spreadsheet) is adjusted for run environment, which I think has to factor into the definition of what constitutes a "close" game.

To answer Ray's question earlier: about 1 in 6 PAs with LI >= 2 occur in the first three innings, about 1 in 4 occur in the middle three innings, and about 7 in 12 occur after the sixth.

What I was trying to say in #8 is that I think the changes that you see in player performance in "clutch" situations result primarily from changes in the pitcher's approach to the hitters, regardless of pitcher quality. The things that show up in the data - more walks, fewer extra-base hits - make sense when you consider things that teams routinely do when the game is close, like guarding the lines, pitching around certain hitters, and so forth. The net effect is a modest decline in the typical performance of hitters in aggregate - a decline for which you should account before you try to evaluate whether a hitter has exceeded expectations in such situation.

As I have said before, if a typical hitter's performance declines in a specific situation, then a hitter who maintains his performance in that situation can be said to have exceeded the expectation for that situation.

I wrote this five years ago, kind of as a throwaway article. I perhaps should rerun this at some point to see how well the perceptions still match up.

-- MWE
   28. BDC Posted: October 22, 2012 at 08:50 PM (#4279539)
No, because the sample only includes at bats from teams ahead by 1, but could include at bats from teams down by as much as 5

That was among the many things I did not know. I'd have reckoned that "late and close" would mean leading or trailing, within a given margin. Both are pretty crucial situations – insurance runs are a big deal.
   29. FrankM Posted: October 22, 2012 at 09:52 PM (#4279789)
And there's more to clutch / pressure situations than is measured by Leverage Index.

I expect that any at bat in the first inning of a World Series game is more "clutch", in the eye of the player, than a bases loaded 2-out at bat in the ninth inning of a tie game between two tail enders in September. And a minor league call-up, trying to win a job, surely feels performance pressure even if he is inserted into a blowout.
   30. The District Attorney Posted: October 22, 2012 at 09:57 PM (#4279814)
This headline put a Huey Lewis song in my head. SCREW YOU, HEADLINE WRITER.
Do you be-LIEVE in life after clutch?
   31. Fred Lynn Nolan Ryan Sweeney Agonistes Posted: October 22, 2012 at 10:06 PM (#4279845)
Do you be-LIEVE in life after clutch?

I laughed.
Also, I hate you.
   32. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: October 22, 2012 at 11:34 PM (#4280171)
I believe in Magic (in a young girl's heart)
   33. AROM Posted: October 23, 2012 at 07:53 AM (#4280381)
"My theory, AROM, in response to your question above? I suspect that, although there is pressure on both hitters and pitchers, that a since pitcher's job relies less on snap decisions (implicating the "choke" possibility) than a hitter's does (e.g. swing or not swing, and make that decision in 0.3 sec), that the hitter would be more likely to choke. "

Maybe, but those facts could also point in the other direction. A hitter doesn't have time to think, only react, while a pitcher spends 30-60 seconds on the mound wondering if the next pitch he throws will put him on the bad side of highlight films for decades to come.
   34. Ray (RDP) Posted: October 23, 2012 at 10:36 AM (#4280464)
To answer Ray's question earlier: about 1 in 6 PAs with LI >= 2 occur in the first three innings, about 1 in 4 occur in the middle three innings, and about 7 in 12 occur after the sixth.


Thanks, Mike. So about 42% of LI>=2 situations occur before the 7th inning. I really question whether those situations are "clutch" in the way that people commonly think of the term, which is basically, game on the line.

Actually, people now think of the term as basically, "postseason performance," whether the game is on the line or not. People have really lost their way.
   35. tshipman Posted: October 23, 2012 at 10:58 AM (#4280493)
I believe in miracles (you sexy thing).
   36. AROM Posted: October 23, 2012 at 11:00 AM (#4280496)
Actually, people now think of the term as basically, "postseason performance," whether the game is on the line or not. People have really lost their way.


Figures you wouldn't appreciate Brandon Belt's clutch 9th inning homer last night.
   37. SoSH U at work Posted: October 23, 2012 at 11:02 AM (#4280500)
I believe in the elixir of youth.

   38. The District Attorney Posted: October 23, 2012 at 11:35 AM (#4280531)
   39. What did Billy Ripken have against ElRoy Face? Posted: October 23, 2012 at 11:59 AM (#4280562)
I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract.

...anyone?
   40. Mike Emeigh Posted: October 23, 2012 at 12:17 PM (#4280578)
And there's more to clutch / pressure situations than is measured by Leverage Index.


No argument.

LI allows us to model game situations for comparison purposes. It takes some aspects of what we commonly consider a "clutch situation" into account, and misses others (many others, no doubt). I use it because I am of the opinion that it aligns very well with what casual fans perceive to be a "clutch situation", but I don't want to give the impression that high LI is the same thing as "clutch".

-- MWE
   41. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: October 23, 2012 at 12:32 PM (#4280600)
I believe the children are our future.
   42. What did Billy Ripken have against ElRoy Face? Posted: October 23, 2012 at 01:33 PM (#4280664)
I dunno, in 2008 I thought we had clutch we could believe in, but four years later I'm not so sure.

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