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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

St. John: Baseball Mythbusting: Was That a Clutch Hit? Or Did the Pitcher Just Choke?

I was all set to be blown away like the day I found out Jim Fouratt was Lester Bangs’ AA sponsor. Alas, not to be.

But when I first put forth this idea of a relationship between clutch hitting and a pitcher choking in a Wall Street Journal column several years ago, I got a call from Jim Bouton. Before writing Ball Four, Bouton was a 20-game winner who pitched in the World Series. He’s also a student of the game, a guy who watched other pitchers work to Yankee hitters like Mickey Mantle.

And Bouton, I’m happy to report, told me that I hit it right on the head. Pitchers do sometimes think too much in pressure situations. They’re intimidated by the hitter, by the situation, even the venue. After all, as Bouton’s Hall of Fame teammate Yogi Berra once explained, half of this game is 90 percent mental.

The problem is that no one, from the manager to the broadcaster to the pitchers themselves, wants to use an ugly word like choke. The hitter-as-hero story line is much easier for everyone to stomach.

So watch carefully this post-season, and you’ll see many instances in which pitchers rise to the occasion. But also plenty when they don’t.

And when a hitter turns a hanging slider or a not-so-fastball into a line drive, you can call it clutch hitting. But you don’t have to.

Repoz Posted: October 10, 2012 at 02:04 PM | 5 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: sabermetrics

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   1. Mike Emeigh Posted: October 10, 2012 at 02:43 PM (#4261952)
I think that St. John's thesis, on the surface, is more plausible than the alternative interpretation, in that it makes more intuitive sense that players would cave under pressure than that they would rise to the occasion. However, it's still hard to get the right set of data to test this hypothesis - is a late-season game between the Royals and Twins any more or less pressure-packed than Game 1 of Orioles/Yankees was?

-- MWE
   2. BDC Posted: October 10, 2012 at 02:47 PM (#4261960)
is a late-season game between the Royals and Twins any more or less pressure-packed than Game 1 of Orioles/Yankees was?

Yes, and it depends on the player, too. If you're a 25-year-old callup trying to get on a roster next year, Twins-Royals is probably a lot more pressure than Derek Jeter taking his 700th playoff at-bat.
   3. Bob Tufts Posted: October 10, 2012 at 03:36 PM (#4262061)
Choke is truly an ugly word - and since there is no accurate definition for it (other than being the antithesis of clutch, something else that is not defined), sportswriters should stop using it as filler during games.

It's not a problem with thinking too much, it's about trusting your abilities to execute a pitch and knowing your limits.
   4. Greg Pope Posted: October 10, 2012 at 03:43 PM (#4262075)
And when a hitter turns a hanging slider or a not-so-fastball into a line drive, you can call it clutch hitting.

You very rarely hear anything about a hanging slider (or curve) other than when the batter hits it a mile. I wonder how much of the hanging slider concept is post-hoc analysis.
   5. Fred Lynn Nolan Ryan Sweeney Agonistes Posted: October 10, 2012 at 03:54 PM (#4262088)
I wonder how much of the hanging slider concept is post-hoc analysis.

All of it is post-hoc analysis.
Willie McCovey and Luis Gonzalez both ended World Series Game Sevens: McCovey with a line shot, Gonzalez with a little dunker over the infield.
Was Gonzalez somehow clutchier than McCovey? Was Rivera suddenly un-clutch?
Was Prince Fielder un-clutch in the second inning last night? Did Crisp's clutchitude - missing in the last game - elevate him over the fence?

You'd think the guys who played the game would know BETTER than most: sometimes the hits just drop in.
And sometimes the batter swings at a good curveball, when what he got was a hanging curveball.

Bouton's right, too - sometimes players are just thinking too damn much. But most of the time, it's more "That's how baseball go."

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