Clutch hitting

by Russ Roberts on April 26, 2007

in Data, Sports

It is very hard for sports fans, sports writers and even athletes do accurately assess which of their  players perform well under pressure and which do not.

This brilliant dissection (Rated R for language) of a recent sports column on the topic of "hitting in the clutch" shows how powerful numbers can be for clarifying fuzzy thinking.

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{ 17 comments }

Python April 26, 2007 at 4:11 pm

While I agree with most of what he wrote, I disagree with his belief that batters take the same approach everytime. "No. They take the exact same approach, and are already good, so they perform well." This is not completely true in my opinion.

Some batters have a better ability than others to hit the ball to different parts of the field. This skill contributes to high averages in general, but I believe that skill can also help when defenses use non-optimal positioning. Having someone on base causes the infielders to be positioned in less than optimal positions. When the first baseman is holding a runner on, there is a much bigger opening on the right side of the diamond. It seems simplistic to assume that no good hitter ever tries to take into account the positioning of the infielders.

Another example is when a game is close, there is a runner on third base, and there are less than 2 outs. Many times the defensive team will bring in the infielders to try to get the out at home. I'm sure (though I probably couldn't prove it numerically) that some good hitters at least try to use the defensive weakness to their advantage.

Ray G April 26, 2007 at 8:24 pm

I think he meant that the hitter approaches the scenario with the same mentality, not that they hit the same field every time no matter what.

Hitting opposite field or choking up for a poke into shallow center isn't a difficult task for a hitter.

The biggest thing they drilled in our heads in high school was basically to think about the hit itself, and not the pressure attached. That sounds like a no-brainer, but it takes a lot of work. Kind of like the difference between sparring and actually boxing in a competitive match.

The mental aspect is huge (and why I think sports are good for young people – facing a fastball in a Pony league championship sounds trivial, but to the adolescent at bat, it's the world on his shoulders).

I think the bigger thing to watch, statistically, wouldn't be the "clutch" hitter, but the choker. Good hitters are good hitters, and vice versa, but a consistent drop in batting avg in "choke" situations, by even a few points, I would think significant. If the drop were consistent though small, it would show a definite inability to psychologically treat each at bat the same.

Scoffers will say that a few % points are meaningless, but if they're consistent, then you're looking at someone who is giving a little too much thought to the "choke" hits. This is the guy you want to face, and he's the one with whom it would be most important to work the plate in whatever way was best for your pitching style i.e. push him with speed, bait with junk, etc.

Python April 27, 2007 at 1:37 am

Ray G. ,

I'm sure the author believed that he was speaking of the mental approach. But that doesn't account for his belief that players don't have different averages in different scenarios. If he was only talking about mental, he could still have a belief that averages vary upon different scenarios such as situations that appear to involve a clutch component – i.e. having men on base.

"Hitting opposite field or choking up for a poke into shallow center isn't a difficult task for a hitter." I agree if you mean to say "for a batter with good bat control". All professional batters are not as accurate as others.

My thinking is that some hitters have high OPS because they hit the ball hard, and others have high OPS because they can hit the ball where they desire. (Think Sammy Sosa versus Tony Gwynn.) I think the latter group benefits more from non-optimal defensive situations, and the author simply brushes that aside. But I too would need to see the data before I took a stand.

K. Williams April 27, 2007 at 8:23 am

Mysterious, isn't it? All these baseball people, who spend all of their lives presumably thinking about the game and about ways to improve their own performance and the performance of their players and (if they're in management) about what creates real value on the field, and they all have an essentially false view of something as fundamental as clutch hitting.

Why is it, again, that we're supposed to believe that competition ensures that people will make optimal decisions?

Slocum April 27, 2007 at 8:48 am

Why is it, again, that we're supposed to believe that competition ensures that people will make optimal decisions?

I'm not sure anybody ever said anything about "ensuring" and "optimal". But sooner or later a Billy Beane comes along, out competes his old-fashioned rivals, and revolutionizes the way things are done.

K. Williams April 27, 2007 at 9:04 am

Slocum, this is long after Billy Beane and even longer after the statistical case against clutch hitting was proved. But the people quoted in that article are still repeating — and acting according to — the same tired old mythologies.

David April 27, 2007 at 11:15 am

The question of whether people make optimal decisions has a lot to do with rules of the game. After a player is drafted, for example, a team has exclusive contracting rights for his first 6 years in the majors. Then those players who become free agents go to their concept of the highest bidder, often in long-term deals. Further, teams put players in particular positions; position switches are very rare at the major league level although more common in the minors. Russell Martin was switched from a third baseman to a catcher, and Tim Wakefield was switched from first baseman to knuckleball pitcher. Major league position switches are usually something that involve a player doing something easier than the position he was previously playing, like Cal Ripken moving to third, or Nomar Garciaparra moving to fist.

Optimal is relative, after all, to the constraints placed on the participants by the rules of the game.

But if you want to know why people trust the traditional statistics, for that matter, why do people still use CPI?

K. Williams April 27, 2007 at 12:02 pm

There are no rules of the game of baseball that constrain people to falsely believe that certain hitters are better performers in certain situations than they actually are.

Relative to whatever you want to talk about, preferring to pitch to Alberto Pujols rather than David Eckstein is a sub-optimal decision.

Python April 27, 2007 at 12:39 pm

"Why is it, again, that we're supposed to believe that competition ensures that people will make optimal decisions?"

I'm confused by this statement. Are you suggesting that because many people have "superstitious" beliefs about clutch hitting that all of our thoughts on competition have been rendered as bunk?

Of course people don't always make the "best" decision. The current system is that people can make better decisions and get the payoff. With the corollary that others will see the differences and attempt to behave more like the successful paradigm. Perhaps the difference in outcome in teams that have coaches/management who believe in clutch hitting and the outcome of those who don't believe is not very large, and therefore moot.

It sounds like you want the equivalent of the MLB commissioner to step in and say "You guys aren't behaving optimally, I'm going to introduce some new rules to take certain decisions out of your hands." But first you'd have to explain to me how those new rules weren't tainted by different misconceptions.

Brad April 27, 2007 at 12:46 pm

"Why is it, again, that we're supposed to believe that competition ensures that people will make optimal decisions?"

There were only 2 people quoted in that article who both held the belief that clutch hitters exist and make personnel/game decisions, Jim Tracy and Jim Colborn. Both decision makers for the Pirates, a particularly moribund franchise.

Given that article does not give details on the beliefs of the other teams' managements vis-a-vis the existence of clutch hitters, the only inference about competition and decision making that I can see is that it works. The Pirates management is making decisions on mistaken beliefs and the win/loss record shows it.

David Z April 27, 2007 at 12:49 pm

"Why is it, again, that we're supposed to believe that competition ensures that people will make optimal decisions?"

K.W. – the proposition that competition leads to better outcomes is a relative proposition. It requires a comparison to a world without (or with less) competition. So, imagine a baseball universe where a Billy Beane was not allowed to do whatever it was that he did (I'm no sports historian). So if he's not allowed to do it, or he's otherwise prevented from doing it, *it* would have never happened. And wif we were still having this discussion, we'd certainly not be talking about him.

Competition doesn't "ensure" anything. It permits things. It permits some people to make better decisions than they would under constraint, it permits some people to have more choices, and it permits others to make decisions which in hindsight will be revealed as erroneous.

Steve Miller April 27, 2007 at 2:15 pm

Someone should ask Brad Lidge if he'd rather pitch to Pujols or Eckstein.

Slocum April 27, 2007 at 5:42 pm

Slocum, this is long after Billy Beane and even longer after the statistical case against clutch hitting was proved. But the people quoted in that article are still repeating — and acting according to — the same tired old mythologies.

True. Old fogies are often resistant to changing their beliefs based on 'evidence'. But the 'Moneyball' approach to management has nonetheless made a big difference in the way players are evaluated. Competition doesn't mean that nobody ever continues to hold on to false beliefs out of force of habit. And nor is statistics the only important thing in baseball. It is possible to be a successful manager while holding false, superstitious beliefs if other qualities (or sheer luck) make up for not using demonstrably better approaches to evaluating players. If the new approach is only marginally better, it may take a long time to propagate fully.

Ray G April 27, 2007 at 6:50 pm

KW
"Mysterious, isn't it? All these baseball people, who spend all of their lives. . " etc etc.

Actually, just because someone is good at a mostly physical pursuit doesn't mean that they have any deep understanding of the mechanics of the game. I was good enough to pass up some low level college opportunties and did play with some guys who went pro, and so feel fairly confident in saying that the average "good" ballplayer didn't get good, or remain good through years of observation and contemplation.

Simply put, they were just good. Period. Their confidence came from their ability. If they choked, then it was a personal weakness, but most of them didn't otherwise they wouldn't have risen to the levels that they did.

Or, even simpler yet, the best players rarely make the best coaches, in any sport.

"Why is it, again, that we're supposed to believe that competition ensures that people will make optimal decisions?"

I've met very, very few people who have ever seriously tried to argue against the obvious benefits of competition. Those who do, do so from the standpoint that the little guy gets stomped on in a purely competitive environment, and so we'll be big hearted and not compete so much. But it is rare that someone actually says that competition is not effective.

People, in the larger sense – that is, including even those who make very bad decisions – do make optimal decisions in a competitive environment. For every bad mistake, there's someone there to take advantage of it. Without competition to make a person "pay" for their bad decisions, then the bad decisions will occur more and more frequently. Think union labor. . .

Ray G April 27, 2007 at 6:55 pm

Oh, and I forgot the most obvious point:

Most players have not read "Moneyball" nor any of the other wonkish statistical writings on the sport. They don't care about any statistics except the ones that apply to them, and then they only care about the basics, namely their overall batting avg.

It's rather silly to think these guys are sitting around reading a Schaum's outline on statistical analysis so that they can all be better informed players. Right. . . .

Billy April 27, 2007 at 7:09 pm

In this particular case, I think we're also seeing a bias toward the more visible. Paulino and the others who would rather pitch to Pujols are probably far more aware of Eckstein's MVP performance on the grandest stage in baseball, the World Series, last year than they are of his regular season statistics in "clutch" situations. Likewise, they may be far more aware of Pujols' subpar WS performance than his overall "clutch" numbers.

On top of that, they may also be more inclined to make a counter-intuitive decision about who they'd rather pitch to just to highlight their purportedly superior knowledge of the game. I doubt Paulino gave much thought before he answered to the possibility of someone subjecting it to rigorous analysis. If he did, he probably dismissed it, thinking that the "proper" reaction to such a claim is that it's so counter-intuitive that it must be true. Anybody who has watched sports with a know-it-all acquaintance or bystander, which pretty much includes every game on TV in any bar… ever, should be familiar with this phenomenon.

lowcountryjoe April 28, 2007 at 4:03 pm

Wouldn't clutch pitching negate clutch hitting?

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