Why you think clutch hitting exists

It’s the bottom of the eighth inning, and William Legume of the Mapleland Bees is up in a tough spot.  There are two out and his team is down by one, but there are runners on second and third.  What Legume does here may very well decide the game.  A hit turns a one run deficit into a one run lead.  A strikeout torpedoes this golden opportunity.  You’ve been a fan of the Bees all your life.  You’re nervous.  But, you reason, Legume is a clutch hitter.  Mapleland has this one in the bag.

And then William Legume strikes out.  How could you have been so wrong about him?  After all, in the past he’s come up with several clutch hits.  He’s the kind of guy who’s always come through.  Why not this time?

A few years ago, “clutch” hitting became a dirty word among Sabermetricians.  For good reason.  Multiple studies, using different methodologies, showed that the contribution of some sort of “clutch” skill to the outcome of an at-bat was minimal.  At least using year-to-year data.  The conclusion that “clutch doesn’t exist” was a little over-reaching, in the same way that “an ability of pitchers to prevent balls in play from becoming hits” was over-reaching.  Not being able to be measured reliably within a one year time frame and not existing are two different things altogether.  Still, things don’t look good for clutch hitting as a skill at this point, and I believe the burden of proof is now on the clutch advocates to show that there’s some evidence that a repeatable skill exists.

Now despite all this evidence to the contrary, belief in a clutch hitting ability persists.  Why is it so tempting to believe in clutch hitting, even after being presented with the evidence?  I suppose part of it is that clutch hitting makes sense intuitively.  We’ve all had the experience of stage fright.  The batter is human, and he certainly has to be aware of how important this at-bat is in some way.  Some people do freeze up under pressure, and some thrive, so it makes sense that some batters will freeze up and others will thrive, that is, they will be clutch hitters.  The problem as always, is that not everything that makes sense is true and not everything that is true makes sense.  Did you ever stop to think that you might be projecting your own nervousness onto what you think the batter should be feeling?

Consider a few things for a moment.  You (yes, you) usually watch baseball games that feature your favorite team.  A team for which you’ve been rooting since you were 5.  A team in which you have a great emotional investment.  And when you watch, you watch the game with your favorite team in mind and the other team as merely the backdrop.  You’re invested in the fact that William Legume is up.  You can recite his statistics from last year and the year before.  You’re wearing his replica jersey.  You are nervous about what’s going to happen over the next few pitches.  And you might not be able to name the pitcher from the other team who was on the mound in that situation tomorrow morning.  (Don’t worry, when that pitcher, whoever he is, strikes out Legume, fans in that city probably won’t remember that it was Legume who was up.)

Things look a lot different when you change the circumstances.  Watch a World Series game featuring two teams about whom you have little care.  You’re a little more balanced in your appraisal of things, aren’t you?  You can recognize a key and possibly pressure-packed situation in a game, but this time, it’s not your stomach that’s in ropes because deep down you don’t really care who wins.  You can recognize there that there are some pressure-packed situations… and that pressure is probably falling on both players.  The broader view illuminates one of the problems with the idea behind “clutch hitting.”  We can all agree that the Bottom 8th, down one, 2 outs, 2nd and 3rd situation is really important to the outcome of the game.  It’s important to the Bees.  And it’s important to the other team!  If we agree that the hitter is feeling pressure, why not the pitcher as well?  The pressure of the situation itself is distributed evenly between the two teams.  Even if the pressure is wilting the batter, there’s a decent chance that it’s doing the same to the pitcher as well.  The effects may just cancel each other out.

But what if there is some sort of psychological pressure on the batter?  How much is there, really?  I think that fans make the mistake of thinking that a pressure-packed game situation affects the players in the same way that it affects the fan.  A fan doesn’t have the benefit of having been to the plate a few thousand times over the course of a professional baseball career.  However, the players do that every day, and a routine is a powerful antidote to situational stress.  Consider people who work on a suicide hotline.  If there’s ever a profession that needs clutch performers, it would be that one.  If a friend (or a stranger) came to you and was suicidal, you’d probably freak out.  You might expect that people who work on the hotline would have the same reaction.  I’ve seen these people at work.  They’re the calmest people I’ve ever met, even in the middle of a crisis call.  They do this every day and that’s the point.  They have to be calm.  If not, someone will get over-stimulated and jump. 

In the same way, batters come to the plate every day.  Yes they probably realize that a lot is riding on this at-bat, but thankfully for them, the rules are still that it’s 1-2-3 strikes you’re out.  If nothing else, batter and pitcher can settle into their familiar routines.

Finally, there’s the issue of what function a belief in clutch hitting might serve on the part of the fan.  Ever notice that in an important situation, it always seems that there’s a clutch hitter coming up, at least in your own mind?  Ever notice that you probably rate most of the gentlemen on your team as slightly-above-average in the clutch department?  (You also rate your kids as above average… everyone does.  Half of them are wrong by definition.)  You are more likely to say that William Legume is a clutch hitter because you want him to get a clutch hit.  And if there’s something inherent in him that is clutch, well then it’s a foregone conclusion that some matter of clutchitude will happen.  You’ve taken what might have been a nerve-wracking situation, selected one or two memories that confirm what you want to happen, and turned the situation into one that you can be sure about.  Legume will get that hit because he is clutch.

People strive to reduce anxiety and uncertainty breeds anxiety.  It’s one of those iron-clad rules of psychology.  And people are willing to do all sorts of things to reduce anxiety.  (Consider how many people smoke!  It’s not a secret that smoking is a really bad idea.)  And believing in clutch hitting makes people believe that there is less uncertainty than there really is.   All it costs is the willingness to fall for a couple of logical errors and psychological traps.

So on Fools’ Day today, don’t let your anxiety fool with you.

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4 Responses to Why you think clutch hitting exists

  1. Dan Novick says:

    I was hoping for some looooong, detailed analysis proving that clutch ability does exist and then an “April Fools” thrown in at the end. Oh well.

  2. Matt Swartz says:

    Awesome article. You articulate so perfectly so many views I share on clutch hitting. I definitely agree that most of clutch hitting is the fan projecting his own anxiety onto the hitter.
    I think all professional baseball players are clutch, and it probably more or less cancels out. I think each and every one of these guys had scouts show up at their baseball diamond, and knew that they had to perform to get paid. The vast majority of these players are guys who were going to be either be poor and have poor families if they failed, or have a chance at providing wealth for themselves and their entire families if they succeeded. I would buckle under that pressure. So would most people. But the people in the major leagues all are the type that didn’t buckle– they all staff that hotline. In real life, there is a distribution of anxiety under pressure, but the censored distribution of players who didn’t have anxiety impede their ability to make the majors is probably not very wide. When their little brother needed a doctor that only a signing bonus could pay for– that was the clutch moment. Second and third and two out was just a game.
    (BTW, LOL at “half of them are wrong”, RE: thinking your kids are above average.)

  3. Pizza Cutter says:

    Dan, I thought about doing just that, but didn’t have the time or energy. 😉
    Matt, I didn’t address the selection bias issue, but you are right on. It’s there. Guys who make it to the majors didn’t choke in the minors. There’s a reason that they got “the call.”

  4. Larry says:

    I’m just happy that research into the subject continues and that some open-minded people have taken up the gauntlet.
    I’m more surprised we haven’t found evidence of chokers than clutch hitters. Instances of athletes succumbing to situations certainly seem to exist in areas other than hitting a baseball. Self-consciousness and trait/dispositional anxiety have been measured among even elite athletes in a variety of sports. Even within baseball, there are pitchers who have traumatic experiences that leave them unable to throw strikes and end their careers.
    Hitting a baseball probably ranks high on the reflexive scale, but that doesn’t mean there are no areas in which psychology plays a part. Game situations dictate the approach at the plate; swing for the fences, or just try to make contact? I would suspect that the more reflex, the better for a hitter. If a batter is analytical, that means more chances to mess up the process, be it mechanics or just overthinking.
    We shouldn’t make assumptions and rely on anecdotal evidence, but I suspect there are still ways of compiling and analyzing the data that haven’t been done yet. It does seem reasonable that whatever we find will be of small enough significance that it won’t be a factor in how a front office builds a team. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth investigating just because!

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