King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Bill James rocks bar stools across the land by changing his stance on a central question of sabermetrics: Is clutch hitting a skill?

By Salon Staff
Published March 10, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Bill James says clutch hitters just might exist after all.

This might not sound like a big deal, but what Copernicus was to astronomy, Bill James is to sabermetrics -- the application of the scientific method to baseball -- and the existence of the ability to hit in the clutch is one of the flash points in the war between the sabermetric crowd and traditionalists. It's a big deal. It's Copernicus saying, "Wait a second. Maybe the sun isn't in the middle."

Statheads, including James, have long argued that while there are obviously clutch hits, there's no such thing as a clutch hitter, someone who demonstrates the repeated ability to come through when the chips are down, the game is on the line, the season is in the balance, however you want to put it -- and we'll get back to that, how you define "clutch."

For something to be an ability, James writes, it has to be repeatable, otherwise it's just luck, or a random event. That's inarguable. Bill Mazeroski hit just about the most clutchiest clutch home run of all time to win the 1960 World Series, but that was just one great swing. It didn't mean he was any more likely than anyone else of his modest hitting ability to come through in the clutch in 1961 or '63 or '68.

He got a big clutch hit, and he certainly got some others, but he wasn't necessarily a clutch hitter, any more than I'm a great comedian because I've occasionally made a group of people laugh. There has never been any statistical evidence that any player has the ability to be clutch, that over time he consistently performs above expectations in crucial situations.

This flies in the face of what baseball people have known in their bones since a ball caught on one bounce was an out: Some guys are just clutch. Reggie Jackson, Mr. October. And the corollary: Some guys are just not clutch. They're chokers. The most famous case in this category was Barry Bonds until, whoops, he had a huge postseason in 2002.

Nothing can make a sabermetric type roll his eyes like hearing that some hobo with a .780 OPS is better than this .975 All-Star over here because he's great in the clutch, or the All-Star is lousy in the clutch. And nothing can make a traditionalist roll his eyes like seeing a sabermetrician roll his eyes at such a statement.

That's why it's so shocking to see James' article, "Underestimating the Fog," in the Baseball Research Journal No. 33, the annual publication of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), the group from which sabermetrics takes its name.

What's really shocking to me is that James, who is very smart, seems to agree with me, about whom the smarts jury is out. He makes a point that's strikingly similar to one I've been making for years: The absence of stats that prove clutch hitting ability exists doesn't mean clutch hitting ability doesn't exist. It might just mean nobody's come up with the stat yet. Nobody's figured out how to measure "clutch."

And let me emphasize the word "might." James isn't arguing that clutch hitting ability does exist, only that we can't rule it out, as he and others have long done. He and I differ here. Though I tend to favor the sabermetric way of looking at the world, I line up with the traditionalists in believing that there is such a thing as clutch hitters. There's no other way to describe this point of view than saying it's religious. I can't prove it. I simply believe it.

The titular "Fog" comes from the metaphor James uses: "In a sense it is like this: A sentry is looking through a fog, trying to see if there is an invading army out there, somewhere through the fog. He looks for a long time, and he can't see any invaders, so he goes and gets a really, really bright light to shine into the fog. Still doesn't see anything."

The sentry, James writes, reports back that the coast is clear, "but the problem is, he has underestimated the density of the fog." That's where baseball is with the clutch hitting question, and several others he discusses, such as whether there is such a thing as a pitcher's ability to win games, distinct from his ability to prevent runs.

"We're trying to see if there's an army out there, and we have confident reports that the coast is clear -- but we may have underestimated the density of the fog," he writes. "The randomness of the data is the fog."

Clutch hitting ability is hard to measure because it's hard to define "clutch." Late and close, a metric sometimes used, is hopelessly vague, and anyway may not cover the issue. Can't a two-out, bases empty at-bat in a scoreless first inning be clutch if you know your starter pitches much better with a lead? Can the game be on the line in the fourth inning?

Can a situation be clutch in May? Or does clutch come up only in the second half of the season? Only in September and October? OK, but then does May count if it's Red Sox-Yankees? Is a contract year one long clutch situation? Is every postseason at-bat clutch, or just postseason at-bats with the game on the line? If a second-inning hit turns out to be the game-winner, can we call it clutch in hindsight?

And so on.

And what about clutch pitching or clutch fielding, which can have an effect on clutch hitting? And how many clutch situations are there in a year, and how many does any one hitter get a chance at? There may not ever be a player who gets enough clutch chances for the stats to be meaningful.

James' writing is something you have to sort of immerse yourself in. He's immensely entertaining, even if you aren't mathematically inclined, as I'm not, and even if you disagree with him, as I often do. But he's not punchy. He doesn't deal in sound bites and money quotes, so it's hard to pull out a sentence or two that gives the essence of what he's saying. But here's the closest thing:

"We ran astray because we have been assuming that random data is proof of nothingness, when in reality random data proves nothing," James writes of his own and others' studies. He cites a famous article about clutch hitting by Dick Cramer. "Cramer argued, 'I did an analysis which should have identified clutch hitters, if clutch hitting exists. I got random data; therefore, clutch hitters don't exist.'"

James pronounces himself guilty of the same thing, many times. But: "Random data proves nothing -- and it cannot be used as proof of nothingness. Why? Because whenever you do a study, if your study completely fails, you will get random data. Therefore, when you get random data, all you may conclude is that your study has failed."

So does clutch hitting ability exist? I am a believer. James, long a clutch atheist, is newly agnostic. Maybe his gig as a senior baseball operations advisor for the Red Sox has had an influence on him. Maybe he's been rubbing shoulders with David Ortiz, who Red Sox Nation believes is the very god of clutchness. I don't know.

But it's a major change in the landscape of one of my favorite bar-stool subjects, and it's a testament to James' ability as a thinker to display such open-mindedness and curiosity about an argument that's he's been playing a prominent role in for decades.

The Baseball Research Journal is available through University of Nebraska Press on its Web site or at 1-800-755-1105.

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