King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Congress and steroids, Bill James and the religion of clutch: The readers write.

By Salon Staff
March 12, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)
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We're going to open up the old mailbag today, which is technically neither old nor a bag, if you'd like to discuss.

I've been flooded with letters about the House Committee on Government Reform issuing subpoenas to baseball players and executives for a hearing on steroids Thursday, and also -- surprisingly, because I thought I was just scratching my own little itch with this subject -- about Thursday's column on clutch hitting ability in baseball, which focused on Bill James' backing off his stance that it doesn't exist.

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First, a clarification: Reader Kelly Maynard points out correctly that I erred Wednesday when I wrote, "Jose Canseco is the only player, or ex-player, invited by the committee -- which oversees some drug policies -- who gladly accepted."

Frank Thomas of the White Sox, who has been an outspoken steroid opponent for years, said he'd be pleased to go. I could quibble that he wasn't happy about it because he said flying makes his injured ankle swell up, but that would be small of me, especially because what really happened is I just forgot about Thomas when I wrote that sentence.

And now, you.

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Congressional steroid hearings [PERMALINK]

Karl Appuhn: If you want to know a little more about how steroids work and what they do, read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article "The Drugstore Athlete."

A point that I think is being missed in the current debate is that while people know that steroids have health risks such as shriveled testicles, like you, they have little understanding of how they actually work. This means that they use them in an unsafe manner, and suffer the ill effects -- something that the highly paid athletes who take them don't have to worry about because they are usually doing it under medical supervision.

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Michael Cholbi: These hearings aren't about informing the public, protecting children or preserving the "integrity" of the game: Steroids are the latest skirmish in the quarter-century-long, and increasingly futile, war on drugs, and the purpose of these hearings is to let members of Congress establish or reinforce their drug warrior credentials by coming down hard (at least rhetorically) on 'roids and 'roids users.

T.C. Luoma: I've known scores of people/athletes who use growth hormone and have written several articles on the subject, but GH just doesn't work very well as an anabolic agent unless it's used concurrently with steroids. The GH boogeyman is toothless.

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Also (and I'm a little freaked that I find myself agreeing with Jose Canseco), steroids can be used safely. Almost all the horrors associated with steroid use have to do with oral steroids, and hardly anyone uses them anymore. Additionally, there are other drugs generally used during a steroid cycle that prevent shrunken testicles and the like.

Note: Luoma is the editor in chief of Testosterone Magazine.

Max Allstadt: I think you may have oversimplified the public's attitude towards steroids. My perception is that it is more like this:

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1. "Steroids are wrong." 2. "Watching the Home Run Record get broken every other year is right." 3. "NFL linemen: The bigger the better."

The public has a paradox to contend with, and until it picks a side, market forces will be on the side of steroids. Also, the public may think "shrunken testicles" when it hears steroids, but very few parents of high school athletes know much more than that. As loathsome as the Partnership for a Drug-Free America is, where is it when we really need to see ads about steroid abuse?

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Clutch hitting [PERMALINK]

C.R.: For me the biggest problem with common analysis of "clutch hitting" is that the value of the outcome is usually measured independently of the requirements of the situation. For example, if you just need a single to win the game, there's no point in considering its slugging value. The same is true for a home run -- a grand slam with one out to win a tie game is worth exactly the same as a fly ball to the right field warning track. So saying "Derek Jeter's post-season OPS-plus was no bigger than his regular season OPS-plus" completely sidesteps the issue (not that I like defending Derek Jeter).

Does clutch hitting exist? Yes, but not as a result of the situation itself. Instead, it's because some players have the ability to increase one aspect of their game at the expense of the other. And the fallacy of the entire argument is that clutch hitting will necessarily reveal itself in better overall statistics.

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Jeff Dieffenbach: I can't define clutch in a way that lets you use data to answer the questions. What I can suggest (as I imagine that others have) is that clutch is as perceived by the performer. Physiologically, I assume that pressure situations decrease performance because the athlete is devoting part of their capacity to the act of dealing with the pressure. A clutch performer would be one who does not perceive the pressure in circumstances when mere mortals would. Or, a clutch performer might be one who converts the negative energy of pressure into positive energy of achievement.

Hugh Kearney: Like you, I feel that clutch exists, and my reasons aren't as religious as they are philosophical. We know that choking exists (see Malcolm Gladwell's excellent essay on the subject). If choking exists, then its inverse, clutch, must also exist.

King replies: I agree that the existence of choking would be a point in favor of the existence of its opposite, an ability to come through in the clutch. Also, you may have noticed that this is the second letter in as many days in which a piece by Malcolm Gladwell has been recommended. I've read both, and can second the recommendations. Both pieces are up to Gladwell's absurdly high standard.

Brian Gygi: Bill James is a smart guy and knows statistics, so it seems a little strange that he seems to have just discovered that you can't prove a negative. In fact you can't even prove a positive. All you can do is disprove a negative, what in logic is called "modus tollens." This is why in science experimental results are always phrased in terms of rejecting or failing to reject the null hypothesis.

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So there is no statistic in the world that would show there is no such thing as a clutch hitter. But the burden of proof is always on the one making a positive assertion, so the people who say there is such a thing as a clutch hitter are obliged to show it. Otherwise, we have to conclude that no evidence exists that there is a clutch hitter, which is not saying there is no such thing as a clutch hitter.

Jay Milton: Why does everything have to be measurable? If you are going to reduce clutch hitting to a measurable number, then what do you do with other intangibles like leadership, "smart" play, motivation and others? Jeez, you might as well just type in everyone's numbers and do a computer simulation of the entire season. As the old cliché goes, "That's why they play 'em on the field and not on paper."

King replies: Why does everything have to be measurable? Because. If it exists, it ought to be measurable. No one is suggesting that the numbers replace competition, only that numbers help us analyze what happened. If smart play, leadership etc. somehow help a team play better, say, then it should show up somewhere in the numbers. All the numbers do is measure what happened. If it happened, there ought to be numbers somewhere, even if we haven't figured out how to find them yet.

P.E. Bird: I wouldn't say the belief in clutch is religious as much as common sense. The idea that some people perform better in the face of external pressure than others seems obvious. You see it in all other walks of life, certainly in other athletics, why not in baseball?

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Rich Golden: Defining "clutch" is difficult but not impossible. I would posit this much: Feats that put your team in a position to win meaningful games. By this definition, all postseason games are meaningful. I think you can also look at players who consistently seem to step it up a notch come playoff time: Tom Brady, Big Game James Worthy, Mr. October etc.

You're right that clutchism is like religion. Something you believe but can't rationally explain. How in the world did Casey Stengel and Walter Alston win all those games without the benefits of sabermetrics? Tell your SABR buddies to shut off the computer for a couple of days -- a Dungeons and Dragons convention is about to start.

King replies: Maybe Casey and Alston were able to win so much because nobody else was thinking along sabermetric lines either. I could equally point to Billy Beane and Theo Epstein, who have had pretty good success, in the exact same situations where others have failed spectacularly, using sabermetric thinking.

And the answer to the point about Brady, Worthy, Reggie Jackson and many other names that appeared in my in box -- Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Joe Montana, etc. -- would be that of course they were (or are) great in the clutch. They were great always. Even with that nickname, it's not like James Worthy was some ordinary player most of the time.

Ben Carterette: You're exactly right. As every statistician knows, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." What's surprising to me is that James and his followers apparently became aware of that only recently. I wonder what else they've been denying the existence of only because of lack of evidence? (Ahem) team chemistry (cough).

King replies: Good question. Of course, I've long said that team chemistry is nothing more than a kind of superstition. And I admit I can't prove that. It too is a belief, and the absence of stats backing up the idea of team chemistry doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

On the other hand, maybe there are stats. As many readers pointed out to me, the New York Times ran a great piece by Benedict Carey earlier this week saying that social scientists who have studied team cohesion believe what I believe: that winning causes chemistry, not the other way around.

"Winning is more likely to create team unity than vice versa, [Yankees manager Joe] Torre has said repeatedly," Carey writes, "and the evidence backs him up, said Dr. Richard Moreland, a professor of psychology and management at the University of Pittsburgh. Team cohesion is a hard thing to measure in the first place, Dr. Moreland said, and dozens of studies of sports teams find that, although having players who feel team unity helps performance, 'it is not a strong effect, compared to the effect of performance on cohesion.'"

Bill Anderson: I'm in roughly the same position you're in with regard to clutch hitting -- my sympathies are with the sabermetricians, but I devoutly believe that there are clutch hitters out there. In part, my belief comes from 40 years of watching baseball, but the Holy Dogma of the Clutch Hitter also fits well with what we all know about people in general.

As a software developer, I have had many talented colleagues who did a great job on a day-to-day basis, but who gradually ceased to function as deadline pressure built. On the other hand, I've also known programmers who seemed to phone it in most of the time, surfing the Web all day and doing just what it took to get by until the week before the project was due, and then kicking into overdrive and writing code to make the gods weep. In fact, I've been that kind of programmer myself.

I'm betting that most people, whatever their profession or avocation, have known clutch hitters. It would be odd if there were no such thing in baseball, where pressure is a fundamental element of the game.

Previous column: Bill James on clutch

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