I’ve often carried on discussions (arguments) about clutch hitting. I point out that, according to all the data and evidence, players do not preform any better or worse in clutch situations than they do overall. In other words, according to all the data and evidence, certain players do not have a knack for coming through or failing in the clutch relative to how they perform overall. If a player performs well in clutch situations one season, he may perform worse in the clutch the next season, he may perform better the next season. There is just no pattern. Therefore it’s safe to conclude that there is no innate ability within certain players to be “clutch” or to be “chokers.”
The response I get is often something like, “I know what I’ve observed. I don’t care what the stats say” or “you can make the stats say anything you want them to say” or “I’ll trust someone who plays the game over some stat sheet.”
Baseball writer Jonah Keri wrote a brilliant response to this way of thinking when discussing the Hall of Fame and Jack Morris’ candidacy:
It’s after 5 pm here on the West Coast, and I’m watching the sunset at the beach. The sun drops, drops, drops…and it’s gone! Into the ocean! Miraculously, a brand new sun will appear, fully formed, 13 hours from now. This is roughly how Hall of Fame voters justify ignoring numbers in making their case for or against certain players.
Jack Morris is a Hall of Fame pitcher because…well…you had to be there. Here’s the thing about us humans: We’re terrible at observing reality. As in the case of the setting sun, our eyes can only take us so far. Our minds are even more unreliable. We remember Jack Morris’ dominant Game 7 in the 1991 World Series, but conveniently forget his miserable playoff performance the very next year. This is known as confirmation bias, where we collect observations that prove our argument, and throw out the ones that disprove it. This is why science exists, people. Without hard data, our observations can be nearly useless – or worse than useless.
The reason sabermetrics (as generally defined) exist is because there are people out there who want to take this scientific approach to understanding baseball. They do not simply blindly trust what they think they’ve observed or what someone who seems knowledgeable tells them. Sabermetrics is essentially about finding the answers regarding baseball knowledge for yourself and not relying on what seems right or what tradition tells us.
Observation is important in baseball. You can’t evaluate whether a player’s hands are getting to the ball quickly or whether he has a long swing by looking at data. Scouts are important as professional observers. No team should fire all it’s scouts in favor of statisticians and scientists. But we need both scouts and statisticians to fill the other side’s gaps.
Scouts exist so that teams can get down to where the rubber meets the road. They give us details about a hitter’s swing or a pitcher’s delivery. Sabermetricians exist to answer big-picture questions by recognizing patterns in data.
Sabermetricians do not exist to advance some grand conspiracy about players not performing any better or worse in the clutch or in pressure situations than they do in other situations. What would sabermetrics have to gain by pretending and twisting the data to show that players actually don’t perform any better or worse than normal in the clutch? The folks who think science, data and statistics have no place in baseball can’t seem to answer this question.
Sabermetricians aren’t trying to advance any cause. They are simply trying to get as close to the truth as possible, not what seems like the truth. They start with something like a question. For instance, “do players actually perform any better or worse in high-pressure, clutch or high-leverage situations than they do overall? Are there certain players who have a knack for success or failure in high-pressure, clutch or high-leverage situations?” Sabermetricians don’t assume going in that they have the answer to that question. Again, they aren’t trying to advance their own biased opinions about the game. If they don’t like what the data indicates, they realize that’s too bad. They accept the results and move on.
If you think science, statistics and data have no place in baseball, think about the setting and rising sun. If you just want to rely purely on what you think you’ve observed, remember that kind of thinking is what got us to a flat earth, a earth-centered universe and a new brand new sun every day. “Because I said so” or “because this is what I want to believe” is not good enough when reality isn’t on your side.