Baseball Articles | Index

Clutch Hitting

By Rob Neyer, ESPN.com
December 17, 1999

Published here by permission of the author. If you like intelligent baseball talk that is backed up by solid analysis and presented with style and wit, check out Rob's daily column on ESPN.com.

As you might recall, last week I rather casually dismissed the idea of "clutch hitting." And as you might imagine, this resulted in a fair amount of consternation, if not outright derision, among a certain percentage of E-ville's baseball fans.

So I entered my library in search of evidence. Maybe I missed something. Might I have been too hasty?

In the 1977 edition of The Baseball Research Journal, Richard D. Cramer published an article titled, "Do Clutch Hitters Exist?"

Regrettably, I don't have the space to detail Cramer's methods here, but I consider them sound. Armed with play-by-play data for 1969 and 1970, Cramer checked to see if players who hit well in the clutch one season tended to do so the next season. They did not, which of course suggested that clutch hitting is not an ability, but rather a random fluctuation.

Eight years later, the good folks at the Elias Sports Bureau took Cramer to task in their annual book, The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst. His conclusions, the authors wrote, were "unfounded" and "incorrect."

Elias came up with its own definition of "clutch," defined as any at-bat in the seventh inning or later, with the batter's team trailing by three runs or less (or four runs if the bases were loaded). Elias called this a Late-Inning Pressure Situation (LIPS).

Now, some might argue with that definition, but I will not. Everyone has their own idea of what "clutch" means, and this one's probably as good as any other.

Elias listed the 10 best and 10 worst clutch hitters in both 1983 and 1984, and checked to see what the groups did in the other season. Yes, those are tiny sample sizes, especially when you consider that some of the hitters had as few as 30 LIPS at-bats in one of the seasons. Elias examined the data and found "a definitive statement in favor of the existence of the clutch hitters."

Elias also identified 10 hitters known for their clutch ability, and ran a chart listing their LIPS averages and their overall batting averages from 1975 through 1984. The list of players included Steve Garvey, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Tony Perez and Willie Stargell. The Elias analysis? "The astonishing truth: only one of the players above -- Eddie Murray (thank God!) -- has performed significantly better over the past ten years in Line-Inning Pressure Situations."

(Incidentally, Murray batted .323 in 597 LIPS at-bats, .298 in all other at-bats, and I suspect this is not a significant difference. In fact, after four more seasons that 25-point difference dropped to 16.)

The message from Elias seemed to be, "Yes, there are clutch hitters. But they're not who you think they are." Fair enough. I enjoy a good bubble-bursting as much as the next fellow in line. But who are the clutch hitters? All Elias had to say about this was, "[T]here will emerge in time another group of players who are the true clutch hitters in baseball." Reading this, I couldn't understand why we couldn't see the "true" clutch hitters now. (I figured it out four years later, but we'll get to that in a few minutes.)

The Elias boys revisited the subject in 1988, and this time they didn't hold back, writing,

"As in the past, we feel it's our duty to demonstrate that clutch hitting isn't simply a random trait of a player's profile. To most of us, of course, that's obvious, and has been as long as there have been baseball fans to notice it. Nevertheless, a small group of shrill pseudo-statisticians has used insufficient data and faulty methods to try to disprove the existence of the clutch hitter. But with four seasons of statistics now in the public domain in the four editions of the Analyst, there's no longer an excuse for anyone not to recognize this simple fact of baseball life."

Sounds like a fun bunch of guys. I wonder if they hire out for children's birthday parties. Anyway, as it turns out, it was the authors of the Analyst who used insufficient data and faulty methods. In a way, I sympathize with them. They were writing for a mass audience, and mass audiences generally aren't interested in terms like "correlation coefficients" and such. Running the same sort of study as three years earlier, the reached the same conclusion: "... Nevertheless, when the clutch-hitting data is analyzed properly, the trends are undeniably apparent except to those who choose not to see." (Wow, and people say I'm smug.)

Among those who chose not to see was Harold Brooks, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research. Brooks is not afraid of correlation coefficients, and in an article published in the 1989 Baseball Research Journal, he subjected the Elias studies to some rigorous statistical tests, which I understand just enough to trust. Brooks' conclusion? "Based upon the data published in the 'Elias Baseball Analyst,' the conclusion that the Elias definition of clutch hitting is irrelevant is inescapable. Clutch hitting, as presently defined, is a mirage at best."

(If you want more details, you can order the 1977 and/or the 1989 Baseball Research Journals at SABR's web site. The Elias Baseball Analysts are long out of print, but may often be found at your favorite auction web site, quite reasonably priced.)

Also in 1989, Elias finally gave us what they hadn't four years earlier, a list of the greatest clutch hitters of the previous decade, the 25 major leaguers whose batting averages in Late-Inning Pressure Situations were more than 25 points better than in other situations.

Hold on a minute. Twenty-five points? That's not much, is it?

No, it's not. And hold on another minute, because it gets better. You only needed 250 LIPS at-bats to qualify for the list, and 250 at-bats isn't much, either.

What kind of numbers would be reasonable? Well, how about 35 points of batting average, and 400 LIPS at-bats?

You wanna guess how many great clutch hitters that left? Two.

And who might those two have been? George Brett and Mike Schmidt? Eddie Murray and Steve Garvey?

Nope. Tim Raines and Steve Sax.

From 1979 through 1988, Tim Raines batted .352 in so-called "pressure situations" and .296 the rest of the time. Even if you use Elias's limits (250 at-bats), Raines remains at the top of the list, just ahead of -- are you ready for this? -- Jeff Newman, Garth Iorg, Glenn Hoffman, Thad Bosley and Larry Milbourne.

And that is, I suspect, exactly why Elias never went out of their way to publicize this particular metric. For the most part, it tells us that The Great Clutch Hitters are not the players we lionized as great clutch hitters, but rather a bunch of stiffs like Jeff Newman and Larry Milbourne. That list -- the "Newman/Milbourne List" -- was printed in the Analyst without comment. None of the haughty pronouncements that accompanied their earlier analyses of clutch hitting. This time, just a chart in the back of the book, like a poor student slouching at his desk in the corner, hoping not to be called upon.

So where does all this leave us? Many baseball fans will respond with a resounding yawn because, evidence or no evidence, they know what their eyes and ears tell them. Intuitively, we know that there must be clutch hitters, right?

Rob, baseball does not exist in a vacuum. Clutch performances are not exclusive to baseball. People "perform" in the clutch every day in many capacities, i.e., careers, community and relationships. There are certain people who perform better in the "clutch" than others, "clutch" defined as an important period in time. Some people are just able to focus more, apply their knowledge better and add confidence at a time when the situation warrants it most. Without that increased pressure and reward, they do not perform at the same level. This works for baseball players as well. Some players are able to take that extra pitch in the clutch, others are not. Sociology and Statistics are both Social Sciences. Let's not forget Sociology.

Jeff Ullrich

Well, I've got an open mind on the subject. Do you?

First, it should be noted that by "clutch hitters," all the analysts are thinking of players who perform better under pressure than when not under pressure. This is the standard, I think, although one can certainly argue that a good clutch hitter is a hitter who hits well under pressure, regardless of what he does the rest of the time. However, by that definition, the best clutch hitters would almost always the best hitters, period. At least within the range of statistical chance.

And speaking of statistical chance, we already know that some hitters have performed particularly well under pressure. We would expect this, for the same reason that if you flip a coin one hundred times, over and over again, eventually you'll get heads 75 times in 100. The question here is whether hitters who have hit well under pressure will hit well. And as I've been saying, no such tendency has been demonstrated, at least not to my satisfaction.

Anyway, Jeff, you're right. People perform in the clutch every day, and in many capacities. What happens to people who perform well under pressure in their jobs? Right, they tend to be promoted, and then promoted again.

What are major league baseball players? Essentially, they're athletes who have been promoted as far as they can be promoted. There is no higher league. You know what I think? I think that in the great majority of cases, baseball players who can't handle pressure simply don't reach the major leagues. Those guys get weeded out on the way up, because in essence every professional at-bat is a "pressure situation." Wouldn't you agree that standing at home plate with thousands of eyes watching, and a behemoth throwing a baseball 95 miles an hour at you from 60 feet away, is a "pressure situation"?

If you can relax, stay focused in that situation, even if it's the first inning and the bases are empty, is it a giant leap to stay relaxed and focused in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run in scoring position? I respectfully submit that it's not.

You know what else? I think that this obsession sports fans have with "clutch hitters" and "money players" is yet another manifestation of what I will call our "need for explanation." We humans simply aren't content with thoughtless gods like Dame Fortune and The Great Unknowable. They scare us. Give us the willies, the creepy-crawlies.

So we invent mythical creatures like "the clutch hitter," in hopes that maybe the dreaded Imps of Ramdomland will leave us alone, at least while we're watching the ballgame in the presumed safety of our own homes.

Hey, I'm keeping an open mind, just like I have an open mind when it comes to the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot, and flying saucers piloted by little green men. But you know, it's funny; people offer, as evidence, blurry photos of those things, and when you look at them, really look at them with the tools available to men of science, you find out that the Loch Ness Monster is a log in the vague shape of plesiosaur, Bigfoot is a big guy in a monkey suit, and the flying saucer is a flying Frisbee.

And if you look, really look at the "evidence" of clutch hitting as a true ability rather than happenstance, you find out that, at best, it's a bunch of blurry photos, in the form of poorly constructed studies presented by people who desperately want to believe.

Like I said, I'm keeping an open mind. But to this point, all I've seen are blurry photos. When you've got more than that, you'll know where to find me. I'll be home watching "The X-Files," waiting for the episode where Mulder thinks he's finally found a real clutch hitter, and Scully doesn't believe him. The truth is out there.