Thursday, January 17, 2008

I will bet real money that you can't identify even one clutch hitter

Over the past 30 years, one of the hottest topics in sabermetrics has been the existence of clutch hitting talent. Does it exist? Do some players naturally perform better when the game is on the line? Are certain other players "chokers," who play their best only when it doesn't matter?

Those who believe in the existence of clutch hitters often believe it passionately, and many have been dismissive of evidence against it.

I think the evidence against it is substantial, and so, if you believe in clutch hitters, I am willing to offer you the following bet.

You tell me who you believe will be clutch hitters in 2008. You tell me who you think will be choke hitters in 2008. If your clutch hitters outperform your choke hitters, I will pay you $10. If not, you pay me $20.

You will note that I am asking for 2 to 1 odds. Why? Because I am letting you make all the choices. You decide who the clutch hitters are. You decide who the choke hitters are. You even decide how many there will be in each group. If you want, you can pit exactly one player against one other player, and I'll be OK with that. You can pit one player against the rest of the league. You can have three players in the "choke" column, and an entire team in the "clutch" column. Anything you want.

I'll even let you decide what's a clutch situation. Elias used to have a bunch of candidates: "late inning pressure situations," "late inning pressure situations with runners on," "runners in scoring position with two out." Use one of those, or make up one of your own. You can even weight the situations if you like – count a plate appearance double if the tying run is on third. Whatever you think gives you the best chance of winning.

At the end of 2008, we will see how much your "clutch hitters" improved in the clutch. We will see how much your "choke hitters" improved in the clutch. If the clutchers beat the chokers, by improving more or declining less, you win. The measure of clutchness will be the improvement (or decline) in batting average.

For example: I have the 1989 Elias book in front of me, so let's say that in 1988, you had chosen Tim Raines as your clutcher and Mark McLemore as your choker. Raines improved by 92 points in late inning pressure situations (.347 to .254). McLemore also improved in the clutch, by 12 points (.250 to .238), which was not as much as Raines. You win your bet, 92 points to 12.

You can see that 1:2 odds are quite reasonable by looking at other statistics. If I offered you 1:2 that Albert Pujols wouldn't hit more home runs than Juan Pierre, you'd jump on it. If I offered you 1:2 that Juan Pierre wouldn't steal more bases than the average National League catcher, you'd take it in a second. If I offered you 1:2 odds that Pedro Martinez wouldn't strike out more players (per nine innings) than the league average, you'd mortgage the farm to take that bet too.

I'm saying that if you want to do the same for clutch hitting improvement, I'll take your bet, and I'll even let you fill in both sides of it. You tell me who's going to outclutch whom. And you only have to be right 67% of the time to make it a fair bet.

Do we have a bet? If not, why not?

If you really think the 1:2 odds aren't fair, what do you think IS fair? If you say only 1:1 odds are fair, then you must think that even if you pick the very, very best clutch hitter in baseball, and the very, very worst clutch hitter in baseball, it's still a flip of the coin which one does better in 2008. And, so, basically, you're admitting that clutch hitting talent doesn't exist.

Or maybe you think clutch hitting exists, but you don't want to bet because you don't know who the clutch hitters are. In that case, why do you believe in the existence of clutch hitting? I mean, if you've never seen a clutch hitter, how do you know they're out there?

Perhaps you think the odds are too high because the sample sizes are too small. That's why I gave you the option of making the "clutch group" and the "choke group" as large as you want. Put your top/bottom 20 players in each group – that will give you at least 2000 plate appearances total. That should be enough to tell the heroes from the goats, shouldn't it?

And if you're thinking that "late inning pressure situations" aren't really what you think of as clutch, just remember that I'm even letting you define what situations we're looking at.

Basically, if you're refusing the bet, you're saying that you can't think of ANY situation, in a full season's worth of baseball, where you can differentiate ANY clutch hitters from ANY non-clutch hitters with 67% probability. If that's the case, clutch hitting can't be that important, can it?

I actually don't expect that anyone will take me up on this bet. But I'm serious. If you want to place the bet, I will cover it. It can be for just $2 against $1, if you want, or $20 against $10, or even $50 against $25. Mitchel Lichtman, of "The Book," says that if you want to bet an amount that's too high for me, he'll take the rest of your action.

Also, if you want to bet donations to charity, that's OK with me too. Winner picks a charity in the loser's home country (I'm Canadian). Loser gets the tax receipt, just to keep it legal.

Looking forward to hearing from anyone interested!

(Hat Tip: Tom Tango for the inspiration.)

UPDATE: I have set out the rules here. Please place your bets there, and NOT at any other site where you may have heard about the bet. Thanks!



At Thursday, January 17, 2008 7:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the position that there are clutch performances, but not clutch hitters in the sense of someone who consistently performs better when things are on the line. I suppose the same goes for chokers, though I haven't really given that any thought.

The question that comes to mind though is why? I've heard several NBA and former NBA players say that there are guys who don't want the ball when the game's on the line. Larry Bird was one of them, and I believe him on that point. Is there something equivalent in MLB? Of course, the fact that someone doesn't like those situations doesn't necessarily mean that his performance is going to be affected in those situations.

At Thursday, January 17, 2008 11:59:00 AM, Blogger RedsManRick said...

Aren't you begging people to simply find some scenarios where regression to the mean (the mean being their natural ability) goes in their favor?

So, I'll take, say Adam Dunn and his .811 OPS in Late & Close situations as defined on Baseball-Reference as a good bet to improve on that in 2008.

I get the point of your contest, but even working the assumption that clutch is completely unpredictable outside of the assumption that it tends to regress to a player's mean ability leaves latitude for people to win by selecting those players coming off extreme outlying seasons.

At Thursday, January 17, 2008 2:11:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...


I'm not taking bets that involve any past performance.

You have to bet on 2008 players against other 2008 players.

At Thursday, January 17, 2008 3:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Btw, why batting average? Horrible stat. I would either do BA+SLG, or OBP+SLG.

The best overall stat is 1.8*OBP+SLG. However, leverage situations occur mostly with men on base, and from that respect, walks have less value than the other events. And an OBP+SLG would align itself closely to that.

For those who don't believe in "clutch walks", you can sidestep that by doing BA+SLG. I would think it's foolish to treat a clutch single and clutch HR the same.

At Thursday, January 17, 2008 4:06:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

I'm using BA because the studies I've seen have used BA, so it's kind of tradition. Also, it eliminates problems where it's easier for sluggers to increase their BA+SLG than for non-sluggers, and I'm trying to keep it simple.

But, for anyone reading this, if the use of BA is the only thing keeping you from betting, let me know what metric you'd prefer, and I'll consider it.

At Friday, January 18, 2008 12:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I define clutch as 'major league plate appearances' and my clutch performers as the unluckiest (by BABIP) player in 2007 versus the luckiest (by BABIP) player in 2007?

Y'know, something like non-clutch:

Nick Punto
Vernon Wells
Paul Konerko
Jermaine Dye

And then bet bundles of cash that the former will regress in BA while the latter will improve?

Because my theory is that clutch performances are when you don't suck against people hurling 90+ mph in the vicinity of your head and your delicate bits.

Or is that cheating?

At Friday, January 18, 2008 1:26:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Sal: No, you can't. But nice try. :)

At Friday, January 18, 2008 10:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might want to read the SOSH thread.

If you are getting no action at all, you've at least proven one thing: no one in the world believes that Ortiz is to Clutch what the Patriots are to football.

Since you really need some action (not just 1 action where anything can happen), you may need to drop your odds down to 1:1.5.

At that level, you can now say that people do believe in some clutch, but they really don't have that strong a belief in it.

At Friday, January 18, 2008 11:07:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

I will consider any offer.

But I'm not as confident as you that I'll get action at 2:3 instead of 1:2. I think "Ortiz is a clutch hitter" is something people say but don't really believe.

However: if someone wants to say to me, "I think there's a 62% chance that Ortiz will hit well in the cltuch, but not a 67% chance," I will accept a 2:3 bet.

But anyone who truly, honestly has little doubt, and commonly says "Ortiz is a clutch hitter" without qualification, has no real basis to complain that the odds are too high.

At Friday, January 18, 2008 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

The "best" argument I heard about clutch was that a player could learn it or forget it. At the Cubs site I visit (, a commenter at the site said there were certain clutch players, but he couldn't define them because players can learn how to be clutch and some players forget it.

Interestingly, the one player he didn't like in a pressure situation was Aramis Ramirez, who just so happened to provide the clutchiest hit of 2007 for the Cubs.

June 29

At Friday, January 18, 2008 2:36:00 PM, Blogger Nate Hebel said...

Great post Phil. I for one have zero desire to take the action -- because i agree with you. I also agree that anyone who truly believes in the clutch effect should be able to construct their "teams" to justify the 2-1 odds.

I wholly encourage this "money where your mouth is" line of thought. Any other standard "color commentator statistics" fallacies we can debunk this way?

At Friday, January 18, 2008 2:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I posted at SOSH, I think that there is some ability to detect, and that maybe you'll have a 52% success rate (a smidge above pure luck).

And the way Phil lays out his scenario, you should be able to bump those odds a bit, to maybe 55%. But, that's it.

If Phil were fair, he'd offer 55% odds, which means that he'll get tons of action and prove his point: there's just a smidge of detectability here.

That he's getting no action at all at 67% means that people really don't believe in this. Certainly not as much as people believe in the Patriots winning.

At Friday, January 18, 2008 3:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Phil, you've got a taker at 2:3 odds:

At Friday, January 18, 2008 3:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I follow you, and mostly I agree with Tango -- clutch might be real, but the effects are small and pretty nearly impossible to detect in the sample available before the player's performance attributes change too much.

But, I will bet that Ortiz will have better high leverage performance stats than ARod. I'd prefer EV's modification of a WPA clutch stat, but I'll settle for THT's "clutch" measurement.

I win, I donate $20 to the Children's Miracle Network. You win, you donate $10 to the Children's Miracle Network.

Is that what you had in mind?

At Friday, January 18, 2008 4:50:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...


Since I volunteered to make it 3:2, you only have to put up $15.

You've got yourself a bet!

At Friday, January 18, 2008 5:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "problem" with the bet (among many things) seems to be that anyone who has touted the "virtues" of clutch (whatever that means) thinks that 2-1 or even 3-2 is too much to fade. They will argue till they are blue in the face that even if clutch exists as a skill to a large (again, whatever that means) degree, the true odds should be somewhere around 55-50 (or something like that, I am assuming).

What they don't realize is that odds of around 55-50 for an entire season and for a pool of several (10 or 20) clutch and choke players, represents a chance of detecting clutch of near zero. IOW, as Tango already said, if you are arguing that 2-1 or 3-2 is way too high, and that you think the fair odds are on the order of 55-50, then you are essentially agreeing that a clutch player is virtually indistinguishable from a choke player before the fact! If you can't beat 55-50 over en entire season with a bunch of so-called clutch players verus choke players, you have no right to talk about who is clutch and who it not! I admit that that is a subjective and nebulous statement, BTW.

And for those of you who keep saying that I, Tango, and other analysts are saying that clutch as a skill does not exist, please read the chapter on clutch hitting in The Book. That FALSE premise (that serious analysts do not think that clutch as a skill exists) is getting old.

BTW, why not throw in streak hitting and batter/pitcher matchups into the fray? I think those are believed in (at least spoken of) more strongly than clutch hitting.

I'll take the same bet, at 3-2 odds (maybe less), for best/worst batter/pitcher matchups AND I'll take the same bet for anyone who during the season wants to put a player's game AB's or PA's into a "cold" or "hot" bucket as the season progresses. IOW, on any given day, you can designate that day's game as either hot or cold for any player. At the end of the season, we'll tally the hot and cold PA's for any metric you want. If that player, or a group of players, has a higher BA, OBP, OPS, or whatever, in their hot bucket than their cold bucket, after accounting for the pitchers faced, stadium, and weather, you win $1 (or $10, $100, whatever you want). If the other way around, I win $1.50. You can even use injury status if you want! I could probably be negotiated down a little, although not too much because of the injury thing and because people might be able to choose favorable or non-favorable situations that cannot adequately be accounted for after the fact.

The batter/pitcher matchup should be a no-brainer. That would be before the season starts. I'm even willing to go with 1.25 odds on that one (1.25/1).

At Saturday, January 19, 2008 12:40:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

By asking for the difference between clutch and non-clutch situations you are asking for something far different than merely being a good clutch hitter

At Saturday, January 19, 2008 12:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a rather irrelevant experiment against clutch. It would be better to ask people to name players whose performance stays the same in clutch situations or gets better... vs. those whose productions is worse than their season long numbers.

I wouldn't define clutch as a hitter improving under pressure, but rather, the minimum should be set at their clutch numbers being as good as their non-clutch numbers.

I'll think about some players and will name some here publicy who can maintain their performance under pressure and those who cannot. I'll be back soon with them and be on record.

At Saturday, January 19, 2008 1:04:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Hawk: I don't care if they improve or stay the same or even drop. All you have to do is pick one group that improves more (or drops less) than the other group. If your clutch guys stay the same, and your "choke" guys drop, you still win the bet.

At Saturday, January 19, 2008 1:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will take the bet, though, since I am allowed to define the terms

Clutch hitting: runners on base and the score is within two runs. Whichever players batting average improves the most in this situation is the better clutch hitter

I'll choose the players over the next week or so after looking through stats

At Saturday, January 19, 2008 8:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clutcher: BA in situation 1 minus BA overall
compared to
Choker: BA in situation 1 minus BA overall

(personally, I'd make "overall" as "rest", and OPS or BA+SLG as the simple metric of choice. No biggie.)

So, as long as your clutcher is better than your choker, what's the problem here?

At Saturday, January 19, 2008 9:15:00 AM, Blogger SkeptiSys said...

Isn't there one loophole? If the chosen clutch players are much better than the unclutch, they will be more likely to hit well in all situations.
clutch situation: batting ave with runners on, Ichiro is clutch - Nick Punto unclutch.
stat = HRs with runners on base. Ortiz clutch, Eckstein not.
Either would win the bet, regardless of clutch ability.

At Saturday, January 19, 2008 10:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I said this:
Clutcher: BA in situation 1 minus BA overall
compared to
Choker: BA in situation 1 minus BA overall

Which means:
Ichiro, the clutcher, BA in close/late is .400 minus BA overall is .360 = +40 points

ARod, the choker, BA in close/late is .360, overall is .300 = +60 points

You lose. ARod the choker, improved more relative to his overall performance.

Otherwise, you are right... just choose the best overall hitter. Which is not the point of this exercise, since everyone agrees on this point, unless the two great hitters are really-really close!

At Saturday, January 19, 2008 9:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why should "improved more relative to his overall performance" matter?

If Ted Williams hits .400 overall, but only .380 in clutch situations that is a much better clutch hitter than if Hal Lanier hits .220 overall, but "improves" to .250 in clutch situations

At Monday, January 21, 2008 1:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a rather irrelevant experiment against clutch. It would be better to ask people to name players whose performance stays the same in clutch situations or gets better... vs. those whose productions is worse than their season long numbers.

No one is asking anyone to name players who are ANYTHING specific. You can name any players you want who you think are clutch ANY WAY YOU WANT TO DEFINE CLUTCH as long as you name a similar number (I guess) of players who you think are choke.

AND you can set up the parameters of "clutch."

If you want to "name the people whose performance stays the same in the clutch or better" that is fine! If you want to name the people whose performance goes down on Tuesdays that are odd (e.g., May 2,3,5, etc.) that is fine too. Who is telling you what kinds of players to choose? And who is telling you that your players have to be ANYTHING? As long as you define a reasonable criteria for measuring clutch, and it is not somehow biased toward your clutch players to start (i.e. cheating), that's fine! There is no bet until both sides are satisfied with the details I guess. Save the arguing for after you make your proposal. There is nothing to argue about now other than the odds (and you can simply decline to bet if you don't like them), because there is NOTHING to argue about, as YOU get to choose your players and YOU get to choose any definition you want for clutch. So what the heck are you talking about?

Why is it so difficult for people to understand the proposal?

At Friday, January 25, 2008 11:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What the hell happened to my long comment from yesterday? I gave you my lists.

At Friday, January 25, 2008 11:39:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Hawk: comment never appeared. You sure it was here and not at some other site?

At Wednesday, January 30, 2008 9:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Are you sure my last post didn't go into a spam file or something? I hate having to write this shit again. But, oh well, here goes:

The following players are capable of maintaining their season averages under pressure, in clutch predicaments:

Chipper Jones
Carlos Lee
Derek Jeter
Lance Berkman
Ryan Theriot
Craig Counsell

(And notice I'm not listing obvious choices like David Ortiz and Albert Pujols)

The following players underperform when needed most:

Gary Sheffield
Andruw Jones
Adam Dunn
Jack Wilson
Adrian Beltre
Ron Belliard

A-Rod. The annual disappearing act when needed most. Funny... the guy was insanely clutch the first half of last year... as his team was struggling. Then, sure enough, as the team turns it around, A-Rod's late inning heroics vanish. And of course, the playoff story was the same. The guy's performance is inversely proportional to his team's.

When it comes to clutch, you're talking about WHEN your guys produce, not just WHAT. Even the stathead messiah, Bill James, is now measuring:

1. The score,
2. The runners on base,
3. The outs,
4. The inning,
5. The opposition,
6. The standings,
7. The calendar.

The thing is... there aren't concrete stats for this. Sometimes a ball game's most crucial moment could be in the fifth with the bases loaded and the opposing pitcher on the ropes. And yet to the contrary, there's something to the ninth inning. Some guys can perform and others can't.

Take closers. Brad Lidge cannot handle the ninth, period. LaTroy Hawkins is another great example. When the Cubs signed him, he was the best setup man available during that particular offseason. What they got was the best setup man in the National League once the season started. I think the guy hardly let in a run his first month. But, once they forced him to close, he was far less effective. It was awful.

The dumbfuck statheads want to pretend that he's the same pitcher in both innings, but he's not. Did Kirk Gibson have numbers as great as Dave Winfield? Hell no. But, who would you put at the plate in the ninth with all the marbles on the table? The Dungeons & Dragons Stat Geeks claim they'd put whomever has the greater WARP6.3/Dork 2.331 stats.

Anyway, I had written this much better the last time, but don't feel like putting as much effort into a re-writing of it. I'm on record with my players.

Some guys can perform when you need them and others can't. It doesn't mean that a Kirk Gibson/Will Clark/Derek Jeter never strikes out in the ninth... they do. Michael Jordan missed many buzzer beaters in his life. It also doesn't mean that Sammy Sosa never hits a walkoff... because he has. But, some players are better under pressure than others.

Hell, some people in life can handle certain forms of pressure better than others. Some can handle the pressure of working in sales whereas others would be miserable. And maybe the sales kings couldn't handle the pressure of a working in a restaurant kitchen. Baseball players are humans, not stats.

I always say, the dumbfuck stat heads think the object of baseball is to have the best stats, and not to win games. They may as well go play Dungeons & Dragons with their fictional stats like WARP fucking 3.

At Wednesday, January 30, 2008 10:35:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...


I don't think there is a spam file for this. Not sure what happened to your post.

If you want to make that a bet, you still have to pick your situation and amount.

At Thursday, January 31, 2008 2:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't gamble. I was put up to this by some little stathead who visits my site.

So, here's your wager... if any of my clutch guys are healthy and fail miserably in the clutch... or any of my non-clutch guys become revelations in game deciding moments... you can call me a stupid fucking idiot.

If I'm right about them, I don't need to win anything... as I already know that clutch is real and that Robert Horry's, Michael Jordan's, Kirk Gibson's, Adam Vinatieri's, etc., amaze us for a reason.

Er, if all my players hold true to form, how about this... you must place the following somewhere on your front page:

"These dumbfucks may as well be playing Dungeons and Fucking Dragons with their fucking stats."



At Thursday, January 31, 2008 7:53:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Mike: I think you have at least a 50/50 chance of winning, so no such declaration if you win. I will, of course, acknowledge that you did win.

At Monday, February 18, 2008 7:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When it comes to clutch, you're talking about WHEN your guys produce, not just WHAT.

I'm assuming by this that you're not familiar with rate metrics.

Hell, some people in life can handle certain forms of pressure better than others. Some can handle the pressure of working in sales whereas others would be miserable.

This is an apples to oranges comparison. Everyone has a different skillset. So the clerk is not going to be compatible with a salesman environment. In baseball, everyone is a baseball player.

I always say, the dumbfuck stat heads think the object of baseball is to have the best stats, and not to win games. They may as well go play Dungeons & Dragons with their fictional stats like WARP fucking 3.

The first sentence is a complete strawman argument. But by your logic in the first sentence then the Pittsburgh Pirates were actually a better team than the Red Sox. You fail to realize that the players with the best production improve your chances of winning. Yes, that's right. I'm talking about winning. It's all about winning, and the stats help us get there no matter how much you want to scream like a little girl.

And if you and some other dumbfuck wants to be anti-stat then you know what? You can't use any metric (both total and rate) whatsoever to state your case. You can't even use the coarse BA, pitcher W-L, RBI or ERA metrics. You're anti-stat so you can't cherrypick which stats you'd like to use. If you're so anti-stat then from now on rely on just your eyes and gut because you're so god damn stubborn.

At Friday, July 11, 2008 1:56:00 PM, Blogger DA said...

How about looking at David Ortiz's batting average with runners in scoring position OR in late innings OR both vs the Toronto Blue Jay with the highest averages in any of those situations in the season 2005 or 2006 or 2007?

I am willing to gamble that Ortiz's numbers stack up against any Blue Jay over that stretch. And if a single player could, in these areas, outperform an entire division rival, I'd have to say "yes, he's a clutch hitter".

The caveat of FOREASTING WHO WILL BE a better hitter in the future is not the same thing. People get a feel for a player based on memories of what they've done. Obviously no one can KNOW who will repeat their past performance.

So, if you're willing to crunch the numbers on my above scenario, I'd be curious what it looks like.


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