Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Can the fans identify clutch hitters?

Tom Tango has released the results of his "Great Clutch Project."

Last year, Tom asked his readers to come up with a list of the 30 players, one per team, who they would most like to see up at bat in a clutch situation. Often, the "fans" (as Tom called them) just picked the best hitter on the team; but, sometimes, they came up with a different player, one whom they thought would raise his game in important situations. Presumably, when they picked Derek Jeter (who had an .840 OPS in 2007) over Alex Rodriguez (1.067), they thought his clutchness would compensate for the 227 point difference in overall OPS.

In this particular case, it didn't. Jeter OPSed .771 in the clutch last year; A-Rod came in at .965. So Rodriguez was still the superior hitter in clutch situations. But you can perhaps give the fans credit in that the gap did, in fact, narrow a little; instead of 227 point difference, it's only 194 points. Even if you consider that clutch numbers are lower overall (probably because the opposition puts in its best pitchers in those situations), that's still a narrowing.

When Tango added up the numbers for all the fans' choices that weren't actually the best player on the team, it turns out they were worse overall by 21 points of "wOBA" (that was 11 points worse of OBP and 46 points worse of SLG). But, in the clutch, they were worse by only 12 points.

So you have to admit the fans *did* wind up successfully identifying clutch players, to the tune of 9 points of wOBA. That's still much less than the platoon difference, which is 20 points of wOBA. So Tango writes,

"Let's let this clutch debate end today (please?), and simply agree that: a) yes, clutch exists, b) yes, fans can perceive clutch players, but c) the impact of clutch players is limited to less than the platoon advantage. "

Tango is being a bit sarcastic here. As a skeptic, he says he's willing to offer to admit that clutch hitting exists in exchange for believers admitting that the effect is very small. But fans who passionately believe in clutch hitting are unlikely to accept that the advantage could possibly be only a few points, and are unlikely to take him up on his implicit offer.

From my standpoint, I don't think the results are enough to change my views on clutch. First, as Tango notes, the result is less than one SD above random, which isn't much. Secondly, the fans chose contact hitters as their clutch champions, while the best hitters overall tended to be contact power hitters. I see no reason why it can't just be that these two types of hitters have different ways of adjusting when the game is on the line, especially considering that these situations are usually when singles are more valuable relative to home runs. (More discussion of this point at Tango's blog here.)

But, of course, I agree with Tango that half a platoon advantage isn't really enough to worry about. It's certainly not enough to prefer Jeter over A-Rod, and there's a good chance it's just a random effect anyway.

So this study won't affect my decision on whether to offer my clutch bet again this year.

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At Wednesday, February 25, 2009 4:08:00 PM, Blogger John Walsh said...

Secondly, the fans chose contact hitters as their clutch champions, while the best hitters overall tended to be contact hitters.

I suppose you meant to say that the best hitters tended not to be contact hitters?

Nice article, btw.

At Wednesday, February 25, 2009 8:49:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Right, will fix. Thanks!


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