by Paul Knepper
A few days ago, members of my fantasy baseball league engaged in a heated discussion over whether there’s such a thing as “clutch” hitting in baseball. It’s been an ongoing debate within baseball circles since the sabermetrics revolution became mainstream in the past 20 years.
It’s a fascinating argument, beginning with how to define “clutch” – a word often loosely used to describe a player’s dependability or productivity in high pressure situations – then agreeing on a measurable criteria based on specific game situations. Once a definition is established a clash ensues, with proponents of statistical analysis on one side and those beholden to memory and perception on the other.
Even more intriguing than the debate itself (For the record, I’m not completely sold either way) is the passion it evokes in the debaters, especially those who believe that there are “clutch” hitters. Their outrage is a revealing window into the nature of fandom and the role that sports, in this case baseball specifically, play in the lives of sports fans.
I’m not talking about casual fans who watch or even attend a few games a year and check in on the standings now and then or fantasy leaguers who are more concerned with their imaginary teams than the real ones. I’m talking about the real fans, the die-hards.
For them sports are a religion, a source of structure and escape, a connection with other people and a feeling that they belong to something greater than themselves. Like any religion, sports have their own rules, regulations and etiquette, mantras and superstitions. They even have the requisite mythology and heroes to worship (think of all the plaques, statues, monuments and retired jerseys), along with villains to demean and disdain.
Mythology plays a greater role in baseball than any other major American sport because of its history. It wasn’t just America’s favorite pastime during the early and mid 20th century, it was more popular than all the other American sports combined. Before television and internet, radio and print shaped our images of giants of the game in a way no longer possible due to increased access to information.
Those heroes shared certain common characteristics, chief among them the almost super-human ability to raise their level of play in crucial situations, in other words, to be clutch. The concept was supported by references to specific instances or images, many of which have become imbedded in our collective memory, like Bobby Thompson’s home run or Carlton Fisk waving the ball fair.
Reggie Jackson rose to the occasion to hit three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, earning the moniker Mr. October. More recently, he’s been joined on Mount Clutchmore by another Yankee, Derek Jeter.
These heroes have been passed down from generation to generation, along with the magical numbers, records and streaks which have been used to define greatness and shape “conventional baseball wisdom.” Williams .400 season, Henderson’s stolen bases, triple crown winners, DiMiaggio’s hitting streak, Ryan’s no-hitters and the greatest of them all, Aaron’s 755 home runs, represented the pinnacle of success.
The media continues to create and enhance these legends. The drama of heroes and goats make for great headlines and compelling story lines. The press caters to what their audience is comfortable with, the old myths and wisdom. Most television broadcasts still display a hitter’s batting average, home runs and RBIs when he comes to the plate, even though we now know there are more telling statistics than batting average and RBIs.
It’s important to note that fans follow the game for different reasons. Some are infatuated by the mythology, records and statistics, as they understand them. Others love the intricacies of the game itself, the grip on a curveball, a perfectly executed double play or a batter working the count. The vast majority of fans incorporate a little bit of both schools of thought; it’s a question of which way they lean.
The great myth buster, sabermetrics, represented a revolutionary way of examining a player’s productivity and worth, based on objective analysis of empirical evidence. Its followers ruffled many feathers by pointing out inefficiencies in conventional baseball wisdom and questioning the significance of many of the holy numbers associated with the game’s patron saints.
Sabermetricians argued that it never makes sense to bunt, that errors are an inadequate means for measuring a player’s defensive ability and that stolen bases are over-valued. They concluded that batting average RBIs are relatively ineffective means of evaluating a hitter and that a batter’s worth should be determined by more meaningful statistics, such as on his on-base percentage and to a greater extent, OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage.)
Most egregiously, the sabermetricians have produced study after study claiming that “clutch” hitting does not exist. They argue that there’s no empirical evidence to demonstrate that certain players elevate their performance in crucial game situations. Sure, some players’ numbers are greater in the post-season, but that’s based on a small sample size.
To delve into sabermetrics takes a curiosity to explore another way of thinking, devoid of myth and memory. Those who have embraced the statistical revolution and still enjoy baseball either love the game as played on the field, statistics in general or both. They may succumb to fairy tales now and then, but it’s not the essence of their connection to the game.
Many adherents to conventional baseball wisdom have laughed off sabermetric findings, choosing to rely on myths, memories and perceptions instead. Like any extremely devout person, they don’t pick and choose which parts of the religion to follow, they adhere to every aspect of it. They cling to the concept of “clutch” because to do otherwise would be to question their faith.
Baseball the religion, goes to the core of their very being, so their reaction to someone questioning the tenets of the game evokes a visceral response. It’s a defense mechanism against what they perceive as an attack against their sense of self.
If they were to explore sabermetrics, they might not like what they find. When the preconceptions and myths fade away, they may realize that they don’t love the game itself as much as they thought they did. Then they’d have to find a new religion to clutch.