“Clutch”. LOL…

If you’ve read my stuff before or if you’ve ever chatted with me offline you know my feelings on the term “clutch”.  It’s nonsense.  It doesn’t exist.  It’s just a part of fans’, broadcasters’ and writers’ stories that are used around campfires, bars and with their kids. (“Let me tell you, Cody, you think that Springer kid on Houston is clutch, you should have seen Brian Doyle!”).  But telling the kids about the Easter bunny has the same level of veracity as telling them that Jeter was better than A-Rod because “he was clutch”.

I want to get to the fun part of this blog, so I’ll give you a quick recap of why the concept of clutch is silly and then I’ll indulge everyone’s desire for storytelling, mine included.

I’ve said it before, if you believe in a player being clutch then you believe that a) that player is clairvoyant and b) he can turn it on and off, succeed or fail, based on when he chooses to do so.

  1. The player is clairvoyant.

A player batting in the top of the first would have to know that his team won’t score 10 unanswered runs (or allow 10 unanswered) over the next few innings.  Because if either of those things happens, the current at-bat doesn’t mean very much.  If those things don’t happen, this at-bat (tie game, the best part of the lineup due up) is a pretty big spot.

What about later on in the game?  In game 1 of the NLCS, Milwaukee’s Jesus Aguilar hit a solo home run in the bottom of 7th and was credited with the game-winning RBI in a hard fought 6-5 Brewers win.  Pretty clutch, huh?

Except it was 5-1 Brewers when he hit it.  What made Aguilar’s home run a clutch one was that the Brewers bullpen allowed 4 runs.  That is something that obviously, Aguilar could not have predicted.  Ironically, if Aguilar’s teammates had pitched well, he would’ve been accused of being “not clutch” because he hit a solo, tack on, meaningless, home run in a game that was pretty much over.  Which leads me too…

Even if Aguilar and other clutch players are clairvoyant, you’re assuming…

  1. A player can choose when to succeed.

If the theory is that certain players have a mental toughness, acuity, fortitude, whatever – that allows them to succeed in pressure situations then why can’t they be that mentally sharp and tough all the time?  If you think they can, then you’re saying that David Freese really could be as good as A-Rod, but just couldn’t focus during the 3,500 other at-bats of his career that weren’t in clutch situations.  Maybe – just spitballing here – when baseball players fail, it’s because baseball is very, very, very difficult.  Maybe the other guy is real God Damned good.  Maybe the reason Carlos Beltran watched strike three against Adam Wainwright is that Wainwright’s curveball is sick.  Maybe Giancarlo Stanton whiffed against Craig Kimbrel because Kimbrel is very, very good at what he does and gets paid a lot of money to do it.

OK.  Rant over…for now…

That being said, I know most fans (myself included) like to wax poetic about clutch players and clutch performances, so let’s get to the fun stuff.

Below is a chart I stole from Tom Tango.  It lists the players with the all-time best and worst Win Probability Added (WPA) in postseason games.  Again, I don’t like WPA, but the nerds use it to put a number on clutch so it’ll due for the purposes of discussion.  (If it’s new to you, let me know, I’ll give you the quick 411 on how it’s calculated.)

One of the things I found interesting is how many of our perceptions about who was clutch were dead on accurate.  Others…well, not so much.  Again, our recollections of clutch are based on our perceptions and are often wrong because we remember singular instances and conveniently forget…ugh, never mind, I’ll stop.

Here’s what I noticed, in no particular order:

  • Mariano Rivera is by FAR the most clutch player to ever play. Not only is his WPA more than three and a half times that of any other player ever, but you also have to consider that unlike batters, he couldn’t hit a 3 run HR which has a huge impact on WPA.  Mo could only mow down (like what I did there?) one batter after another, splintering one bat handle after another, batter after batter, inning after inning, game after game, season after season.
  • Among batters, David Ortiz is the most clutch player in postseason history. Writing that made me nauseous.
  • I bet most people would get these wrong: Barry Bonds was more clutch than George Springer. Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, and Bill Mueller are among the worst postseason players ever.
  • Quick question: If you were managing the World Series tomorrow, and you could put either of these pitching combinations on your team, who would you take? a) Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina, or b) Bob Gibson and Randy Johnson?  My guess is anyone who believes in clutch would go with “b”, and it turns out they’d probably lose.  Both Clemens and Mussina were better in the postseason than Gibson and Johnson.  (In fact, Clemens was also better in the postseason than Justin Verlander and Josh Beckett – two other go-to pitchers for the clutch crowd.)

Again, just a talking point, but a cool talking point.  If there’s anything on the chart that jumps out at you, let me know.

Thanks again to Tom Tango for the chart (below).  And if you have difficulty seeing the numbers, blame him.

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