Balls, Sticks, & Stuff
8/10/2004
 
The Cone of Silence
Clutch hitting in baseball remains an enigma. For decades, it was assumed that clutch hitting was a skill or talent. Everyone can remember a time when a star player (more often than not star players are often thought to be clutch hitters) came up to the plate in an important situation and delivered with a base hit, scoring a runner or runners from second and/or third base. And because we can all remember such instances over the decades of modern baseball, we assume that there is such a thing as the talent for hitting in the clutch.

Then came Bill James and sabermetrics. James and others like him proved over and over again, statistically, that clutch hitting was really nothing more than luck. It's an idea that has spread because it tends to make sense when you look at the batting averages of particular batters season by season. One year, a player can be around .225, the next jump up to .305, and then down to .270. Did that player learn how to hit in the clutch one year and then sort of lose it the next? Probably not, it must just be statistical randomness, or noise as statisticians call it. But if clutch hitting is a myth, then why do we label certain players as clutch hitters? Because we tend to remember important events better than unimportant ones. A Bobby Abreu single with a runner on second to win a game in the bottom of the 9th inning is going to be more memorable than the RBI single he hits in the 4th inning when the Phillies are down by 5 runs. And for some reason, we don't remember the way Ryan Madson came in and shut down an opponents rally the way we remember the game winning hits. After all isn't a situation that is thought of to be clutch for a hitter also a clutch situation for the pitcher he is facing? Seen any clutch pitching studies lately?

So clutch hitting is a myth, right? Maybe. Statistical studies recently mentioned in a Hardball Times article suggest that there may actually be something to clutch hitting, it may be measurable and it may be significant. But that isn't why even the most sabermetrically-minded Phillies fans might be beginning to believe it might be true. They look at the .243 batting average the Phillies hitters have in 977 at-bats so far this year with runners in scoring position, ranking 14th in the National League despite ranking 4th in on-base percentage. If clutch hitting is just statistical noise, then Phillies hitting with runners in scoring position is the statistical equivalent of Agent Maxwell Smart's Cone of Silence. For a team to perform that poorly in the clutch is more than just bad luck. After 977 AB's, the luck should begin to sort itself out and the Phillies would be hitting much closer to their .261 batting average for the season overall.

It could be the manager that is the problem, or it could be the players as some have suggested. It's entirely possible, and even more likely, that the problems are both. It is too late for team general manager Ed Wade or team president David Montgomery to fix these issues for the 2004 season. If the Phillies are to make the playoffs, the team will have to overcome the issues without altering personnel, but by altering attitude and approach at the plate.



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