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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Clutch Hitting: Fact or Fiction?

Back from the Thanksgiving holiday I was alerted to this article on clutch hitting by a fellow SABR member. Interestingly, the author finds support for the existence of a clutch hitting using Retrosheet data. There are two interesting things about this study.

First, the size of the clutch hitting effect that was found is described by the author:

"Over the course of a season, an average hitter will get approximately 150 clutch plate appearances, in which he will get on base 49 times with a standard deviation due to randomness of 5.7. The difference between a 'one standard deviation good' and an average clutch hitter amounts to only 1.1 successful appearances, while the difference between a good and an average overall hitter amounts to 3.9 successful plate appearances."

In other words, the clutch hitting effect that was found was relatively small, 28% of the difference between a good and bad hitter, smaller than most baseball people would - assume I -think. This means that a hitter who normally hits .240 might hit .255 in clutch situations or a hitter that normally hits .270 might hit .285. Over the course of a season the random effects (note that the standard deviation is much larger than the difference between an average and a good clutch hitter) would thus swamp clutch ability which is why clutch hitting has been difficult to measure.

While this study is important it doesn't seem to me to contradict the basic conclusion of previous sabermetric studies that clutch hitting is largely a myth. See the following for more information:

Clutch Hitting And Experience
Clutch Hitting and Statistical Tests
Hitting with Runners in Scoring Position
Does Clutch Hitting Exist?

A second important point in the study is that the author found that power hitters tended to be poor clutch performers while contact hitters tend to be good clutch hitters. On this point the author notes:

"There was a great deal of discussion [on the Baseball Primer site in February 2004] as to whether or not the tendencies of power hitters was evidence that what I am measuring is not "cluch", but rather tendencies of various types of hitters against the types of pitching one would find in clutch situations. It is unclear how to prove or disprove this theory without knowing what types and quality of pitches each batter saw during his at-bat, but the fact that this correlation is less with higher-pressure situations would seem to suggest that the important part of the variation is not a function of hitter profile."

I'm not so sure I buy this argument. To me it seems that the correlation may well be higher in pressure situations because closers and other good relief pitchers who are leveraged in such situations have skills designed to get power hitters out. In other words, maybe relief pitchers are selected at some level because of their ability to retire hitters who can turn the game around with one swing. The fact that they're used in these situations may then account for much of the clutch ability that was found in the study.


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