Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus (05/19/01)
How many times have you heard a player referred to as a "clutch hitter" by announcers and/or analysts? He comes through for his team when the chips are down despite the deck being stacked against him. Until recently, there was a widespread belief that certain players could elevate their level of play through sheer will in crucial situations frequently enough so as to demonstrate a skill in doing so. Tony Perez, Steve Garvey and Eddie Murray to name a few have been labeled as clutch hitters because they were able to come through when the situation required it most.
Or was this simply a misperception?
In the last couple of years, the Horde of Statistical Verisimilitude (my new appellation for the statistical elite), led by some celebrated "sabermetricians" has announced with no degree of uncertainty that that they have conclusive proof that the clutch hitter does not exist. They cite that these instances where a player comes through in the clutch are only isolated occurrences and when looking at the broad spectrum of at bats, do not show up as a distinct ability. They insist that from year to year, there is no consistency in who hits better with the game on the line. Their formula shows that no one consistently has a better batting average in late inning pressure situations than they do in all other situations.
But is that actually what they showed?
All of their research has focused on looking at how a player has done in late inning situations as compared to how he's done in all other situations. However, this method is intrinsically flawed; it is comparing apples to oranges. If they were looking to prove or disprove the "legend of the clutch hitter", it might help if they looked in the right place.
Basic Building Blocks
Let's break it down.
A batter comes to the plate on average between 3 and 4 times per game. The first time he comes to the plate, he faces a fresh starter. Even if he has faced him before, the batter does not know what pitches he has confidence in that day. Nor does he know the pitcher's game plan. In essence, he is merely reacting to what the pitcher has to offer. Sure, he can try to guess what the pitcher is gonna throw next, but he has little or no information on which to base his guess. He's playing Lotto with this at bat.
The second time up, he's probably gonna be facing the same pitcher. This time however, he's seen what the pitcher has working for him and has a better idea of how the pitcher is trying to work the batters. This time, the hitter has knowledge on his side. He knows what happened in his first at bat: what pitch he got out on or what pitch he hit and the sequence that led to the result. With that in his favor, this time the hitter can do a little better guessing and look for a pitch and a zone, rather than simply react.
The third time up, there's still a good chance he'll be facing the same guy. He'll have even more information to work with, only this time he'll have the added advantage that the pitcher is now tiring.
The fourth time up and probably every time up after is where the late inning pressure situations occur. Unfortunately for the batter, these will be his toughest at bats. There are three reasons why.
1) He'll be facing a new and fresh pitcher. By this time, the batter is probably starting to feel fatigue from having played the full game.
2) Not only is he coming into a situation very much like his first at bat, where his information about the pitcher is limited, but he will more than likely be facing a pitcher who's especially equipped to get him out, i.e., if he's a left-handed hitter, he'll more than likely be facing a left-handed pitcher.
3) The game is on the line. If he did not succeed in his first couple of at bats, there is always a chance to redeem oneself in a later at bat. If he doesn't succeed here, the game is likely over.
So what makes a late inning situation so difficult is not necessarily the fact the it's late in the game, but because more often than not, the pitcher a hitter is facing in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings is different from the one he faced in the first six. The added prospect that failure to perform means losing only adds to the difficulty. If someone wants to prove something about hitting in the clutch, then they need to compare how a hitter does in precisely each situation.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
Logically, hitters shouldn't generally fare well the first time they see a pitcher. They should get most of their hits later in the game as they become more familiar with the pitcher. Even if it's a pitcher the batter is very familiar with, the first time at bat will be tougher than later at bats versus the same pitcher. He doesn't know which pitches the pitcher is throwing well that day, which ones he has confidence in or what the game plan is against him. And thanks to the numerous strikezones that populate the majors these days, he also doesn't know which pitches the umpire is calling for strikes. But as the game progresses, he gains that knowledge and is better equipped to react.
Unfortunately, I don't have the individual stats by at bat to prove this is true. However, I can offer this: count how many times have you seen a no-hitter in your life? OK, now how many more times have you seen a no-hitter through 6 innings? And how many more time than that times have you seen a no-hitter through 3? The fact is that the more a hitter sees a pitcher in a given game, the better chance he has of getting a hit. With each opportunity he has, he has more knowledge and more factors working in his favor. So in all likelyhood, his batting average in his first at bat versus a pitcher is much lower than it is in his second, third and successive at bats.
If this is true, a hitter who hits better in late inning pressure (clutch) situations - where he's facing a new pitcher in a tougher situation - than he does in his first at bat of the game is performing above his career norms. If there are hitters who do this on a regular basis and from season to season (and I believe there are), then I'm pretty sure that'd qualify as substantial evidence for the existence of clutch hitters.
However, if someone knows of a database that offers a breakdown of each hitter by at bat, please email me. I'd really like to leave no doubt about it and prove this theory conclusively with irrefutable statistical evidence.
Now We're Cooking with Gas
There were twenty-three .400 seasons before 1931. And one since. Wanna know why so many guys hit .400 in the early part of the 20th century? Because of the way game was played - fewer walks, strikeouts and home runs which cause pitch counts to rise dramatically - pitchers could throw complete game more easily. With a pitcher on the mound for the full game, batter would get 4 and 5 looks at him in a game. Given that amount of information about an opponent, .400 isn't really an unbelievable accomplishment. Today, a hitter is lucky to see the same pitcher more than 3 times a game these days. For a hitter to hit .400 today, THAT would be an unbelievable accomplishment.
However, one batter just may do that with his approach to the game. Presently, Ichiro Suzuki, this year's Mariner's import from Japan, is making a run at not only .400, but the all-time at bats and hits record for a season. As of today, he's on pace to get more than 750 at bats and finish with more than 270 hits. The records are 705 at bats and 257 hits. The reasons he's in a position to make a run like this is that he's batting lead-off, he's a good hitter, and his team gets on base enough to get him four or five at bats per game. Granted, he still has the obstacle of facing different pitchers late in the game. But because of his style and the Mariner line-up's current success, he's almost guaranteed to get three at bats versus the opposition's starter, sometimes four. With that in his favor, it's not inconceivable that he could break those marks.
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