Why "Clutch" Isn't Really A Thing

With the MLB playoffs ongoing, the term “clutch” is being thrown around more than ever. Clutch is a media narrative in sports for coming up big in the perceived big moments of a game. This has always been flawed logic and lazy analysis for many reasons. The clutch bias is that the biggest moments of the game are in late innings or in the last quarter of a game. In reality, often times the biggest at-bat in a baseball game can be in the fifth inning or the biggest play in a football game can be in the first half. This is an example of why closers are very misued in baseball. Also, clutch is a confirmation bias for the media. The media chooses what it wants you to remember about every player.

David Ortiz was being lauded by the media as one of the great clutch players in MLB history after his game tying grand slam in the 8th inning of game 2 of the ALCS. In reality, Ortiz is just an outstanding hitter and is not more clutch or less clutch than any other hitter. In fact, his career slash line in late & close games (.260/.373/.502/.875) is worse than his career slash line (.287/.381/.549/.930).

It is a myth that Ortiz raises his game to another level in the postseason. His postseason slash line (.281/.392.536/.927) is about as close to his career slash line that I just mentioned before as you can get. So Ortiz is just being the same outstanding hitter in the postseason that he has been in the regular season. However, that is not as interesting of a story as Ortiz being one of the most clutch players in MLB history. So, the media sells that to fans and the naive ones soak it up when just a little research would show it to be false.

The media also uses confirmation bias to fit their clutch narrative. Does anybody remember when Ortiz came up with the game tying run on base in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS and he grounded out? Does anybody remember when Ortiz went 1-12 with four strikeouts in 2009 when Boston was swept? Of course not, because the media will never point that out.

Meanwhile, the media will have you think Alex Rodriguez is an unclutch bum when his playoff slash line (.263/.369/.464/.833) is not bad at all and his career slash line in late & close games (.274/..373/.523/.896) is better than Ortiz’s. That is the confirmation bias.

This is not meant to be a knock on Ortiz at all, as he is one of the best hitters of this generation. It is a knock that such lazy analysis is so readily accepted. Baseball is a team game and one big hit at the end of the game is not the sole reason a team won or lost that game.

Quarterbacks in football are another great example since they get judged on wins when it is a team stat. Eli Manning has escaped media criticism for a horrible season because of two previous Super Bowls and that he is perceived to be clutch. When in reality one of them was a result as one of the luckiest plays of all time and Asante Samuel dropping a game clinching interception the play before. However, the media does not want you to remember those things.

These perceived clutch situations are very small sample sizes, which is why they should not be looked at over the big picture. There is an element of randomness in baseball because one player does not have control over the result of every swing or every pitch. Past clutch failures will not predict future performance in clutch situations. However, the media will never account for luck and randomness because it does not make for a great story.

Ortiz is an outstanding hitter, but he is not a clutch one because in reality there is no such thing as clutch. It is perceived and the media desperately wants you to think that it does, but all it takes is a little research and common sense to disprove it.