When I hear someone speak of a player in any sport being “clutch”, I automatically hear the voice of Vince Vaughn in Swingers saying “Baby, you’re so clutch, and you don’t even know it.” And then I want to gag just a little. The concept that someone can even be “clutch” deserves some debate, but let us save that one for another time, eh? For now, try contenting ourselves with an attempt to redefine the attribute.
In the traditional sense, a “clutch” player has a penchant for performing at a high level in high leverage situations. In purely baseball terms, such situations may include (but not be limited to) the following:
- Game tied in late innings and a player either finds a way to get on base or drives in a run to chance the win probability to a significant degree
- Team trailing in the latter stage of a game, and a player scores or drives in the tying or tying plus go ahead run(s)
- Bases loaded with 1 out, and a pitcher enters the game and gets the much-needed double play
You get the picture which makes it unnecessary to go into greater detail about all the potential “clutch” situations. Why limit the concept of “clutch” to late inning situations only? Why narrow the scope so quickly to situations involving men on base? While the leverage index for a given late inning situation certainly warrants special consideration, focusing on that aspect alone leaves out so many other potential opportunities to be clutch.
Consider the first inning when the win probability chart has yet to swing greatly in one direction or another. With 2 outs, a player hits a soft liner down the right field line and runs it out into a double. The next hitter then cleanly singles to right-center, and the man on second base scores. The game eventually ends 3 hours later at 1-0. In retrospect, maybe the double in the first inning was clutch, because it came with 2 outs. More likely, the RBI single deserves the moniker, because the run determined the outcome of the game. What about the pitcher or pitchers who made that 1 run lead stand up for the rest of the game? How “clutch” was that pitcher or those pitchers?
Imagine the same scenario as above, but the trailing team eventually scores 2 runs in the 3rd inning and goes on to win 2-1. Does the starting pitcher get credit for being “clutch” as a reward for keeping his team in the game until the offense could get something going? Where does just “performing” cross the “clutchness” line? Some might say that the “late and close” scenario counts as part of the “clutch” category.
That might help a relief pitcher who throws say….15 pitches get that all important win, but it does practically nothing for the starting pitcher who may have throw 6 innings and given up only a run or two. For that person, “late and close” matters only in the context of the team getting the desired result. However, the outcome and the relative satisfaction of the person who did the heavy lifting may be secured sooner rather than later. How about “early and often”? The traditional definition of “clutch” omits the ground rule double in the first inning or maybe the leadoff home run in the second inning that may turn out to be the winning run. Even with the “clutch” factor lacking, the starting pitcher probably appreciated pitching with the lead. Of course, that warm, fuzzy feeling does not show up in the box score the next day.
Neither does the term “clutch”, because it represents a fabricated attempt to explain luck, skill, and/or a sudden change in outcome probability. Maybe that definition for “clutch” has more relevance than the traditional one. Any action that suddenly changes the perceived outcome probability to a significant degree MAY be considered “clutch”, regardless of when that event occurs. Note that I used the word “may”, because we could debate for days the semantics used in defining a term in baseball. That player who tripled into the right field corner to clear the bases in the 3rd inning? He’s soooo clutch, and he doesn’t even know it….yet.