SABR

Clutch Hitting in the Major Leagues: A Psychological Perspective

By Leonard S. Newman

This article was published in the Fall 2013 Baseball Research Journal.

In the 2011 postseason, David Freese made a name for himself with his spectacular and timely hitting and won both the National League Championship Series and World Series MVP awards. It cannot be denied: Freese hit well in the clutch that October. But would it have been reasonable to expect the same from him in the future? Is he in fact a “clutch hitter”? Do clutch hitters even exist?

Sabermetricians have been arguing about the reality of clutch hitting for quite some time now (see, for example, the special section of the 2008 issue of the Baseball Research Journal). At this point, an impressive group of sophisticated researchers has carefully analyzed large data sets using a variety of statistical methods to test the hypothesis that some players consistently outperform others in high-pressure situations. For example, Phil Birnbaum analyzed batting data from the years 1974 through 1990 to test for the consistency of players’ clutch hitting from one season to the next. 1 A clutch hit was defined as one occurring in the “seventh inning or later, tied or down by three runs or less, unless the bases are loaded, in which case down by 4 runs.” For all players with at least 50 at bats in clutch situations, batting averages in clutch situations (corrected for batting averages in non-clutch situations) were calculated, and consistency across consecutive seasons was assessed with a simple linear regression analysis.

Needless to say, however one defines and measures clutch hitting, for any given season, some players will have higher scores than others. Those players can without argument be said to have hit better in the clutch during that baseball season. But if clutch hitting is not just subject to random variation, and if some individual players are truly more “clutch” than others, then those players should consistently perform well in the clutch relative to other players—just as extroverted people are consistently more extroverted than introverts, and honest people are consistently more honest than dishonest people. But Birnbaum found no evidence for that sort of consistency.

Although there is some disagreement about the correct interpretation of these and related findings, the following would arguably be a consensus statement: Clutch hitting either does not exist or is a marginal, difficult-to-detect phenomenon that accounts for only a tiny amount of the variance in batting performance.2 Birnbaum’s samples, for example, were large enough so that even correlations as low as approximately .17 would have reached conventional levels of statistical significance. Relationships of that magnitude are not very impressive, and are typically not “perceptible on the basis of casual observation.” 3

Note that even if compelling evidence were presented for the existence of clutch hitting, that would not necessarily mean that what observers perceive to be clutch hitting is real, and not an illusion. The effects of being “clutch” on performance could be so tiny that they would not necessarily even correlate with people’s subjective assessments of individual players’ clutch hitting abilities. People’s intuitions about both the presence and meaning of patterns in athletic performance are often flawed. For example, ample research has demonstrated that the “hot hand” in basketball—the increased likelihood of players making a successful shot if their previous shot was successful—is more illusory than real.4

However, two aspects of the debate over the existence of clutch hitting, while they might seem to go without saying, arguably have important ramifications for the question “does clutch hitting exist?” First, the question “does clutch hitting exist?” can essentially be rephrased as “do some hitters have psychological characteristics that enhance their performance in high pressure situations?” Second, published research on the topic has actually addressed the question “does clutch hitting exist at the major league level?” That might in fact be the question of most interest to researchers, but SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research) is not SAMLBR (the Society for American Major League Baseball Research).

In tandem, those two observations highlight the fact that existing research has, for all intents and purposes, been based on the assumption that major league ballplayers vary significantly in the psychological characteristics associated with clutch hitting. What might those characteristics be? And is it reasonable to expect major leaguers to represent different levels of those characteristics? If not, what are the implications for the search to find convincing and replicable evidence for clutch hitting?

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF CLUTCH PERFORMERS
What traits (that is, stable dispositions) might be especially pronounced in players who perform exceptionally well in the clutch? The following is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all possible personal characteristics, but the three I focus on here represent three general ways in which clutch hitters might stand out from others—specifically, in terms of their affective, cognitive, and/or motivational qualities.

Trait anxiety. Anxiety, of course, is a state that certain experiences trigger in people. Everyone has encountered situations that are threatening, challenging, and unpredictable enough to at least temporarily trigger somatic effects like increased heart rate and perspiration, trembling, or even, in extreme cases, nausea. Situations in which a person’s social reputation and self-esteem are at stake are especially potent sources of anxiety—situations like those involving publicly observable athletic performances taking place when the outcome of a contest is at stake.

Some people, though, are less prone to experiencing anxiety than others; such people are said to be low in trait anxiety. 5 These individuals have been found to be less susceptible than others to stress-induced deterioration of performance. Relative to athletes high in trait anxiety, those low in trait anxiety should thus consistently perform better in clutch situations. Although direct evidence involving baseball players is lacking, this hypothesis has been supported in the context of other sports, such as basketball. 6 7

Self-consciousness. In high-pressure athletic situations, your attention should of course be focused on the task at hand (e.g., hitting the pitched ball). You could, though, attend to other things, such as whether or not other people are observing you, and what they might be thinking about you. In addition, you could carefully monitor your own internal states to determine how confident you are feeling or how you are reacting physiologically to the situation. You might also pay careful attention to the positions of your limbs (for example, focusing on your batting stance and how you are gripping the bat).

People high in self-consciousness are those who are most prone to let their attention drift to those other things and to become acutely self-aware in high-pressure situations. Unfortunately, becoming preoccupied with one’s physical, psychological, and/or social self can undermine one’s performance. Indeed, dispositional self-consciousness has been found to be negatively correlated with performance under pressure.8Relative to baseball players high in self-consciousness, those low in self-consciousness should consistently perform better in clutch situations.

Achievement motivation. Coming through in the clutch and playing a central role in your team’s victory is a major accomplishment, and ballplayers who hit walkoff home runs are more respected and celebrated than those who hit home runs in the ninth inning of a 13–1 blowout. When Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner tagged Dave Winfield “Mister May” the nature of the criticism—by comparing him to “Mister October” Reggie Jackson—was clear to everyone. Similarly, most baseball fans remember Francisco Cabrera’s two-out pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game Seven of the 1992 National League Championship Series; the two runs he knocked in won the game, the series, and the pennant. Fewer fans, it can be assumed, remember that that was his only hit of the series, and it is unlikely that many could identify the Braves’ leading hitter for the series: Mark Lemke, with a .333 batting average. He knocked in two runs also—but one was in the Braves’ 5–1 victory in Game One and the other in their 13–5 victory in Game Two.

But people differ in terms of how strongly they desire to overcome challenges, outperform others, and stand out from their peers. In other words, there are individual differences in achievement motivation.9

According to an influential definition of this personal characteristic, it is associated with "intense, prolonged and repeated efforts to accomplish something difficult,” having “the determination to win,” enjoying competition, and being “stimulated to excel by the presence of others.”10 Relative to baseball players low in achievement motivation, those high in achievement motivation should consistently perform better in clutch situations.

MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYERS: AN EXTREME POPULATION
If clutch hitting is related to the personality traits described above (and related ones), and if major league ballplayers vary in terms of their consistent ability to hit in the clutch, then it follows that major league ballplayers must also vary in terms of those traits. Is that a reasonable expectation? Data from a battery of personality tests administered to major leaguers would answer that question. Such data, alas, do not exist. But an educated guess is still possible.

Consider, for example, what one can learn from SABR’s Biography Project (BioProject) website.11 There is, of course, no shortage of sources of information about Hall of Fame caliber ballplayers or other perennial All Stars. But the BioProject is notable for its exhaustively researched stories about players who might be memorable to passionate baseball fans, but who are far from household names. Consider, if you will, the following quartet: Ken Frailing, Duffy Dyer, Dalton Jones, and Jerry Adair (selected for, among other things, being prominent in the baseball card collections of my youth). Collectively, they represent 41 years of major league service—and also, a grand total of zero All Star Game appearances. None ever led the league in a significant batting or pitching category (although Adair grounded into the most double plays in the American League in 1965). With the exception of Adair, none ever received a single MVP Award vote.

Of course, all had one other distinguishing characteristic: they were extraordinarily talented athletes. Frailing, for example, had an eye-popping 13–0 record with an ERA of 0.17 during his senior year in high school. That same school later selected him as their “Athlete of the Century.” Dyer, when he was in high school in Arizona, was recognized “as one of the state’s top ballplayers,” and he led his team to a state championship in 1963. Dalton Jones also led his high school team to the state championship game (in Louisiana)—but scouts had already started “flocking around” him when he was 14 years old. As for Adair, “no athlete from Oklahoma had a more storied preprofessional career than Adair, not even Mickey Mantle.” A sportswriter in Oklahoma describes him as “the best athlete to come out of the Tulsa area in his lifetime.”12

In short, even unremarkable major league baseball players are elite performers. To reach the major leagues, players undergo an extremely rigorous selection process. In fact, given the number of people who would find a career in professional sports to be appealing, the reference group used to evaluate their aptitude for the game is essentially most of the male population of the United States (and increasingly, a number of other countries as well).

It could conceivably be the case that once a player reaches the majors, the level of pressure and the stakes
involved rise to levels that players have not previously experienced, and so the threshold at which different
psychological limitations and vulnerabilities might matter are reached for the first time. Nonetheless, anyone with characteristics that inhibit top-flight performance— either physical or psychological ones—will be weeded out well before the call-up to the majors. Although no direct evidence is available, high levels of trait anxiety and low levels of achievement motivation are unlikely to be found among men on major league rosters. The same is true of high levels of selfconsciousness; indeed, the rare exceptions to that rule are notable enough to have become legendary, as in the “Steve Blass Disease,” or the “Steve Sax Syndrome.” Professional ballplayers who suddenly become incapable of completing routine plays report that their problems are associated with excruciating self-awareness. As Dale Murphy put it, “Your mind interferes, and you start thinking, Where am I throwing? What am I doing? instead of just throwing. Your mind starts working against you.”13

STATISTICAL IMPLICATIONS
To ask, “Do some hitters have psychological characteristics that enhance their performance in high pressure situations?” is to ask the question, “Is the relationship between game situation (high stakes, low stakes) and batting performance (hitting safely, knocking in runs) moderated by psychological variables?” Moderator variables are variables that affect the relationship between two other variables (in this case, game situation and performance); in other words, moderation is in evidence when the relationship between two variables depends on a third variable. But if that third variable hardly varies, it is not much of a variable, and it cannot be a moderator. That point can probably be understood intuitively, but it can also be formalized in statistical terms. Moderation is typically assessed with a multiple regression analysis. Essentially, one tries to predict or estimate a dependent variable, Y (e.g., performance), on the basis of an independent variable or variables, X (e.g., game situation), a moderating variable, M (e.g., trait anxiety, self-consciousness, achievement motivation), and most crucially, the interaction of X and M (XM). One or more of the predictor variables might account for statistically significant variance in the dependent variable.

However, a variable that itself has little or no variance cannot account for variance in another one. Thus, if M does not vary across observations, it (and the interaction term, XM) drops out of the equation, and there can be no moderation effect. All that would be left in the statistical model would be a general estimate of how well batters in general perform in clutch versus non-clutch situations.

LOOKING FOR CLUTCH HITTING IN THE RIGHT PLACES: A CHALLENGE AND PREDICTION
An implication of this analysis is that clutch hitting is unlikely to be detected in data from the major leagues; major league batters simply do not vary enough in terms of the personal qualities that would lead some to perform better and some to perform worse in the clutch. Unmotivated, highly self-conscious men with trouble controlling anxiety are unlikely to be found on the rosters of teams in the American and National Leagues.

There is, however, no reason clutch hitting should not exist in populations of baseball players for whom the relevant moderating variables are associated with a significant amount of variance. In other words, clutch hitting should be detectable at lower levels of competition, among players who have not undergone the rigorous selection process experienced by major leaguers. Among such players one could reasonably expect to find people with relatively high levels of anxiety and self-consciousness and low levels of achievement motivation.

Assembling an appropriate data set, however, could be quite a challenge. To assess consistency in clutch hitting at a particular level of competition in a manner consistent with past investigations of the phenomenon, one must find a reasonably large group of batters who (1) stay at that level for more than one year, and (2) accrue enough plate appearances during each of those years to provide a reliable and valid performance measure. Minor league rosters, however, are quite unstable from year to year. In addition, those players who stay mired at a particular level might differ in systematic ways from those who do not, and thus might not be a representative sample of ballplayers. Another possible source of data might be high school baseball, but high school teams do not play enough games in a given year to satisfy the second criterion.

More promising would be college baseball. Players in college have multi-year careers, and their teams play dozens of games—enough so that players end seasons with hundreds of at-bats. In addition, although most people would not have a realistic chance of making the cut for a college team, it is still the case that the physical skills and psychological attributes required at this level are not what they have to be at the major league level.

As a result, with a fair amount of confidence, I end this essay with the following prediction: if anyone can construct a data set involving a large number of college players who had substantial amounts of playing time across multiple seasons, and conducts a “Cramer test” of the kind conducted by Birnbaum, evidence for stable levels of clutch hitting will be detected.14 A failure to find such evidence would not, of course, provide definitive evidence that the phenomenon of clutch hitting is nonexistent. It could instead suggest that the standard criteria for distinguishing between highpressure batting situations and less pressured ones do not correspond closely enough to how batters directly experience those situations. In other words, faced with null data (that is, a failure to detect the existence of consistent clutch hitting), one might choose to re-examine standard definitions of clutch hitting. But the odds of finding straightforward, unambiguous evidence for clutch hitting would seem to be much more favorable for almost any other sample of batters other than major leaguers.

LEONARD S. NEWMAN is Associate Professor of Psychology at Syracuse University, where he is the director of the social psychology program. He is also the editor of the journal "Basic and Applied Social Psychology." His father grew up in Manhattan rooting for the Giants, and his mother is from Brooklyn—so needless to say, he’s a Mets fan.

  • 1. Phil Birnbaum, “Clutch Hitting and the Cramer Test,” Baseball Research Journal 37 (2008): 71–75.
  • 2. Bill James (2008), “Mapping the Fog,” Baseball Research Journal 37, 76–81; P. Birnbaum, “Response to ‘Mapping the Fog,’” Baseball Research Journal 37, 82–84.
  • 3. Jacob Cohen (1977), Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences (79). New York: Academic Press.
  • 4. Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone, and Amos Tversky (1985). “The Hot Hand in Basketball: On the Misperception of Random Sequences,” Cognitive Psychology 3, 295–314; Alan Reifman (2012), Hot Hand: The Statistics Behind Sports Greatest Streaks. Washington, DC: Potomac Books.
  • 5. Michael W. Eysenck (1997), “Anxiety and Cognition: A Unified Theory,” East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.
  • 6. Sian L. Beilock & Rob Gray, “Why Do Athletes Choke Under Pressure?” In Gershon Tenenbaum and Robert C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology (3rd Ed.) (Hoboken, NJ US: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2007), 425–44.
  • 7. Guiying Hu, Baihua Xu, & QI Xu (2008). “An Experimental Study on the ‘Choking’ Psychological Mechanism of Adolescent Basketball Players,” Psychological Science (China), 31, 528–31; J. Wang, D. Marchant, T. Morris, & P. Gibbs, “Self-Consciousness and Trait Anxiety as Predictors of Choking in Sport,” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 7 (2004): 174–85.
  • 8. Sian L. Beilock & Rob Gray, “Why Do Athletes Choke Under Pressure?” In Gershon Tenenbaum & Robert C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology (3rd Ed.) (Hoboken, NJ US: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2007), 425–44; Georgia Panayiotou, “Chronic Self-Consciousness and Its Effects on Cognitive Performance, Physiology, and Self-Reported Anxiety,” Representative Research In Social Psychology 28 (2005): 21–34; J. Wang, D. Marchant, T. Morris, and P. Gibbs, “Self-consciousness and trait anxiety as predictors of choking in sport,” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 7 (2004): 174–185.
  • 9. Joan L. Duda, “Motivation in Sport: The Relevance of Competence and Achievement Goals,” in Andrew J. Elliot and Carol S. Dweck (Eds.), Handbook of Competence and Motivation (New York, NY US: Guilford Publications, 2005), 318–35; Andrew J. Elliot & Holly A. McGregor, “A 2×2 achievement goal framework,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (2001): 501–19.
  • 10. Henry A. Murray, Explorations in Personality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), 164.
  • 11. http://sabr.org/bioproject
  • 12. All quotations and information about the players discussed in this paragraph were retrieved from the SABR Baseball Biography Project at http://sabr.org/bioproject
  • 13. Richard Demak (1991, April 8), “Mysterious Malady.” Sports Illustrated.
  • 14. Richard D. Cramer (1977), “Do Clutch Hitters Exist?,” Baseball Research Journal, 6, 74–79.
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