Asking the Right Questions
By Phil Birnbaum
“Sabermetrics” is the search for objective knowledge about baseball through analysis of the statistical record. At its most basic, the evidence is just simple observation and counting. For instance, in early 2010, sabermetrician Dave Allen wondered if better hitters get fewer good pitches to hit. He looked at twenty of the best hitters in baseball, and twenty of the worst. He found that, at almost every ball-strike count, the better hitters were thrown fewer strikes and fewer fastballs. For instance, on 0-0, the worst hitters got 66% fastballs, while the best hitters saw only about 63%.
Not every question in sabermetrics is that simple. One of the most controversial questions in baseball statistical analysis is that of clutch hitting. Do some hitters have the ability to “turn it up” when the game is on the line, and perform better than usual? Do other hitters have the opposite tendency, hitting better when it doesn’t matter as much?
Many studies have been done on the topic, starting as many as 30 years ago. In 1977, Dick Cramer analyzed batting records from 1969 and 1970, and found only a very slight tendency for “clutch” players to repeat their performance in subsequent seasons. In 1990, Pete Palmer (PDF, page 6) studied clutch hitting over multiple seasons, and found that there were almost exactly as many apparent “clutch” and “choke” hitters as you would expect by luck, if clutch hitting skill didn’t exist at all.
A few years later, Tom Ruane repeated a version of Palmer’s study, using a larger dataset, and got roughly the same result.
Finally, in 2006, Andy Dolphin did a more sophisticated mathematical analysis, and found evidence for a very, very slight variation in how players varied in the clutch. But he concluded that it’s impossible to discover, with any degree of accuracy, which players are which, and that “for all practical purposes,” players should be expected to hit no better or worse in the clutch than their normal performance would suggest.
Sabermetrics is a science, which means that it follows the scientific method. Conclusions must be based on evidence and logic, and any conclusions can be re-evaluated or overturned if new, contradictory, evidence turns up. Right now, the evidence suggests that clutch skill is a very minor factor in player performance, if indeed it exists at all. It’s certainly possible that some future sabermetrician will find differing data, or a flaw in the previous studies, and force us to change our minds on the question. But if we do change our minds, it will be because of empirical evidence for the other side.