The Legend of Clutch

Colin has an excellent post over at The Other Fifteen discussing the importance of narrative in how we watch and talk about baseball.

Now, when we discuss baseball statistics, what we’re really talking about is an aggregation of these records; we take the events and collect them. That’s true about the old-school triple crown stats – batting average, home runs and runs batted in – or the “new age” VORP and Win Shares. Baseball statistics are, at their heart, simply a summary of what occurred on the field of play.

But when we collect statistics in that way, we tend to do so in a way that dissociates them from their narrative context. A player’s VORP counts hits against a hated division rival in the midst of a tight race exactly the same as hits against a 30-year-old journeyman pitcher playing out the string for a basement dweller in September. Baseball statistics don’t seem to have any understanding of the fact that Yankees players are attractive, handsome stars, and that Kansas City Royals players… aren’t. There isn’t a baseball stat that measure how athletic and, really, balletic Derek Jeter looks when he does that mid-air throw or dives for a ground ball.

And yet all of those things are important, if not essential, in forming a narrative of a baseball season. All of those things add a sense of excitement and drama to baseball. And they’re the things that first attracted most of us to baseball – yes, even the Dread Sabermetricians.

He goes on to suggest that the very human need for a narrative is what leads to an inordinate focus on clutch performance and clutch performers. He offers a truce to sportswriters – declaring he’ll stop proclaiming that clutch isn’t real if they refrain from relying upon it as THE key piece of evaluating a player.

I think Colin hits the nail on the head with the importance of the story arc to our enjoyment of the game and the perceived conflict with statistics. I’m not yet ready to throw in the towel and say the two positions are incompatible though. I know there haven’t been any studies that have clearly identified clutch performers, but that merely suggests a lack of skill rather than proves it (something we all know deep down, but Bill James still felt the need to point out because we sure weren’t acting like that was the case). And I’m not completely on board with WPA – but that’s mainly due to how it’s calculated rather than any deep-seated angst against the concept of context-sensitive value.

The problem I see with Colin’s approach to resolving the stalemate between believers and non-believers is that it doesn’t resolve anything. He admits this himself, saying “This isn’t a cry for fusion, or balance, or peaceful coexistence.” But his call for a truce ends the conversation. Each side can continue happy in their supposed knowledge with little to no challenge. With no challenge, there’s often no learning. And both sides will be poorer for it.

Hat Tip: The Book Blog

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