Friday, June 02, 2006

A response to RickShuBlues RE: clutch

I was going to post this under my previous entry, but it ran a little long, so it became an entry itself. Rick made several good points in responding to the idea that "clutch" might not exist. Excerpt:

To deny it [clutch] exists is to deny that psychology itself exists, and that there are differences in the psyches of individual players. Some players absolutely have
an ability to concentrate, to maintain clarity and confidence in big situations, and some either get too anxious or simply go up there hoping not to fail. Some are affected negatively by pressure and some can respond to it favorably.

My response is I do not believe the James has ever said that clutch hitting does not exist. Rather, he has said that even if it does, it's such a slight part of what makes a good baseball player that it wouldn't matter.

Let me put it this way: If there was a player who always choked under pressure, what are the odds that player would even make it to the big leagues? Such a gaping hole in a player's game would prevent all but the most talented from getting to the bigs, much less becoming high performing regulars. To put it another way, all major leaguers are clutch players, to a greater or lesser extent, and the difference between their levels of clutchiness is much less than their difference in ability.

As far as your point about psychology, it is also well taken. In fact, denying psychology is exactly what I mean, at least at the major league level.

While psychology is a useful tool for many things, it is not an infallible predictor of future behavior. Furthermore, baseball players receive a lifetime of training to perform quite naturally everyday feats under a lot more baseball pressure than we will ever see. While I would almost certainly choke under the pressure of having to hit a baseball in the ninth, I wouldn't have any problem crunching a spreadsheet with a one hour deadline, or conducting an audit with an IRS agent, because that is what I am trained to do. Similarly, a soldier is trained to keep his head with bombs and bullets flying around it, which I think is a little more stressful than swinging a 30 ounce bat.

I believe that most people think that clutch makes a difference in the majors because most of us have experiences in little league, high school ball, softball, etc., in which we either choked to came through in the clutch. We experienced it, so, we assume, surely professionals do, too. However a) professionals are a lot better than we ever were, and b) professionals have faced high pressure situations thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of times in their careers. They are trained to put distractions out of their heads, and perform. While I agree that some do this better than others, the difference at that level is so slight as to be unmeasurable, therefore essentially the same as not existing.

A quick anecdote might help illustrate better what I mean. I saw a special on tv where some psychology students were testing the effect of stress on athletic performance. They got volunteers to see how many puts out of 10 they could make, with nothing riding on the outcome. Then they told the participants they would get another chance to sink 10 puts, and if they at least matched the number of puts made, they would win $100. They tested both ordinary students and members of the golf team.

The ordinary students responded poorly to the pressure, almost never matching the score in the first round. They choked, in fact. The members of the golf team all performed in the second round basically the same as they did in the first. They had been trained to ignore the stress and pressure of the situation and perform regardless of any outside distractions.

So it is with professional baseball players. They are doing what they are trained to do, and all statistical evidence indicates that they all respond to pressure equally well.


At 7:34 AM, Blogger GM-Carson said...

Clutch is so hard to define and quantify. It seems certain players perform better late in games and have the "big" hits, ala Big Papi, but I contend that it's really all so subjective. People think Jeter is clutch, but if you go by stats, in fact he is about as un-clutch and you can find. But shhh, don't tell that to a Yankee fan.

At 6:59 AM, Anonymous Tom G said...

I'm still not buying it, I think it is a factor in MLB. Though I don't necessarily think that someone can perform better in clutch than non-clutch situations, I do think choking is real.

As for the psych study you referenced, it's interesting, but what kind of putts were they? Maybe they were so easy for the better players that it masked the effects of nerves. The thing to do would have been to compare how nerves affected each group on putts that each group was able to make 50% of the time under non-stressful conditions. That way, there would be no ceiling effects.

At 5:34 AM, Blogger Pawnking said...

Tom, I was hoping you would comment on the effect of clutch of whatnot on golfers. What impressed me was that though the golfers performed better on both rounds of the contest, measured against their own abilities in the first round vs. with stress in the second, they did pretty much the same. Naturally, this is a recollection of something I saw on tv, and cannot be in any way taken as conclusive.

Anyway, I don't contend that pressure doesn't get to people. As one tennis commentator once said "everyone gets tight now and then." I only say that given all the randomness in baseball, the ability (or perceived ability) to deliver in the clutch makes such a small difference as to be basically irrelevant.

Put it this way. Would you rather have a lifetime OPS player .780 who is "clutch" and can hit for an OPS of .850 in pressure situations, or a lifetime .920 OPS who "chokes" to an .850 in pressure situations? Give me the latter every day.


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