Bill James: Papi is Clutch

Lots of interesting material from The Dean over on SI.com. In an excerpt from his 2008 Abstract, James reverses himself and makes an argument that “clutch” does exist. Sort of. It’s not the most convincing article, but there’s no question about David Ortiz. The data/method isn’t presented, and even still it seems it has been approached with reticence. As he writes:

One reason that I have been reluctant to write about clutch hitting, in the absence of hard data, is that I am reluctant to interpret sporting events as tests of character. If you write that Johnny Baseball is a poor clutch hitter, what you are implicitly saying is that Johnny Baseball lacks courage. I am extremely reluctant to impugn the character of any player based on what could be a random data outcome.

And, in all candor, I am reluctant to buy into the other side of that, too. There is a strain of journalism as hero worship, a strain that asks us to believe that sports are tests of character, that those who come through at key moments of the game have reached down deep inside themselves and found the strength and courage to succeed. I don’t want to get into that. I am willing to look at the data and see what they have to tell us, but I want to keep at arms’ length any judgments about the character of the athletes. Sports talk show hosts may be comfortable doing that, but that’s their job, it’s not mine. This discussion has been fouled up for a long time, and my only goal is to straighten it out just a little bit.

I couldn’t agree more with those 2 grafs; I hope the are guiding principles here. At least they are for me. James also offers his look at the top 50 young players in the game, along with a team-by-team breakdown of young talent. It’s light on both Sox and Yanks. Again, the methodology seems kind of dubious (Melky is graded as an “A” level talent, Youkilis “B”), but I suppose any purely mechanical system is going to create anomalies. Makes for interesting conversation, in any case. If it’s written by Bill James, it’s worth your time.

4 comments… add one

  • Found this interesting, from the article on young players.
    “…arm injuries don’t strike down some great young pitchers, they strike down most great young pitchers.”

    Tyrel SF December 1, 2007, 4:57 pm
  • Bill James Top 50 Young Players seems to be a little off. I really don’t agree with the order, but hey he’s Bill James.

    John - YF December 1, 2007, 5:12 pm
  • The formula is weird. Cano was in the high 30s?

    Tyrel SF December 1, 2007, 5:50 pm
  • I also really don’t want to treat sports as a test of character, but in a sense clutch moments are places for growth, and those that continue to shrink at that moment are not growing. In my experience playing Flag Football and Softball in friendly leagues, I’ve grown quite a bit as a person. Life hands you more than enough adversity, but often the day to day grind of it all makes it hard for you to gauge your process or even notice the changes. Yea, I look at my upbringing, my college years, my time after college, the craziness of dating/breakups/job offers and all that jazz and say to myself, geez, those situation have sure made me develop. Each moment of peril successfully traversed creates a little piece of growth in us. We may not be aware of this because all that knowledge comes with perspective and even then, only in pieces.
    Sports on the other hand is much more rapid fire. When I joined flag football with no real prior experience, i was putting myself out of my comfort zone, but over time I grew much more comfortable. And when the championship game happened, and I found myself defending a much larger player, I felt uncomfortable. But, the pass came my way, and I jumped up in the air in time, and my brief slightly insignificant moment of peril was over. I survived that moment, and the next time a situation like that came up, i was no longer as uncomfortable and that came through in my play. I had grown. With this new comfort, came the realization that the first moment was thrilling as well as terrifying. I found myself wanting another moment, another experience, another attempt at growth.
    And in those sports, those moments always come. And they come quickly. Every one mentiones that sports is great for kids, but why is that? Its because it provides them with experiences that are not life-critical, but with all the attendant pressure, crisis and achievement act as crucibles for growth. Adults are the same. We honor great players who keep saying that they want to be in those clutch situations, that they are looking for new challenges, that they enjoy moments of peril and we shouldn’t wonder why that is. Its because these players understand, either explicity or implicity, that those crucial moments not affect games, but affect their growth as athletes and as a people.
    This does not mean that those that fail in clutch moments are somehow weaker. It is not so much about success and failure (here I agree with James), but about seeking out those moments and not turning away. Players should want to be in those clutch situations, they should push themselves and do what they can. Each attempt only makes it stronger, although success makes it easier, but not noting the success and failure, not deeming these moments as clutch, not accepting that there are moments that threaten you means making sports into something machine-like with accepted rates of failure. So keep the stats, but let the players judge themselves.

    Carlos December 2, 2007, 1:46 am

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