Statistics, clutch hitting, and the left arm of God

June 13th, 2006 → 11:40 am @ // No Comments

On Sunday afternoon, David Ortiz, after being down 0-2 to Rangers closer Akinori Otsuka, hit his sixth regular-season walk-off home run since 2003; those, of course, go along with the two walk-offs he had in the 2004 playoffs and the four other walk-off hits he’s had over that same time period. (Check out this photo gallery for some great shots of those moments.) Ortiz’s monster shot into the right-field bleachers raises a couple of interesting questions. First, why in the world would managers keep pitching to Ortiz when the game is on the line? I know, I know, walking Ortiz would have loaded the bases for Manny Ramirez, with his 20 career grand slams (behind only Lou Gehrig’s 23 on the all-time list). But isn’t Ortiz recognized as the best clutch hitter of his generation, a sort of anti A-Rod?

Well, yes and no. Since the advent of sabermetrics a couple of decades ago, there’s been a good amount of debate concerning whether or not clutch hitting truly exists. Bill James, who helped pioneer the field and now works as an advisor to the Red Sox, initially said no; recently, he says he’s changed his mind. Then, in a new book published this spring, writers from Baseball Prospectus argued that Ortiz’s lifetime clutch rating is essentially zero. “[M]ost of the damage was limited to just two seasons, 2000 and 2005,” BP’s Nate Silver writes. “It isn’t a bad track record, but if clutch hitting really exists, one would expect more consistency out of the ‘greatest clutch hitter in the history of the Boston Red Sox.'”

Silver’s analysis shows how easy it can be to use statistics to prove almost anything—and how difficult it can be to figure out the best way to use data so that you’re truly learning something. Since winning a full-time job with the Red Sox a couple of months in to the 2003 season, Ortiz has become a much smarter hitter: he’s closed up his holes and has learned to foul off pitches he used to whiff at. It stands to reason that his performance in clutch situations has improved as well; indeed, his epic at bat against Esteban Loaiza in Game 5 of the 2004 American League Championship Series—an at bat Theo Epstein called one of the greatest of all time—was a gorgeous example of a hitter wasting pitches until he got one he could handle. And since October 2004, Ortiz has come up big again and again and again. (As soon as Ortiz connected with Otsuka’s pitch, Sox broadcaster Don Orsillo screamed, “How many times can he go to the well?”) The fact that over the entirety of Ortiz’s career–including the years in which the Twins wanted him “to hit like a little bitch”–Ortiz’s clutch performances come out as a wash doesn’t really tell us anything about what kind of hitter he’s been for the last several seasons.

“I’m still not sure exactly how to measure clutch hitting,” Bill James told me last year. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” Here James, generally an understated man, paused for a moment. “Watching Ortiz, it’s hard to think it doesn’t.”

There’s more–much more–about Ortiz, clutch hitting, Bill James, and what life is like inside a Major League Baseball organization in my book Feeding the Monster, due out in July.

UPDATE: In Michael Silverman’s Red Sox Notebook he writes that Ortiz’s walkoff on Sunday was the first “two-out walkoff blast by a player whose team trailed by at least two runs since Brad Wilkerson of Montreal did it July 17, 2003.” Ortiz is also the first person to have a game-ending home run in five straight seasons since the Crime Dog did it from 1993 to 1997.

Post Categories: Baseball & Bill James

2 Comments → “Statistics, clutch hitting, and the left arm of God”

  1. dmnd98

    17 years ago

    Great analysis, but would like to correct the record on Big Papi’s amazing run through the first two rounds of the 2004 playoffs: he hit three walkoffs (a series-ending walkoff homerun against the Angels, a walkoff HR in extra innings to save game 4 and a walkoff single to score JD in game 5 and send the series back to NY) in a span of 10 days and 6 games.

    He hit two walkoff home runs…which is what I was talking about. Believe me, I’m well aware of what he did in Games 4 and 5 of the ALDS.

  2. […] Bill James has also acknowledged that there is such a thing as clutch hitting; as he told me last year, “I’m still not sure exactly how to measure clutch hitting. That doesn’t mean it […]


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