David Ortiz is not a clutch hitter: A primer in how to lie with statistics

August 5th, 2006 → 1:00 pm @

In a blog entry posted yesterday, Matt Sussman — columnist for the Toledo Free Press and editor of The Futon Report — attemtps to show that David Ortiz is not a clutch hitter. Sussman’s piece is for a site called Blog Critics, which, in what seemingly is not meant as irony, advertises itself as being written by “superior bloggers on music, politics, TV, film, books, sports, gaming, science, technology, and culture.”

You’d think by now I would have learned my lesson: it’s not nice to make fun of people who have fundamental misunderstandings about whatever it is they’re writing about (to say nothing of the complaint that the blogosphere is comprised of a bunch of guys sitting in their basements shouting at each other). But this blog is mainly about the Red Sox (and my book Feeding the Monster), and David Ortiz is, once again, pretty much carrying the team on his back. What’s more, Sussman garnered a linky link from Deadspin, one of the best sports site out there. So I feel obligated to point out the extent to which Sussman’s piece is simply moronic.

There are plenty of obvious examples in the piece. After characterizing the Red Sox front office as “a group of intelligent number crunchers” who “buy (a little)” into sabermetrics, Sussman seems to imply (although it’s hard to figure out exactly what it is he’s trying to say here) that Kevin Youkilis, “when measured under the criteria of sabermetrics,” is more valuable than Ortiz. This is absolutely asinine. Ortiz’s and Youkilis’s OBPs are virtually identical (.393 to .395), and Ortiz has an extra 182 points in slugging percentage. Sussman also writes that Baseball Prospectus‘s Nate Silver thinks “hardcore sabermetricians” think “clutch hitting is an illusion, and such an ability doesn’t exist.” Silver actually wrote the exact opposite, saying, “Clutch hitting exists, more than previous research would indicate.” 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 doesn’t exist. Watching Ortiz, it’s hard to think it doesn’t.”

But let’s address the main point. Sussman’s thesis seems to be — and again, it can be a little hard to figure this out since the entire article is written as a discussion (or argument) that Sussman is having with himself — that there are those in baseball (Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols, David Wright) who have higher batting averages than Ortiz does with two outs and runners in scoring position. After lauding sabermetricians, it’s odd for Sussman to rely purely on BA; OBP, slugging percentage, or OPS would all be more valuable comparison points. And it’s true: Manny and Pujols both top Ortiz in average, OBP, slugging, and OPS with runners in scoring position and with RISP and 2 outs, while David Wright tops him with RISP and 2 outs.

But if you want to try to measure something as ineffable as clutch hitting, you need to be a little more creative than just plugging in numbers from ESPN’s splits page. After all, as a certain third baseman in New York knows, there are home runs and two-out hits, and then there are home runs and two-out hits that actually mean something.

As Allan Wood recently pointed out in the excellent Joy of Sox, Ortiz has, since the end of the 2004 regular season, been at the plate in a walk-off situation 19 times. And, as Wood discovered, Ortiz reached base 16 of those times. In his 14 official at-bats, he’s had 11 hits, with seven home runs and 20 RBIs. Over the last two seasons, he’s 8-9 with five home runs and 15 RBIs.

Think about that for a second. Over the past two years, Ortiz is hitting .875 when he has a chance to end the game with one swing. His on-base percentage is .923. His slugging percentage is 2.556. And his OPS is 3.479.

To be sure, there are other ways to try and parse out Ortiz’s “clutchness.” You could look at periods during which the Sox are scuffling, like right now. You could look at stretch runs, like last September, when the Sox closed out the month going 6-2, an eight-game stretch during which Ortiz had seven home runs and nine RBIs.

With pretty much the entire world acknowledging that Ortiz has had a three-year run that will remembered for the ages, why do pieces like Sussman’s bother me so much? The main reason is that misinformation drives me nuts. And, as I learned in ninth grade when my journalism teacher made my class read Darrell Huff’s 1954 classic How To Lie With Statistics, you can use statistics to prove pretty much anything. One day, much smarter people than me will hopefully find ways to accurately measure the impact of things like baserunning ability and clutch hitting (and will come up with better ways to measure defense). Until then, we’ll need to make do with the statistics we have. And we’ll need to use them intelligently.

Post Categories: Clutch Hitting & David Ortiz & how to lie with statistics & sabermetrics