Running with the stats

 
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Running with the stats

 

Take a baseball player who, with two outs in the ninth and a runner on second, drops a single into center field, scoring the run and pushing his team over the top. Most managers would say that player is a clutch hitter—he does the job when the pressure’s on.

Now, say that player arrives at bat with the runner in the same position, but instead of landing a base hit, he taps a weak grounder to second and easily gets out, ending the inning. That same manager might lambaste that player for choking under pressure.

These scenarios are common enough to prove that clutch and choke hitters exist in baseball—right? Well, as statisticians have argued for a while, they’re not as common as people might think.

According to research from Elan Fuld, a baseball fan and rising senior in the School of Arts and Sciences, clutch hitters do exist, but in very small numbers. True chokers are even less prominent.

The economics and math major says the idea for his research came to him late one night, when he began wondering how many players could truly fall into either category. So he compiled and analyzed free data from the comprehensive statistics site, Retrosheet.org, about major leaguers from 1974 to 1992. In all, Fuld looked at the stats of 1,075 players. He separately measured the importance of a plate appearance and the performance of a player, assigning values to each.

Fuld says that if a player’s performance rose in the key situation, this would indicate the player is a clutch hitter. When he factored in sacrifice flies—a fly out that nonetheless advances a runner from, say, second to third—Fuld discovered that players who seemed “sort of clutch” moved definitively into the clutch category.

Since most people who watch and play baseball are less familiar with regression theory than Fuld, he attributes the idea of widespread clutch hitting to the myth of baseball. “Memory is a very biased indicator,” he says. “In a sense, memory sort of tricks us. ... People get emotionally attached to baseball players.”

This means that if a player gets a hit in a very important game, people may tag this player with the “clutch hitter” reputation, even if it’s undeserved. In fact, Fuld says that according to his calculations only about 1 to 4 percent of Major League players can be called clutch hitters.

According to his findings, Eddie Murray (who enjoyed his best years with the Baltimore Orioles) is good in the clutch, along with Bill Buckner (the star-crossed Red Sox first basemen who cost Boston the 1986 World Series), Darryl Hamilton (Milwaukee Brewers, New York Mets), Frank Duffy (Cleveland Indians, Boston) and others. Slightly less famous players, including such forgettable major leaguers as Joe Strain (San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs), Jeff Stone (Phillies, Boston) and Sam Horn (Boston, Baltimore) are considered by Fuld’s calculations to choke more than the average player.

He notes that many choke players commonly lasted only a couple of seasons.

Fuld, a lifelong Red Sox fan from Brookline, Mass., doesn’t think there’s necessarily a practical application for his research, though he says that it could help teams weed out potential choke players during draft time. Fuld adds that he wouldn’t turn down a job running stats for a baseball team.

“That seems like it would be a lot of fun. It would be a lot of hard work, too, especially before the trades.”

Originally published on May 12, 2005