In less than a week, the Major League Baseball regular season will be over and soon after, the playoffs will begin with baseball commentators using their favorite October-specific word.
Someone will hit a big home run and the announcer will undoubtedly talk about how “clutch” that player is. Likewise, if a great player comes up short in a crucial situation, he’ll be deemed “not clutch.”
The reality is that players go through slumps at various points in the season, and October is no different. If a player goes one for 12 in a three-game span during a playoff series, does that mean he can’t handle the pressure? Or does it mean that he went through a slump that every player in the league goes through at any given point during the season?
Competition is also stronger in the playoffs. Facing Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in a short series in the postseason is tougher than facing Brian Bannister, Bruce Chen and Kyle Davies in a three-game series during the regular season against the Royals.
Another problem with the word and the aura that surrounds it is that it seems to only be a factor in big hits that occur late in games. You don’t hear players described as “clutch” when they hit a home run in the fourth inning with the game tied, but when a game-tying hit occurs in the seventh or later, more significance is added for some reason.
If a player were to hit a two-run home run in the third inning of a playoff game and strikeout with a runner on in the eighth, he isn’t “clutch.” However, if a player strikes out with a runner on in the third and hits a two-run home run in the eighth, he is. Apparently a home run is worth more in the late innings.
That’s the reason why Alex Rodriguez was labeled a “choker” before last year’s playoffs in which he hit six home runs and lead the Yankees to their 27th World Series title. Prior to 2009, A-Rod had a .280 career batting average in the playoffs, yet was criticized by most for not playing well when the pressure was on. The truth is Rodriguez had respectable postseason numbers that no one wanted to look at because it didn’t fit their narrative.
Then there’s the issue of “clutch” performances being psychological. When A-Rod was supposedly struggling in the postseason, he was called “not clutch” by many in the baseball world. Then somehow in 2009 he magically became the most “clutch” player in the game. How did this happen? Did he work on his “clutchness” in the offseason? Did it just show up one day? Maybe he was using “clutch” enhancing drugs. Or maybe, just maybe, he got hot at the right time.
Then on the other side, Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon gave up three runs and blew a two run lead to the Angels in the ninth inning in game three of last year’s American League Division Series to eliminate the Red Sox from the playoffs. Prior to that point, Papelbon had not given up an earned run in 25 career postseason innings. In this case, Papelbon went from “clutch” to “choker” in one inning. How is that possible? Can a player’s “clutch” ability decline?
“Clutch” hitting does not exist. Great hitting exists. Guys like Chase Utley, Evan Longoria and other stars don’t hit home runs in late innings because they’re “clutch”. They hit home runs in late innings because they’re great.
When the playoffs start and you watch a player strike out with the bases loaded, don’t wonder to yourself if the pressure is getting to him. Instead, ask yourself the question that I and many others at AU ask every April: Why is this night different from all other nights?