Human beings love big moments. We have an innate attraction to crescendos, buzzer beaters, walk-offs, and those scenes in movies when people sprint through airport terminals. It matters to us in a very primal way what transpires when the chips are down. This is why RBI is a popular statistic and why so much attention is paid to stats like batting average with runners in scoring position. We believe that players who perform well in the big moments are the best players. There are probably all kinds of cognitive and psychological biases at play, but I think we can all agree that success in critical situations is more highly valued than success in general. This is as true in life as it is in baseball.
Yet there is also a lot of evidence that tells us to ignore these performances in baseball, or rather, to treat them just like any other performance. A home run with the game on the line is more important than one in a blow out, but it’s not really a reflection of the player being better or being clutch.
This is a controversial stance. Sabermetricians have been commenting on the false “clutch” narrative for many years and have received a great deal of push back. The alternative view is that certain players are able to rise to the occasion and that they know how to slow the game down and deliver in critical spots. Rather than taking a hard line on the subject rhetorically, instead I’d like to review a bit of the research done on clutch and provide some important questions to consider regarding clutch performance.
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