The science of clutch or choke


By Matt Meltzer Daily Pennsylvanian

Philadelphia, PA (U-WIRE) -- It's the bottom of the ninth, two outs, a man on third, and your team is down one run. If you get a hit in this situation, there's only one word to describe you: Clutch.

Last summer Elan Fuld was searching for a topic to research and develop for his thesis as part of the University Scholars program. At two in the morning, the lifelong Red Sox fan knew he had his idea: clutch hitting.

Fuld is a senior economics and mathematics major. He sought to determine whether clutch hitters actually exist using statistical analysis.

Fuld spent his summer scanning the extensive baseball data available on retrosheet.org. Retrosheet provides complete game-by-game information for all players and games from 1974 through 1992.

In order to be considered eligible for the study, a player had to have at least 100 plate appearances in two separate years. Therefore, Fuld processed the data of 1,075 Major League players.

Without going into the complexities of the mathematics Fuld used, he tried to create a curve for each player based on two factors.

The first factor was a measure of the importance of each situation for each plate appearance ? how many outs and which bases had men on them, among other factors. The second was a measure of the result of each plate appearance, regardless of the situation; i.e. a single, double, strikeout, etc.

The result of the data plotted on such a set of axis was a curve. If the curve bent upward, the hitter was labeled clutch; if the curve bent downward the hitter was deemed choke.

Fuld was surprised by his own results. He first noted that his analysis seemed accurate because there is a 1 percent chance that the results would show up as clutch or choke entirely by accident.

A mere 2 percent of hitters that he studied were found to be clutch. Equally surprising, there was no real evidence for choke hitters. Fuld described choke hitters as probably just getting the bad side of the luck of the draw in any particular situation.

Therefore a startling 98 percent of Major League hitters are neither clutch nor choke. Rather, they are just neutral. When factoring in margin of error, it is likely that at least ninety-five percent of the Major Leaguers studied were neutral hitters.

"Clutch hitting is not as big an effect as Joe Morgan would make you think," Fuld said, referring to the ESPN baseball commentator. Clutch hitting is "not that huge, important thing that people make it out to be."

Based on Fuld's analysis, of the 1,075 players studied, Hall of Famer Eddie Murray was the most clutch. Perhaps the most surprising result was that Bill Buckner, famous for his 1986 World Series fumble, was tied for the second most clutch hitter.

"Not that many clutch hitters," Fuld said. "But they exist."

The only players who were noticeably choke were two relative unknowns, Jeff Stone and Joe Strain.

Fuld is now working on putting the finishing touches on his research and trying to get it published. He plans to soon have the results up on his personal website.

Bill James, the famous sabermatrician, has recently stated that he believes clutch hitting is an open question. Fuld hopes that James's interest in the question may help his research attract more attention.

If Fuld were a manager he says he would rather have a good hitter than a clutch hitter in a pressure or non-pressure situation. For example, he would like to have David Ortiz hitting in any situation regardless of how clutch he is because he is a good hitter.

While Fuld is happy with the questions he has answered with his research, he knows he has also created a lot more questions. He hopes that his research can be used to determine, at the high school, college, and minor league level, the difference between a clutch and a good hitter. Fuld wants his analytical method to be useful in weeding out bad players so that unnecessary resources are not invested in them.

(C) 2004 Daily Pennsylvanian via U-WIRE

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