NOTHING IN THE world of analytics agitates folks quite like the question of whether some athletes can turn up their game in critical situations. Traditionalists believe Tom Brady has clutch in his DNA, statheads think they can simulate clutch by crunching numbers, and frankly, I'm tired of their talking past each other. So for this column, I'm trying something different. Instead of building toward one inexorable conclusion, I'll show what we know about clutch, playing no favorites. Trust me, by the end of this, we'll find some common ground.
Despite what many fans believe, clutch is in part the absence of anxiety. Athletes don't actually play better under huge stress. Instead, studies in psychology and neurobiology show that while athletes (like most people) hold up well to moderate pressure, they typically show declines in performance as the emotional intensity of their environment increases. NBA players, for example, actually do worse when shooting free throws in close games in front of home crowds, according to a 2012 study by Matt Goldman, a UC San Diego grad student, and Justin Rao of Yahoo Research. Yet some athletes fall off less in pressure-packed situations. Whether their calmness is an inherent quality, a learned one or even one that is learned but at times forgotten is tough to say. Either way, it's important to reiterate that these athletes aren't clutch because they raise their level of play in important situations; that's not a real, sustainable skill (more on that in a second). Instead, these athletes are clutch because they don't choke as much relative to their peers.
Clutch is in the eye of the beholder. Last year Miguel Cabrera, Ben Revere, Allen Craig, Matt Holliday and Robinson Cano were MLB's top hitters with two outs and runners in scoring position, when they batted a combined .439. Seems staggeringly clutch-tastic -- but these same five guys hit just .283 in the late innings of close games. The lesson: To evaluate clutch performance, you first have to define clutch situations, and there are many, often conflicting, possibilities at hand.
Clutch is real but not predictable. Obviously, clutch plays happen; they make history. And if David Ortiz hits a game-tying grand slam in the ALCS, it makes sense to credit him with helping the Red Sox not just win a game but a championship. What's not sensible is to believe that beyond his own greatness as a hitter, Ortiz has a clutch talent that allows him to dig deep and deliver in high-leverage situations. If clutch were an independent skill, players would demonstrate it over a large sample size and exhibit it consistently from season to season. And study after study (after study after study) has found they don't: Today's clutch hitters are often tomorrow's choke artists, and vice versa. We just remember the plays we love.
When a researcher does try to tell you that clutch is a skill, it's usually because his data are about to regress to the mean. Example: In January 2011, John Schuhmann of NBA.com found that "the numbers prove Chris Paul is clutch," based on the incredible record CP3's teams had in close games. But since then, Paul's clubs have gone 26-24 (through Feb. 11) in games decided by five points or fewer, considerably worse than their overall record. Paul is a great player, maybe the best guard in the NBA. But there's no evidence that he or anybody else (sorry, not even Derek Jeter) predictably outperforms his regular skill level when he's under pressure. And really, this shouldn't be hard to grasp. The very essence of clutch plays is that they surprise us.
Let's take these findings as ground rules then and change the entire way we talk about clutch. To traditionalists, I say: Go right ahead and appreciate game-changing plays. But define your terms so that clutch doesn't mean one thing on Monday and another on Thursday just so you can defend your favorite player. Likewise, measure clutch performance with smart tools like Win Probability Added, but don't expect to predict it. And since clutch isn't detectable as an inherent quality, please don't ascribe it to character -- which is an inherent quality.
For stat geeks, my message is simpler: Respect clutch achievement, even if it's not predictable. Don't be killjoys.