The Red Sox Need Some Clutch Hitting, But It’s Pointless to Look for Clutch Hitters

The Red Sox Need Some Clutch Hitting, But It's Pointless to Look for Clutch HittersAfter Tuesday night's game, the Red Sox were hitting a lowly 4-for-41 with runners in scoring position on their West Coast swing.

The low point came in Tuesday night's game, when Ryan Kalish and Mike Aviles found themselves on first and second with no outs in the top of the ninth, but neither scored, thanks to a botched bunt from Nick Punto that turned into a double play and then Kalish being caught attempting to steal third.

It may come as no surprise then, that the team has only scored 14 runs in their seven games against the Mariners and A's. Boston's inability to come through in the clutch has seemingly doomed them time and time again to the tune of a 2-4 record.

The Red Sox Need Some Clutch Hitting, But It's Pointless to Look for Clutch HittersBut does this mean that Boston needs to go out and find a new lineup of clutch hitters? In a word: No.

Clutch hitting — or more precisely, the idea of a hitter having the skill of being clutch — has long been regarded by many in the sabermetric community, including Bill James, as being overblown and a myth. In essence, they see it as conventional wisdom long espoused up by baseball lifers to easily explain away what in reality are complex and fairly random occurrences, and then reinforced by writers looking for a good storyline.

Despite this, many hitters such as David Ortiz and Derek Jeter are still reflexively regarded as being clutch. The common thought is that when the game is on the line, guys like these two step their games up and come through for their teams.

Yes, Papi has had some of the biggest hits many Boston fans can remember — most famously at the expense of the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS — and was honored in 2005 as the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history. Yes, Jeter also won a World Series game with a walk-off home run and presumably isn't called "Captain Clutch" for nothing.

You can't argue with those occurrences. You especially can't argue with stats — Ortiz is a lifetime .298 hitter with runners in scoring position, with 88 home runs and 886 RBIs, while Jeter has hit .301 with 50 homers and 952 RBIs in that same situation during his career.

There is no question that incidences of clutch hitting exist. There is no question that some hitters are better at it than others. But what is impossible to tell from statistics is whether it is an actual skill.

The inherent problem with labeling clutch hitting a skill is that to do so, there would need to be some measurable way of quantifying it. The stats quoted above do not speak to Ortiz or Jeter's ability to "rise to the occasion" any more so than a pitcher's strand percentage tells us how "gritty" he is.

Those are nice-sounding words used by those who are looking for an interesting way to describe the game. As it is, however, "clutch" hitters are not clutch solely because they possess some deep well of mental strength and willpower to draw from in pressure situations. It's more a combination of the situation, luck and actual hitting skill.

Sure, maybe Ortiz does hit better in the clutch than a lot of other players. That's because he's a great hitter. It's not definitively because he ascends to a higher state of being when the game is on the line.

Plus, if clutch hitting is a skill, then why is it so variable? Alex Rodriguez was maligned throughout much of his career for pulling a disappearing act in the playoffs. Then he hit .365/.500/.808 with six home runs and 18 RBIs in the 2009 postseason, won a title and put the "not clutch" label to bed for good. Granted, it's a fairly small sample size, but those are not the numbers of someone who does not possess a mythical clutch gene.

So for the Red Sox, the answer is not to go find some clutch hitters — because they don't exist. The answer is just to start hitting better, period. That, or hope Big Papi comes up in the ninth with the game on the line.

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