Tuesday, October 20, 2015

In the Clutch

As the baseball postseason rolls on, something that always seems to come up in conversation is which guys are performing "in the clutch." The hitter that comes up with the big game-winning hit, or the pitcher with ice in his veins hitting the perfect spot again and again. For a game based on repeating success over a marathon regular season, we sure do pay a lot of attention to the guys that happen to be hot at the right time.

This year, Daniel Murphy of the Mets is the poster child for the clutch hitter. He practically was the entire Mets offense in the clinching game 5 of the NLDS against the Dodgers. He's hit home runs in five straight games, including against all three of the NL Cy Young candidates. This from a man who has never hit more than 14 home runs in an entire season. (I enjoyed seeing it against the Dodgers, but can't say I'm happy that he's still doing it to my Chicago Cubs in the NLCS.)

In baseball, having consistent numbers over the long-term is what defines a player's career. When you've got to field a team for 162 games every season, knowing how a player will perform over the long haul is essential. The difference between good and great can be one or two hits every 5 games, or getting one or two additional outs every start. Every player will have a stretch of poor play at some point in six months of regular season play, and a stretch of great play. The best players will have more good stretches than bad.

That kind of long-term view doesn't tell you anything about how a player or team will perform in a small group of games - such as a playoff series. Those three rounds of playoff series (four if you count the one-game wild card) every year are in large part a measure of which players and teams are on one of those stretches of great play. As it's been said of all kinds of sports: "It's not who you play, it's when you play them."

People have tried to measure this "clutch ability" in all kinds of different ways. (Of course they have; everything is measured in baseball.) There really hasn't been any success in this area; every time some analysis looks to be doing a good job, something unexpected happens to throw it off. And that's to be expected. The game of baseball is largely predictable in the long run; and largely impossible to predict over the short term.

So call it "intangibles" or "clutch" or plain old luck. Sometimes one player, or one team, will just be great over a short period of time. All we fans can do is hope that our guys are the ones with the right stuff at the right time.

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