Art of clutch hitting difficult to grasp

Art of clutch hitting difficult to grasp

Nobody knew hitting better than Ted Williams, and it was Williams who famously said that hitting a pitched baseball is "the single most difficult thing to do in sport." That applies whether it's Game 7 of the World Series or a Tuesday night in June.

Hitting is hitting, and hitting is hard. It requires both talent and concentration to thwart a pitcher who is trying to get you out.

That's why the notion of the "clutch hitter" is such a tough one to figure out. The task of hitting requires 100 percent focus and dedication, and you can't go higher than 100 percent. The idea that some hitters, especially already great hitters, get better in big spots or momentous games seems counterintuitive.

Yet the concept remains strong. Ask a fan, or even an opponent, about Derek Jeter, and "clutch" is one of the first words you'll hear. The same goes for David Ortiz. Pesky little guys can earn the label too -- players such as Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein and Brewers infielder Craig Counsell.

To analysts, a clutch hitter is simply a good hitter who has performed well in magnified situations. The appellation is all about history, what you have done. It tells you nothing about what you're going to do.

But in others' eyes, the word clutch carries an almost mystical glint.

"Absolutely," said D-backs manager Bob Melvin, when asked if the clutch hitter really exists. "And sometimes it's not the guy that's hitting .330. Sometimes it's the guy that's hitting .250 that rises to that occasion."

In-depth examinations have revealed that a player's past performance in key situations holds very little predictive value. Just because a player has come up short in the World Series before, it doesn't mean he'll do it again.

At the very least, though, in a given postseason game, or at a pivotal moment in the pennant race, a hitter will succeed or not. And talent alone will not determine the outcome of the at-bat.

"It's all about distractions," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "Some guys can't hit in a blowout game. Some guys are not clutch hitters. It's about distractions. They're distracted by the consequences -- the game is over and we lose if you don't get a hit. Part of how you become a clutch hitter is you learn how to clean out distractions and concentrate on the process."

Many players and managers believe that the ability to perform when pressure is at its highest is not an innate talent, but a learned skill.

"It's not a skill you can't learn if you're willing to keep an open mind and learn," La Russa said. "Guys who are good hitters can be clutch hitters if they care enough about being the go-to guy."

If hitting in the clutch is truly any different from hitting in any other game, that's the difference. One fundamental in hitting is clearing out everything but the essentials.

When Crash Davis, the catcher in "Bull Durham," realized he was thinking more about Annie Savoy than about swinging the bat, he stepped out of the box. It's an extreme example, but true. The more often you can concentrate on pitch at hand, and that pitch only, the more often you can maximize your physical hitting ability.

"You might have to weed out some extra things to concentrate and focus," said Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen. "To concentrate and focus, that means something very specific."

"They grow up early and are imprinted early in an environment of success, competition and determination."
-- Braves GM John Schuerholz, on clutch hitters

Whatever it is that goes into hitting in big games and big situations, some players have done it again and again. Jeter, a lifetime .314 hitter, may be the best known.

Yet the Yankees shortstop has been virtually the same hitter in October that he's been at all other times. He's hit .317 with a .388 on-base percentage and .463 slugging percentage in 6,790 career big-league at-bats. The numbers are .314/.384/.479 in the playoffs.

Jeter has the sheen, though. He has the perception.

"I've had players who have come here from different teams," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "And [they've] said, 'I've always known Derek was a good player, but after watching him for two months, I never knew how good he was.' It's just the sense you get when you're around him."

Ortiz has become known for one specific kind of highlight -- the late-inning home run. It's not a myth. He does it again and again. Over the past three years, Ortiz has 27 home runs in 235 "close and late" situations, defined as at-bats in the seventh inning or later with the hitter's team either ahead by one run, tied, or with the potential tying run at least on deck. Then again, Albert Pujols has gone deep 24 times in 231 close-and-late at-bats in that same span.

Those numbers are real, and they're impressive. But they're not necessarily predictive.

Sometimes Derek Jeter falls short in the clutch. Meanwhile, if the Giants had beaten the Angels in the 2002 World Series, Barry Bonds would likely have been the series MVP. Bonds hit an absurd eight home runs in 45 at-bats in the '02 postseason.

Either he suddenly learned to be a clutch hitter, or this stuff isn't as set-in-stone as some people believe.

"Typically, players that hit best in clutch or high-leverage situations are the same hitters that perform better in the lower-leverage at-bats as well," said Chris Antonetti, assistant general manager for the Indians. "There may be a select few hitters that have higher-quality at-bats in clutch situations than non-clutch situations, but they are most likely the exceptions rather than the rule."

Not that that's a universal view. Braves general manager John Schuerholz knows a clutch hitter when he sees one.

"They grow up early and are imprinted early in an environment of success, competition and determination," Schuerholz said. "A lot of that is impacted by their life environment, whether it's at home or by an impactful coach or impactful person. When all of that is formed, I don't know, but it's there. There's no training manual for that."

Rangers shortstop Michael Young is beginning to enter the Jeter-Ortiz pantheon, though a player who toils in Arlington, Texas, likely won't ever be celebrated like those two. Young hit a ludicrous .412 with runners in scoring position in 2006 -- and .356 in close-and-late situations.

"Michael Young is the most clutch hitter in baseball," said Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. "When you hit .412 with runners in scoring position, that's clutch, and nobody does it better. He has a lot of trust in himself and a great mental approach. There's no fear. He just believes he's going to get the job done."

Jaramillo's assertion brings to light another issue in assessing "clutchness." Performance in RBI situations is often cited, but plenty of RBI situations occur in blowout games. Postseason performance is another measure. September numbers count to some people, while others look at the close-and-late metric.

Conventional wisdom states that the same traits help a hitter in all those situations. And a true clutch hitter should excel in all of them. But over large samples, the numbers bear out that you're better off with good hitters than with clutch hitters at critical junctures.

It's possible to acknowledge that notion while still having a nagging feeling in your gut that it's hard to accept. Just ask the man who recently signed Young to a new five-year deal.

"There are certain guys I'd rather have up at the plate in big situations," said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, "but could I prove that with numbers? Probably not."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for Steve Gilbert, T.R. Sullivan, Anthony Castrovince, Bryan Hoch and Mark Bowman contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.