Sports Nut

There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Clutch Hitter

But if there was, Barry Bonds would be a good one.

Barry Bonds is closing in fast on the most glamorous record in baseball—he needs just two more home runs to topple Mark McGwire from his perch. But to his critics, Bonds remains a “boorish, selfish prima donna” who puts up big personal numbers and yet doesn’t perform when it matters. In five playoff series for the Pirates and Giants—all losing efforts—Bonds has batted .196 with just one home run and six RBIs over a span of nearly 100 at-bats. In 1997, the San Francisco Examiner declared, “Barry Bonds continues to struggle in clutch situations, to the point where failures now are almost expected.” Last month, the New York Times’ Murray Chass quipped, “If Bonds had played for the Yankees, George Steinbrenner would have called him Mr. O, not for October but for zero.”

The problem with these criticisms is that they are based on the mistaken presumption that clutch hitting, at least as it is conventionally understood, is a meaningful way of evaluating a player’s game. While clutch hits are undeniably real, a closer look at the historical record shows that our beliefs about clutch hitters are little more than an illusion. I’ll take Barry Bonds any month, any time.

Particularly at this time of year, sports fans tend to measure clutch performance purely as a phenomenon of postseason play. If that’s the case, then Bonds has pretty good company in the Fall Failures department. His godfather Willie Mays batted .239 and never homered in his four World Series appearances. Yogi Berra, long regarded as one of the game’s great clutch players (“From the seventh inning on, he was the toughest out I’ve ever seen,” said Whitey Herzog), batted .188 with just eight RBIs over his first five Series, encompassing 101 at-bats. Even Mickey Mantle, who holds the record for World Series home runs, had a three Series stretch, from 1961 to 1963, in which he collected just six hits (.130 average) and drove in one run.

Postseason heroics are built around great unexpected moments (Joe Carter’s walk-off line-drive clincher against Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams in 1993 World Series) or short runs of success under the spotlight (Billy Hatcher’s seven straight hits in the Reds’ sweep of Oakland in 1990), not steady hands predictably rising to the occasion. It’s inevitable that a new hero will emerge with each playoff run, and there’s no reason to believe we can predict who it’ll be—or who it won’t. Last fall’s clutch sensation, the Yanks’ AARP representative Luis Sojo, isn’t even likely to make the postseason roster this time around. So why blame Barry Bonds for not being Joe Carter if his team never gave him the chance to bat against the Wild Thing with champagne on ice?

For those players who are not on the Yankees and thus not testing their mettle every year in the fall classic, the analysts point to situational statistics to prove clutch ability. It’s great that Bonds has 42 solo home runs, for instance, but Roberto Alomar and Ichiro Suzuki, we’re told again and again, are batting well over .400 with runners in scoring position, and over .500 with the bases loaded; they know how to deliver the runners when the time comes. Or do they? Alomar batted only .276 with runners in scoring position last year (34 points below his average), and Suzuki drives home runners from second or third at a lesser rate than that of the rest of his team (and the Indians, the Rockies, and the A’s, for that matter). Perhaps this is because, as the former Red Sox manager Joe Morgan once said, “Runners at first and second or the bases loaded? That’s apple pie hitting, that isn’t clutch hitting. That’s the kind of hitting you should make your bread and butter.” And in Bonds’ case, it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t. In the four seasons since his local sports section expected his failure, Barry’s hit .308 and slugged .648 with runners in scoring position.

More useful, perhaps, is a player’s performance in the late innings (seventh and beyond) of close games (within one run or at least the tying run on deck). Judging by this measure, though, we must again chuck our received wisdom out the door. Joe Carter, described as “the most famous clutch player of the last generation” by Bill James, batted .220 in more than 1,000 such at-bats during his career. And George Brett, whom Herzog called “one of the best clutch hitters in the history of the game,” batted 20 points lower late in close games than he did overall during his last 10 seasons. This year’s statistical sensation is the Tigers’ otherwise ordinary Juan Encarnacion, who has improved his record by 50 percent with the game on the line. (Yet he’s hitting under .200 with runners in scoring position.) Bonds hasn’t elevated his game in these situations, it’s true. Rather, he’s played just about exactly as well as he has in other situations—which is to say, he’s been the best in the world.

There’s no good reason to believe that memorable hits—or a lack thereof—are a function of the strength of one’s nerves; major-leaguers are a tiny subset who’ve proved that they’re capable of rising to challenges every step of the way. So we need to get rid of the notion that clutch hitting is anything other than, well, hitting—a series of isolated events, some more beneficial than others.

Take the case of Mr. October himself. Reggie Jackson cemented his legend on Oct. 18, 1977, when he sent three consecutive pitches successively farther into the Yankee Stadium bleachers to help beat the Dodgers for the Bombers’ first Championship in 15 years. And yet in Jackson’s first five playoff series, he batted .250 with three home runs and 11 RBIs over 92 at-bats—better than Bonds, to be sure, but no great shakes either. In fact, if you look at Jackson’s career postseason line without that one magical day, he hit home runs and collected RBIs at a slower rate than he did in the regular season. So does he have the knack or not?

Barry Bonds may not (yet) be Mr. October. With the extended schedule following from terrorism’s disruption and a little luck, he’s as likely as any to be the first Mr. November.