Share this story...
Latest News

Chemistry vs. clutch

In Tuesday’s blog we discussed the massive difference between baseball analytics believers and the old-school supporters. The key to a great organization is bringing the two together. An idea might be to get both sides to give up something they believe in that will appease the other side because both schools of thought belong in a baseball organization.

This time, we’ll look at two subjects. What’s odd about both of these subjects is we’re not trading one for the other because old-school believes in both of them and new school thinks they’re both made up at best, or only a product of previous decisions made by the analytics department at the very least.

TRADE: Belief in clutch vs. Non-belief in chemistry

Who’s going to budge? Both sides are firmly entrenched.

The purist believes there is obviously a “clutch” because without it, none of us would know who Mark Lemke is. The old-school approach also believes in building chemistry. If everyone is coming together for the common good, winning can happen. A great example is the hitter who hits the ball intentionally to the right side to move a second-base runner to third. Since that guy is sacrificing his batting average to make it easier for other guys to earn an RBI — and for his team to win — his teammates love him. The more guys give up for the greater good, the more a team wins.

Both points are blasphemy to an analytics believer. If you get on base in 38 percent of your at-bats, it’s going to even out whether or not you’re leading off the second inning of an April day game or batting with two on and two out in the eighth down by one on the road in September. Don’t get a sabermetrician started on chemistry. Get the best players. The best players win games. Winning games makes people happy and they develop chemistry. Chemistry, if it exists at all, only does so in the vacuum of analytical player evaluation that leads to winning.

Another reason that implodes the stomach of the analytics crowd is the exact way some players create chemistry. To a Kevin Towers, Martin Prado is the perfect grinder because he’ll do “whatever it takes to win.” A Keith Law wouldn’t care that Prado moved a runner from second to third on a fielder’s choice because he cost the team one of its 27 outs. In analytics, nothing is more important than preserving outs for an offense. The very notion of making an intentional out for the purpose of earning nothing — and second base counts the same in the final score as third base — is the definition of insanity. If intentional outs lead to chemistry, a sabermetrician wants no part of chemistry.

I do believe in chemistry because very few teams have ever won without it. The only teams that won without chemistry had one constant: Reggie Jackson. An analytical mind would say that the chemistry was a byproduct of the chemistry. Although I disagree, I see the analytical point so I won’t fight as hard to keep chemistry in my war chest as I will to convince you that clutch does exist.

Pressure is real. Players have to learn how to deal with pressure or they won’t be able to be counted on in late-game situations, in September or in the postseason. Why is Chad Qualls so dominant when a save isn’t on the line yet a disaster when one is? He’s not clutch.

Let me go to an extreme to prove the point. You and I will play a simple game of checkers. We each get 15 seconds to play. If I go over the 15 seconds, I lose a vacation day at work. If you go over the 15 seconds, you lose a finger. Under those rules, I’m very confident I will win. At some point, you’re going to make a mistake to keep your finger.

I realize checkers and knuckles have nothing to do with baseball, but it establishes that pressure is real and it can affect your decision making. A sabermetrician cannot get me to believe that an obnoxious crowd in old Yankee Stadium during a 2001 November had no effect on Byung-Hyun Kim. He was fried mentally due to the pressure.

If I’ve proven that pressure can have an adverse effect on a player, why can it not have a positive effect? The analytics crowd cannot get over one simple thing, if this is your baseline talent level, you don’t magically get better because there’s pressure. I’m not asking them to get over that issue. I am saying that a clutch player doesn’t go up in talent during a pressure situation; it’s that they are more immune to pressure. They learn to handle the pressure so more of their talent, intelligence and experience comes through. They didn’t get better, they just didn’t get distracted. If one talented player is able to handle the pressure and one is not, it would make sense that the chance of a pitcher not handling the moment would lead to an easier pitch to hit. In that example, you have clutch.

If a sabermetrician accepts that humans play baseball, they must accept humans feel pressure. I’m offering a massive peace treaty by trying to bring the two sides together. I believe in chemistry but I’ll give it up for an acceptance of clutch.

This blog and Tuesday’s is very self-serving for me. The reason is simple: I love analytics and disagree with using it as the be-all-end-all. If I’m in charge of a team (which you and I both know will never happen), I’ve got to bring both sides together because I have so much respect for the guys that have done it on the field but far too often those guys allow feelings to cloud judgment, which a calculator never does.