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Brian Sabean still believes in clutch hitting

Which is fine. But there’s a quick misconception that I’d like to clear up.

San Francisco Giants v Texas Rangers, Game 5 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Brian Sabean was an underrated GM the whole time, it turns out. While I was making fun of him acquiring Rey Sanchez, it turns out that WAR was going to prove him right retroactively. Same with Jose Vizcaino. And it would have told us that Jeff Kent was as valuable as Matt Williams in 1996, except he was younger, cheaper, and playing a tougher position on the defensive spectrum. He was ahead of his time.

But while you can take the brain away from the flip phone, you can’t always take the flip phone away from the brain. The Chronicle published some outtakes from his one-on-one interview with Bruce Jenkins, and this stood out:

And if you’re at the plate, I’ll kiss your ass on Main Street if you tell me certain hitters don’t have a nose for an RBI, the big clutch hit. To the SABR people it’s random circumstance, and I just can’t rationalize that. It’s an art form, a higher level of talent.

Kiss your ass on ... wait, what? But, anyway, I’m not here to make fun of this. I’m here to explain the current stat-nerd orthodoxy. It’s a two-parter.

  1. Based on what we know about the brain and human nature, it’s completely logical to believe that one person might perform better in crucial situations than one of his peers.
  2. Like hell can you tell the difference with your puny human brain.

Your puny human brain is wired to look for patterns and coincidences. It helped us find mastodons to eat. It doesn’t always help us evaluate individual baseball players, though. Anecdotes are powerful and deceptive, and watching a player succeed in the clutch five out of eight times will color your perceptions forever.

Tony Gwynn is often held up as one of the greatest clutch players of all-time, and the stats back that up. He was statistically better in close and late situations. There’s a stat called tOPS+ that measures a player’s adjusted OPS in close and late situations to his overall adjusted OPS. The higher the number, the better that player was in clutch spots compared to his overall numbers. Gwynn was 11 percent better in clutch spots.

Pedro Feliz was 13 percent better in clutch spots compared to his normal body of work. If you buy into tOPS+, he was the 28th clutchest player of all time, relatively speaking.

Jackie Robinson was the second clutchest player of all time ... behind Dan Ford.

Darin Erstad was one of the greatest clutch players of all time ... but Edgar Renteria is one of the worst? I can actually think of an instance in which that was not true, if you can believe it.

If you don’t want to use stuff like close-and-late stats, you’re relying on your eyeballs and a limited data set. Jeff Bagwell sure seemed like the greatest clutch hitter I ever watched, and he hit much better with runners in scoring position. But he hit worse in close-and-late situations. He was far better in blowouts than tie games, but he was also better in high-leverage situations than low-leverage?

It’s all noise. And to pretend like you’re going to see through the matrix and determine who’s actually better in the clutch, well, that’s a very optimistic evaluation of your own abilities.

Yet I know what Sabean means. I’d want Bagwell up with the bases loaded, too. I’ve mentally assigned him a clutch label, and that’s not something I’ll ever give up. I believe that some players are clutch, after all.

I just don’t believe in my ability to tell the difference in a definitive way. That’s a crucial distinction. I’ll kick the tires on the idea that clutch hitters exist, but at the end of the day, I’m not comfortable using anecdotal evidence to assert that a certain player is better when he’s in a tough spot.