Use the word clutch in ordinary conversation to a sabermetrician and you’ll get the look. It’s similar to what a botanist does when encountering a new species of weed. A glance that says this again? Really?
The look is that special grimace of pity and consternation usually reserved for children or the religious - for anyone either unqualified due to youth or who has thrown in the towel rather than put in the work to face an enormously complex reality. In the look is a tut-tutting built upon a mountain of data, a set of experiences and evidence that says the stuff you think happens doesn’t actually happen, or happens for reasons you have no idea about. In short, clutch is bullshit, say the statheads.
But data doesn’t reflect the deep subjectivity of some concepts embedded in some words. Clutch is not statistically quantifiable in the first place, at least not in terms that adequately match the psychology surrounding its use. Clutch is a recollection of specific game situations — of which there are only a few in a season, the more casual the fan, the fewer the recalled situations — where a player in a failure-based game failed to fail. If he fails this way a couple of times, he’s clearly clutch.
Called to an NCLS Game 7, in a Gwen Knapp article, the Cardinals Kyle Lohse explains the flip side of clutch: “gamers”.
“Unfortunately, we don’t win until we absolutely need to,” said Kyle Lohse, who will start in Monday night’s survival game instead of prepping to face the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
Both teams love cheating death. The Cardinals have done it in six straight elimination games going back to last season. The Giants are 5-0 in the same situation this year.
“They have the guys who have done it, too,” the Cardinals’ Lance Berkman said, “which is one of the things that makes tomorrow night so intriguing, because I don’t think you’re going to see a choke factor.”
Berkman, recovering from an injury and inactive in this series, gave an eloquent tutorial on one of the most controversial concepts in sports. He does not acknowledge “clutch,” a mystical element that marks players and teams that succeed under the ultimate pressure. For true believers, a Game 7 would be the ultimate test of an athlete’s ability to elevate in big games. Berkman is not a true believer.
“Instead of clutch, there are guys I would call gamers,” he said, “guys that are just the same on Tuesday nights in the middle of June as under the brightest lights.”
This is why the idea of clutch will never go away: when you say a baseball player is the same on a Tuesday in June than in a Game 7, you’re only saying his rates of failure are comparable, irrespective of pressure. But a genuine pressure in the form of constant failure is always there. Clutch is only a coincidental, momentary exception to the overwhelming and natural state of failure that baseball celebrates. The clutch double and the leadoff double in May with a 6 run lead are both relatively rare; it’s only the Game Sevens that aren’t.