With the game on the line, I want …

Since the dawn of time, men have been vexed by the singular most puzzling question: Ginger or Mary-Ann? On the one hand, you have the obvious and more sizeable option; on the other hand, you have a prima facie somewhat less appealing choice, but one whose intangibles may be tapped to produce an overall better choice.

This trade-off is one way to look at that intangible skill known as Clutch. Certainly, we can and should accept that Clutch exists in some form and to some extent—not everything that happens is random variation spinning around a constant centered mean. Even so, there is a limit to how much a clutch skill can change your mean center point. No amount of Clutch will make anyone want to choose Marco Scutaro over Alex Rodriguez. Even if Scutaro is the clutchiest player ever, and ARod is the biggest choker ever, when a manager has ARod on deck and Scutaro on the bench, he is not going to call back ARod to put in Scutaro. It simply won’t happen.

So, even if we grant that the clutch skill exists, its practicality is limited to the extent that it can exist. No one believes that the clutch skill is big enough that he would really choose Scutaro over ARod. Jeter over ARod, though? Maybe.

So, the questions are: How big is the clutch skill; and, in practical purposes, how far can Clutch vault a player over a better hitter who doesn’t have as much?

Choices

In baseball, this choice is best represented by Kevin Youkilis, a very good hitter with the Red Sox, and Mike Lowell, another good hitter with the Red Sox who also possesses an intangible to step up his game when the situation warrants it (or so the story goes). To be sure, we are talking about two choices that are in the same ballpark—Mrs. Howell might have even better intangibles, but no amount of Clutch on her part will sway the fans.


We’re also not talking about the Jessica Alba of the Red Sox, the player who possesses both the obvious sizeable appeal and the hard-to-define intangibles. When the game is on the line, David Ortiz is everyone’s choice.


An interesting contrast to Mary-Ann would be Lindsay Lohan, an even more attractive choice than Ginger. In some circles, the intangibles of Ms. Lohan might be enough to undo her appeal, enough to put her at the same level as Mary-Ann. However, as far as Red Sox fans are concerned, Manny being Manny is still a slightly better pick than Mike Lowell. So, although Manny’s talent level is much higher than Lowell’s, there’s a limited gap that Lowell’s (positive) intangibles can cross to try to overcome Manny’s (negative) intangibles.


And so, we are left with a fair fight: Ginger or Mary-Ann. Lowell or Youkilis.

The Nash Equilibrium

The first task is to find such pairs of hitters for each team. It wasn’t easy. I polled the blogosphere and ended up with over 2,200 votes. Half the teams had a Jessica Alba choice: Both sides wanted Ortiz, Vlad, Chipper, David Wright, Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Holiday, and on and on. These guys, as their team’s best hitters and with no close competition with superior intangibles, were discarded from the competition. You might remember the scene in A Beautiful Mind, where John Nash postulated:

If we all go for the blonde and block each other, not a single one of us is going to get her. So then we go for her friends, but they will all give us the cold shoulder because no one likes to be second choice. But what if none of us goes for the blonde? We won’t get in each other’s way and we won’t insult the other girls. It’s the only way to win. It’s the only way we all get laid.

If the clutch-believers can freely choose their players and the just-gimme-the-best believers can freely choose their players, we will end up selecting the same players half the time, thereby making the exercise moot. We need to get rid of those guys that the two sides believe is both the best hitter in a clutch situation and the best hitter overall. The Nash equilibrium forces us to go to the next group of hitters on those teams. In some cases, such as the Braves with Teixeira and McCann (i.e., Scarlett Johansson and Beyonce), I had to go to the fourth best Fan pick (Jeff Francoeur) to go against the team’s fourth best hitter (Kelly Johnson). And Astros fans basically want their best hitters at the bat the whole time.


DISCARDED PICKS

ANA Vladimir Guerrero
ARI Conor Jackson
ATL Chipper Jones
ATL Mark Teixeira
ATL Brian McCann
BOS David Ortiz
BOS Manny Ramirez
COL Matt Holliday
COL Todd Helton
COL Brad Hawpe
CWS Jim Thome
CWS Paul Konerko
FLA Hanley Ramirez
HOU Lance Berkman
HOU Hunter Pence
HOU Carlos Lee
HOU Miguel Tejada
KC. Billy Butler
MIN Joe Mauer
MIN Justin Morneau
NYM David Wright
NYM Moises Alou
NYM Carlos Beltran
PIT Jason Bay
SD. Adrian Gonzalez
STL Albert Pujols
TB. Carlos Pena

On other teams, however, the choice was very clear. Derek Jeter is so beloved by his fans, and ARod, one of the best hitters of his generation, is so… not, that Jeter easily was the Fans’ choice. In this case, ARod’s Lohan lost out to Jeter’s Mary-Ann. So, we add this pair to our competition.

The Reds Fans detest their best hitter (Adam Dunn) so much that they actually selected four different hitters ahead of him. Every time I would check the results, a new leader would emerge. Junior, Scott Hatteberg and Brandon Phillips each would have made a fine choice, but the task will be taken up by Edwin Encarnacion. (And Javy Valentin was just behind Dunn in fan appreciation.) Step right up, Edwin and Adam.

Sometimes, the fight is very close, like with the Phillies. Ryan Howard is a better hitter than Chase Utley, but only ever so slightly. And the Fans, quite forcefully, preferred Utley as their game-on-the-line pick. So, the Fans want Utley, and I want Howard, so that’s what we get. The tightest race was with the Brewers, where Braun is a slightly better hitter than Fielder, but Fielder was slightly more desired by the Fans.

The Molina brothers are beloved by the Fans as well. With Pujols out of the competition, Yadier Molina had it easy with the Cardinals. But the Giants Fans also voted overwhelmingly for their own Molina (Bengie), even though none of their players were discarded. Randy Winn, Ray Durham and Aaron Rowand (a gamer if ever there was one) barely registered a blip with the Giants fans. Clearly, fans need to be emotionally tied to a player before they can grant him Clutch.

And on and on it went, team by team. Ibanez is the Mariners’ best hitter (barely), but he was nowhere to be found underneath the avalanche of Ichiromania. Magglio Ordonez, a great hitter, is the Fans’ pick against an even better hitter, the newly minted Miguel Cabrera.

I went through all 30 teams, and the Fans’ picks are listed below against my picks.


THE PICKS

TeamwOBAClutchwOBABetter OverallGap
ANA 0.321 Garret Anderson 0.354 Casey Kotchman 0.033
ARI 0.343 Orlando Hudson 0.354 Chad Tracy 0.011
ATL 0.341 Jeff Francoeur 0.357 Kelly Johnson 0.016
BAL 0.362 Nick Markakis 0.365 Luke Scott 0.003
BOS 0.342 Mike Lowell 0.360 Kevin Youkilis 0.018
CHC 0.375 Aramis Ramirez 0.388 Derrek Lee 0.013
CIN 0.352 Edwin Encarnacion 0.377 Adam Dunn 0.025
CLE 0.364 Victor Martinez 0.391 Travis Hafner 0.027
COL 0.358 Troy Tulowitzki 0.370 Garrett Atkins 0.012
CWS 0.327 Joe Crede 0.361 Jermaine Dye 0.034
DET 0.380 Magglio Ordonez 0.405 Miguel Cabrera 0.025
FLA 0.345 Dan Uggla 0.359 Jeremy Hermida 0.014
HOU 0.302 Darin Erstad 0.341 Ty Wigginton 0.039
KC. 0.343 Mark Teahen 0.349 Esteban German 0.006
LA. 0.361 Russell Martin 0.378 James Loney 0.017
MIL 0.390 Prince Fielder 0.400 Ryan Braun 0.010
MIN 0.322 Mike Redmond 0.349 Michael Cuddyer 0.027
NYM 0.337 Marlon Anderson 0.353 Carlos Delgado 0.016
NYY 0.367 Derek Jeter 0.406 Alex Rodriguez 0.039
OAK 0.335 Mark Ellis 0.377 Jack Cust 0.042
PHI 0.390 Chase Utley 0.396 Ryan Howard 0.006
PIT 0.343 Freddy Sanchez 0.351 Adam LaRoche 0.008
SD. 0.333 Scott Hairston 0.346 Brian Giles 0.013
SEA 0.342 Ichiro Suzuki 0.345 Raul Ibanez 0.003
SF. 0.321 Bengie Molina 0.347 Aaron Rowand 0.026
STL 0.307 Yadier Molina 0.369 Chris Duncan 0.062
TB. 0.353 Carl Crawford 0.365 B.J. Upton 0.012
TEX 0.353 Michael Young 0.362 Milton Bradley 0.009
TOR 0.341 Matt Stairs 0.357 Frank Thomas 0.016
WAS 0.356 Ryan Zimmerman 0.386 Nick Johnson 0.030
TOTAL 0.347  0.367  0.020

In every case, the guy on the left is the Fans’ pick; the guy on the right is the team’s best hitter that was not discarded. We have a Nash equilibrium, since both sides are happy with their choices, even if it means that both sides must leave the (same) best option on the table.

In addition, I put in some wild cards (see table below). This is most easily explained with Rollins vs. Burrell. Not only did Phillies Fans not select Burrell (a better hitter than Rollins)—many also voted Burrell as “POOR” (the last guy they want with the game on the line). And they loved Rollins so much, he was almost preferred to Ryan Howard. Clearly, a Rollins-Burrell match-up satisfies our needs here.

Another hated player was J.D. Drew; the Red Sox Fans simply don’t want to see him. And whom did the they prefer? Dustin Pedroia, a slightly worse hitter. Take him, with my compliments. Mariners Fans were aghast at the thought of Richie Sexson, so we’ll take him on our team. They can have Yuniesky Betancourt, whom they seem to really, really like.

In each of the cases below, the Fans had a huge gap in love between the pairs of players.



WILDCARDS
TeamwOBAClutchwOBABetter OverallGap
BOS 0.355 Dustin Pedroia 0.359 J.D. Drew 0.004
DET 0.344 Placido Polanco 0.362 Curtis Granderson 0.018
NYY 0.360 Hideki Matsui 0.375 Jason Giambi 0.015
PHI 0.351 Jimmy Rollins 0.376 Pat Burrell 0.025
SEA 0.319 Yuniesky Betancourt 0.341 Richie Sexson 0.022
TOR 0.318 Marco Scutaro 0.337 Vernon Wells 0.019
TOTAL 0.341  0.358  0.017

So, much like Ginger, my hitters have a sizeable advantage. You might think this is not fair, but in each and every case, the Fans preferred their choice to mine. It’s their bed, people. Except that, the Fans’ picks have some intangible quality, like Mary-Ann possesses. And the Fans believe that this intangible quality, this clutch factor, is enough to propel their picks to be at least equal to, if not better than, my picks when the game is on the line.

Technical Notes

wOBA is an overall measure, akin to OBP, except that it weights each event properly. OBP assigns a value of 1.0 to each of a walk, single, and home run; wOBA recasts OBP by giving a walk 0.72, a single 0.90, a double 1.24, a triple 1.56, and a home run 1.95. If I just scared you, just think of wOBA as OBP and you’ll be fine. As you can see, the overall wOBA of the Fans’ picks is some 20 points behind that of my picks.

Also, I should point out that “my” picks are really the picks of Marcel The Monkey Forecasting System. It’s a fairly accurate system that has taken on all comers and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them. The listed wOBA is Marcel’s expectation for 2008 for these 72 hitters.

Fangraphs will be tracking these performances on a daily basis. In technical terms, a game is “on the line” when the Leverage Index (LI) of the plate appearance is at least double the average. So, stop in every few days, and let’s see how they do.

Yeah, but…

I know, I know, you have two questions. I won’t bother writing your questions, since they are so obvious.

To answer your first question: Comparing a player’s performance in high-leverage situations to his performance in other situations was already covered in The Book. Andy Dolphin wrote a whole chapter on it. Long story short, clutch skill exists, but it is very hard to detect in the performance numbers. My study is not related to the question of comparing a player to himself.

To answer your other question: What I’m tackling here is a question of fan perception, of how much Clutch do the Fans believe exists. Clearly, although the Cardinals Fans thinks of Molina as a super-duper clutcheroo player, that is not enough of an edge to vault him over Pujols. Even a clutch believer has a certain level of sanity. That’s what I’m after here. And, on the basis of the above tables, the perception seems to be that the clutch skill can make up for about 20 points of wOBA. That is not insignificant, but it certainly is not a whole lot—just enough to turn Mike Lowell into Kevin Youkilis, or Edwin Encarnacion into Adam Dunn. That’s their perception.

Now, we’ll see if even that perception has any basis in reality. Does Mary-Ann have any intangibles, or should we have stuck with Ginger all along?

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