If I took 100 pennies and I threw them up in the air, about half of them would land heads and the other half tails, right? Now, if I looked around closely, I’d probably find some heads grouped together in a cluster. What does that mean? Does that mean anything?—A Civil Action
Statistics are great. They help us find the answers to important questions. Need to know if smoking causes lung cancer? Look at the data. Wonder if height is correlated with material success? There’s probably a study you can find. Think Albert Pujols is a better hitter than Mickey Mantle? Look it up. Statistics aren’t the final answer to any of these questions, but they certainly help.
The problem with statistics is that, like most great things—the automobile, plutonium, superpowers—they can be very dangerous in the wrong hands. One need only to look at the myth of baseball’s “clutch players” to see how statistics can be misinterpreted.
One week ago, Alex Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero were first-ballot Hall of Famers. CC Sabathia was one of the best pitchers in the game. But all three had reputations as guys who couldn’t come through in the playoffs. They were not “clutch players.” Clutch players are guys like Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and Cole Hamels.
Except here’s the thing: Rodriguez and Guerrero each had clutch ninth-inning hits in their division series. Sabathia gave up one run in seven innings vs. the Twins. Meanwhile, Ortiz went 1-for-12 with no walks and three strikeouts, and Hamels gave up four runs in five innings at home (Derek Jeter had a great series, but that’s because Derek Jeter is fucking awesome).
So what happened? Did A-Rod, Vlad and CC all suddenly learn how to be clutch players? Did Ortiz and Hamels just forget? Neither. The truth is this: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A CLUTCH PLAYER. Continue reading »