“He genuinely likes it,” said Red Sox right-hander John Lackey, who will take the mound on Tuesday with the series tied at a game apiece. “He enjoys all the lights on him. You saw last night he didn’t get that fired up about it at the end. It was almost like he expected to do it.”
So what Ortiz did Sunday night, in creaming Joaquin Benoit’s first-pitch change-up for a game-tying, series-altering grand slam, was add to his own well-established folklore. Because he has performed such feats before — playing a monstrous role in the Red Sox’ comeback from a three-game deficit in the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees and helping Boston to another title in 2007 — he is the embodiment of what baseball fans, baseball players, baseball people have anecdotally and traditionally labeled “clutch.”
“Maybe it’s because he’s done this before,” Boston Manager John Farrell said.
But the construction of such a narrative around a single player — and Ortiz is only a current example of such a phenomenon — brings about one of the game’s longest-held and most fiercely argued debates. No sport is broken down statistically like baseball, and for the better part of the past quarter century, statistics would show that no matter how you characterize a “clutch” situation — say, after the seventh inning in which your team is tied or down by no more than three runs — “clutch” players just don’t exist.
“Over the course of a game, a month, a season or a career, there is virtually no evidence that any player or group of players possesses an ability to outperform his established level of ability in clutch situations, however defined,” wrote Joe Sheehan for Baseball Prospectus, a prominent Web site devoted to the statistical analysis of the game, in 2004.
The Society for American Baseball Research, whose work has defined the use of numbers that now shape the decisions made by many baseball front offices, published an article called “The Statistical Mirage of Clutch Hitting” that refutes other research, particularly by the Elias Sports Bureau, that supported the idea of clutch hitting in the mid-1980s. “In each case, the signal is clear that their definition is simply a statistical artifact with no predictive value, and that its distribution is random,” wrote Harold Brooks, its author.