DETROIT — On an October night 11 years ago, David Ortiz, then a little-known 26-year-old designated hitter for the Minnesota Twins, took the field for the first playoff game of his career. He batted cleanup against Oakland stud Tim Hudson and went 0 for 5, striking out three times. He was benched for Game 2 of that division series and was hitless in three at-bats in the third game before he was lifted for a pinch hitter named Bobby Kielty. That winter, the Twins — concerned with how much Ortiz’s $950,000 salary would increase in arbitration — didn’t tender him a contract, and he walked away into an uncertain career.
Consider the gulf between those moments more than a decade ago and the position Ortiz occupies now. Currently, there is one hitter the Boston Red Sox would want at the plate in the situation Ortiz faced Sunday night: bases loaded, two outs, trailing Detroit by four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. It is Ortiz.
“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.
Try taking that information to a baseball clubhouse.
“Some guys have the ability that when the game gets going fast and situations get going, the crowd gets going, all-eyes-on-me-type attitude, they have the ability to keep things simple and slow things down,” veteran Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster said. “Some guys, it speeds up on them, and some guys slow it down. There’s guys like David, they just have the ability to treat it like it’s a spring training at-bat. It really is. It’s no different. If anything, they become more locked in and more focused. It’s incredible.”
But the start to Ortiz’s postseason career shows that such qualities might not be inherent. In his first 20 postseason games, Ortiz hit .211 and slugged .310 with one home run.
The moments outweigh the numbers. His reputation for such performances began in the 2003 playoffs with the Red Sox, when he delivered a two-run double in the bottom of the eighth inning against Oakland in Game 4 of the division series, when Boston faced elimination. That turned a deficit into a lead, and the legend began.
Fans will remember his grand slam from Sunday night right alongside the walk-off two-run homer he hit to keep the Red Sox alive in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, the walk-off homer he hit to end the division series against the Angels that same year, and so on.
But Ortiz has played 72 postseason games and had 315 plate appearances — roughly half a season — in which he has hit .284 with a .394 on-base percentage and a .542 slugging percentage. That almost matches his line over 17 regular seasons: .287/.381/.549. According to baseball-reference.com, his numbers in “late and close” situations — defined by the Web site as in the seventh inning or later when the batting team is tied, ahead by one, or the tying run is at least on deck — are worse than his standard: .260/.373/.502.
Still, Sunday night, the moment found Ortiz yet again. “Probably not another guy on the planet that I’d want in the box,” said Boston left fielder Jonny Gomes, who scored the winning run in the ninth.
“When there’s a lot on the line, some people crumble,” Gomes said. “Some people don’t want to take the last shot. Some people pass. Some people do. Some people can’t handle the failure of the big moment.”
Players and coaches talk about the feel of the situation, not the numbers, and they do so passionately. Look at how Ortiz reacted after he crossed home plate, after he reached the dugout Sunday, all but shrugging as he exchanged high-fives with delirious teammates.
“There’s a calmness and presence about him in those key moments,” Farrell said. “His emotional control allows him to perform as he does.”
Justin Verlander, the former Cy Young and MVP winner who will oppose the Red Sox on Tuesday, said there are “absolutely” clutch players.
“I think David is the perfect example of that,” Verlander said. “You look at what he’s done for this organization. In big spots, he’s the guy that you want up at the plate.”
Sunday night, he was, and he delivered. What will Tuesday bring, should the same spot arise? The numbers would tell us there’s no way to know. The Red Sox would tell us that’s crazy.