Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Most Ridiculous Idea Ever

Clutch hitting. Don't mention it to most sabermetricians. Most of them will tell you it doesn't exist, when in fact it does. One of the biggest problems in sabermetrics is that we've become so inundated with data and numbers that if we can't quantify or project something, we assume that it has no effect. There are clutch hitters in baseball - players who hit better in high leverage situations than the normally do - but we can only identify them when the sample is huge because most of these clutch hitters have such a minute difference in the two situations that in a small sample, you can't be confident that it exists.

Another problem with most sabermetricians is that they fail to acknowledge the "intangibles." But just because we can't measure intangibles doesn't mean they don't exist. I can't measure the effect Kevin Millar has on the Red Sox except by using his offensive and defensive statistics - but there might be some extra positives that he somehow brings by being on the team.

I have this crazy idea that some baseball players have a certain attribute that enable them to win more than others. It enables them to make better decisions in key situations when played over and over. It's a ridiculous idea. "Baseball instincts" is what I call it.

Jason Varitek has it. Bill Mueller has it. Andres Blanco has it. Carlos Beltran now has it. Derek Jeter definitely had it at one time, especially when he made that pitch to Posada to tag out Giambi. Manny Ramirez doesn't have it. Johnny Damon doesn't have it. Kevin Millar doesn't have it. Mike Sweeney doesn't have it.

The players with these instincts will never overextend themselves in key situations and do what they're not supposed to do. For instance - and this is purely unsubstantiated - the actions of Varitek when catching a popup are almost like a checklist: 1) Throw the mask far away 2) Locate the ball 3) Make sure to catch it first 4) Check the runners. It seems that Varitek makes sure never to go from one step to the other without completing the first. Meanwhile, Manny seems all over the place - he'll make an easy drop on a flyball with runners on, he'll cutoff another outfielder's throw, he'll make a terrible throw home missing the cutoff man - spontaneous actions that lack solid reasoning.

Some of these actions can be measured - Manny makes an error, and it goes down on the scorecard. But if I were a GM in a front office, I'd pay a little extra attention to attitude and these instincts, because when two players are pretty even with regards to statistics, I'd take the more intelligent baseball player with common sense every time. The effect of these instincts are most likely very minimal - at most probably a 5-10 run spread between the worst and the best in the league over the course of a season - but something that's been bothering me for awhile. So the next time a smartass sabermetrician tells you that intangibles don't exist, don't be so quick to believe him just because he can't measure it.

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