Clutch Hitting and Curses: Reality or Fiction?

Baseball seems obsessed with curses. The Curse of the Bambino. The Curse of Billy the Goat. The Curse of the Black Sox. The Curse of Rocky Colavito. The Curse of Captain Eddie. Our affinity for baseball curses has even crossed the Pacific, where my personal favorite curse struck Japan’s Hanshin Tigers: The Curse of the Colonel. In 1985 a statue of famed KFC icon Colonel Sanders was tossed into a canal by a Tigers fan during a post-game celebration. The Tigers have yet to win since. As a writer I am inclined to think such superstitions are about as grounded as our worries over broken mirrors or spilt salt, but as a fan and a former player, these “rules” are a part of me, a part of my connection with the game that I love. Throw me back on the field and I will absolutely follow these (unwritten) rules of the game. Do not touch the chalk of the baseline when coming on and off the field. Do shake your hat, or rub two fingers against your hat, or shoot an imaginary projectile-based weapon (I prefer the crossbow.) at the batter when the deuces are wild (a 2-2-2 count). Always use the same bat—unless you are in a slump, of course.

Slumping hitters will try anything to break out of it. Manny Ramirez supposedly will steal and wear t-shirts and socks out of the lockers of teammates who are hitting well. Other players have not worn underwear, worn certain lucky underwear, cut their hair, shaved their beard, changed their diet, not slept—the list is endless. Which brings us to one of the slumping mysteries of the decade: A-Rod’s postseason funk. Excluding this October, since 2005, A-Rod was hitting just .159 with 2 extra base hits and 15 strikeouts in 44 ABs. More alarmingly he struggled mightily in big situations, earning the reputation of a choke artist who cannot perform when it matters most.

A-Rod’s struggles have not been contained to his Yankee status either. Even Texas, where baseball is often cast aside in the public consciousness by a certain pig-skinned sport, has been affected. My hometown Texas Rangers (2010 is our year!), along with Rodriguez’s first stop, the Seattle Mariners, and of course the New York Yankees, were supposedly cursed by one of baseball’s greatest. Because of the oddity that is the baseball universe, following Rodriguez’s poor postseason efforts since arriving in the Big Apple, it seems somehow strangely logical that his inability to hit in clutch situations has been associated with curses and that the remedy must come from superstition.

But now, in the midst of the 2009 MLB postseason, the Yankees’ two playoff series victories could have been significantly more difficult without A-Rod’s home-run heroics in game two of the ALDS and game two of ALCS. As the talk of the town goes, A-Rod’s hot streak has supposedly simultaneously broken the Curse of A-Rod and helped A-Rod transform from a Bronx Bust to Mr. Clutch.

Clearly the curse could not have just gone away; it is a curse after all. No. It must have been some thing that broke it. Of course! A-Rod has “got his mind right,” and now can perform in “clutch” situations, where he could not before. Which brings me, albeit not quite coherently (cut me some slack—this is my first column), to my main point. Clutch hitting does not exist, at least not to the extent many want to believe.

The fact is A-Rod has just started to hit the ball. Rodriguez has hit .438/.548/.969 (AVG/OBP/SLG) this postseason. He has hit five A-Bombs, knocked in 12 Yankees, taken nine free passes and gone down on strikes just five times. He has even stolen base! There is nothing to point to: no bat change, no glove change, no underwear change. The man is just doing what he does: being good at baseball.

A sport overwrought with superstition and curses must have an explanation for everything: When a player goes into a slump, “he is pressing;” when he is on a tear, “he is really locked in.” Sure, confidence and swagger are not completely irrelevant, but as Baseball Prospectus’ Nate Silver has put it, it is not “clutch” ability that is ultimately important. Rather, “it’s the big three that prevail: Pitch the ball, catch the ball, and most of all hit the ball.”

Consider David Ortiz’s 2005 campaign, widely considered one of the best clutch hitting years by any player in the history of the game. He hit .352 with RISP, had 148 RBI, and hit 20 homers that either tied the game or put his Red Sox ahead. This was all on the heels of one of the most memorable Octobers by any player ever, in which it seemed as if every game was in Big Papi’s hands. Clearly, Ortiz is clutch, right? Well, if you adjust proportionally for situations that more significantly influence the outcome of the game (clutch situations), outside of 2000 and 2005, Ortiz did not perform any better in clutch situations than he did in “normal” situations.

Rodriguez is a good player—a really, really good player. Good power hitters are more likely than other players to hit home runs when the game is on the line, but this is in large part because they are more likely than other players to hit a home run in any and every plate appearance. Like any player, A-Rod is susceptible to slumps, and not because he is “in a bad place,” but simply because players come to plate 700 times a season; mere chance dictates he is going to string together 35 or 40 bad ones in a row every now and again. A-Rod has not broken any curse, baseball has simply done what it always does: grind out to an equilibrium over time. Clutch hitting is not completely nonexistent, but it surely is not what many people make it out to be.

The curses are fun while they last I guess, but it is time for baseball to move past this obsession. If a player does not hit well in three straight postseasons that span a whopping 44 at-bats, it does not mean he needs to finally wash his lucky hat, or change out his glove, or sacrifice a live chicken Pedro Cerrano style, he just needs to wait it out—keep playing the game, and he will hit … eventually. Case in point: the 2009 postseason.

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