A-Rod is clutch? Not so fast, my friend

Alex Rodriguez’s torrid start to the Major League Baseball season has given him the league lead in home runs and runs batted in, on top of hitting two game-winning walk-off home runs. Rodriguez is the first player in American League history to hit 10 home runs in his club’s first 14 games. The New York Yankees’ third baseman brings up the much-debatable and controversial topic of whether or not athletes have the innate ability of being clutch.

I hate to burst your bubble, but clutch abilities don’t exist. Rodriguez could hit four more walk-off home runs next week and I still wouldn’t change my story. With the Yankees down by three runs, he could turn an unassisted triple play in the top half of the ninth and then hit a walk-off game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the ninth one-handed while blindfolded, and I would be amazed and TiVo the replay, but I still wouldn’t say he’s a clutch athlete.

Let me clarify the terminology here. Clutch means performing well under pressure. The two game-winning home runs Rodriguez hit were clutch because of their importance, but he possesses no innate ability to perform in pressure-filled situations. Being clutch is not some skill that some players possess and others don’t.

Rodriguez is a perfect example to back up the argument. We are talking about the same player who last year struggled at the plate and in the field, was booed by Yankee fans, and hit rock bottom during the Detroit Tigers’ sweep of the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs. He wasn’t very clutch then; what’s different now? Oh I know, he took some “clutch” classes during the off-season at a nearby community college and hired a tutor to help him improve his “clutch” skills.

Sports analysts have studied the concept of a clutch play, and they were paid to do it. (Talk about living the dream.) Writer, historian, and statistician Bill James is one person who is skeptical of a player having the skill of being clutch. His argument is: How can a player who possesses the skills (reflexes, batting stroke, knowledge, experience) to be a .260 hitter in normal circumstances magically become a .300 hitter when the game is on the line?

Up to this point no one has found a process to explain this situation. Most studies done show there’s very little, if any, carryover from one year to the next of a player’s stats in clutch situations (runners in scoring position, late in close games).

In fact, studies conclude that a (widely considered) clutch player’s career stats in pressure situations are strikingly similar to those of a player who’s been deemed to choke under pressure. Apparently a clutch player’s reputation precedes him.

This doesn’t stop the media from calling players clutch. The Boston Red Sox’s David Ortiz (a.k.a. Big Papi) is one such example. His performance in the 2004 playoffs when the Red Sox beat the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, then came back to beat the Yankees, and then defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series was incredible.

In case any Angels or Yankee fans have forgotten, Ortiz first hit a walk-off home run in the 10th inning of game three to complete the sweep of the Angels. Next, in game four of the Yankees series, with the Yankees on the verge of a four-game sweep, he hit a walk-off home run to win the game in the 12th inning. In game five, he hit a walk-off single in the 14th inning to score Johnny Damon and win the game. Ortiz was later given a plaque naming him “The Greatest Clutch Hitter in Red Sox History.”

I’ve just focused on baseball, but this same basic argument that being clutch is not an innate skill can hold true for other sports like football and basketball. Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Robert Horry, and Gilbert Arenas are considered clutch players by many, yet it’s not as if they are all of a sudden better players because it is crunch time instead of earlier in the game.

Next time Rodriguez comes up in the ninth with the game on the line, don’t think he’s magically been transformed into a better player compared to who he was in the first inning. Yankees fans, you shouldn’t let this news make you lose confidence. Regular and everyday Alex Rodriguez is scary enough as it is for opposing pitchers and managers.