Monday, October 28, 2013
David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran and clutch
By David Schoenfield
David Ortiz, in his major league career, is hitting .287/.381/.549. In 80 games in the postseason, he's hitting .290/.399/.548. In his career with the Red Sox, he's homered once every 15.0 at-bats; in his postseason career with the Red Sox, he's homered once every 15.9 at-bats.
David Ortiz has, essentially, been the exact same hitter in the postseason as he has in the regular season. Yes, you can argue that he faces better pitching in the postseason so has actually raised his game a bit after factoring that in. But it still stands that Ortiz's reputation as a clutch hitter in October exists not because his production has increased but because he's delivered some huge -- sometimes game-altering, sometimes game-winning -- hits in his career, hits and home runs that Red Sox fans can reel off like their cell phone number.
He's added to that reputation this October. In the first four games of the World Series he's 8-for-11 with two home runs, four walks, no strikeouts and a .727/.750/1.364 slash line. Against the Tigers he went just 2-for-22 but one of those two hits was the crucial grand slam off Joaquin Benoit.
Of course, we don't remember the failures quite as readily. For example, here are five games from Ortiz's postseason career with the Red Sox:
- 2003 ALDS, Game 1: 0-for-5 with a walk in 5-4 loss to Oakland in 12 innings. Struck out in the 12th with Manny Ramirez on second and no outs.
- 2007 ALCS, Game 7: Went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts. But nobody remembers since Boston beat Cleveland 11-2.
- 2008 ALCS, Game 7: 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts in a 3-1 loss to Tampa Bay. Struck out into a double play in the sixth. Grounded out with two runners on in the eighth.
- 2009 ALDS, Game 1: Went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in a 5-0 loss to the Angels.
- 2013 ALCS, Game 1: 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in a 1-0 loss to Detroit. Struck out the in the sixth with Dustin Pedroia on second and one out.
The point here: David Ortiz is a great hitter at any time, whether its April 17 or Oct. 24. You certainly want him up there in an important situation. But the concept of clutch hitting as a character trait should be separated from the concept of a clutch hit delivered at a big moment. I've never understood the desire to ascribe such an attribute anyway. Is it our wish to remove randomness from the course of events? That Ortiz hit that home run not because that was the time he happened to guess right against Benoit (or guess right and make good contact) but because he summoned his inner clutchness. That he rose to the occasion. That he wanted to be up there. That he didn't wilt under the pressure like a Drew brother.
Joe Posnanski wrote a much longer piece on the "Tao of Clutchiness" the other day and made a good point:
But this is exactly what I mean when I say I think I've been looking at clutch hitting wrong. I've spent a lot of time comparing players to THEMSELVES. Maybe you have too. And, in the end, I think that's self-defeating. Some players might like being in the big moment more than others, some might feel like curling up in a ball when the game is on the line, but dammit we just can't find that in the numbers. That force, if it exists at all, is too small to register on even the most sensitive seismometers.
But are there clutch hitters? YES! DEFINITELY! UNQUESTIONABLY! Frank you are OK! Frank refers to basketball teams he covered and the coaches and players who were convinced that "certain teammates didn't want the ball at the end of a close game or craved it."
Well, this is absolutely true in baseball too. It just so happens those players who crave the at-bat in the biggest moments tend to also be very good always. Is Derek Jeter a clutch hitter? OF COURSE HE IS. He's not necessarily clutch when you compare him to himself. But he's an amazing clutch hitter compared to Juan Pierre or Orlando Cabrera or A.J. Pierzynski or a bunch of other good players who are simply not Derek Jeter.
In other words, the Cardinals should be scared of Ortiz right now not because he's clutch but because he's good. Very good.
* * * *
Then there's Carlos Beltran. He's 6-for-8 this postseason with runners in scoring position. He's hitting just .265 this October but has 14 RBIs in 15 games. He's been clutch. Everyone keeps saying it.
An interesting note about Beltran. In his postseason career -- which includes stints with the Astros in 2004, the Mets in 2006 and the Cardinals the past two seasons, he has 35 walks (two intentional) and 26 strikeouts. This year, he has 10 walks (one intentional) and six strikeouts. Since 2004, in the regular season, he has 887 strikeouts and 655 walks. In 2013, he had 90 strikeouts and 38 walks.
So here's the question: Is Beltran a different hitter in the postseason? Are those walks merely a result of pitchers pitching around him, believing in his "clutch" hitting ability in October? Or does Beltran change his approach, putting more emphasis on contact and patience? Maybe he just focuses better in October. And if his approach is different, and that's why he does well in October, does that then make him a clutch hitter?
(It should be pointed out that even when removing his monster 2004 postseason, when he hit eight home runs in 12 games with the Astros, his postseason line is .299/.413/.583 with 25 RBIs in 37 games, still an improvement over his regular-season numbers, although not as dramatically so.)
Maybe Beltran is clutch, although we're still talking about a small sample size of 49 games. Also, in the biggest at-bat of his career, he struck out looking against a rookie relief pitcher in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
Maybe you want to believe in clutch hitting. I prefer to enjoy that I have no idea what Ortiz or Beltran will do in a big moment, that it's more fun to root for ballplayers than superheroes.