Robinson Cano and Playoff Success (Or Jorge Posada and the Lack Thereof)

In 2007 Cano roped 2 home runs in the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians on his way to a .333/.375/.800 line that couldn’t help the Yankees get into the next round. After an off-year in 2008, Cano stumbled out of the block in 2009 with a .167/.167/.167 line in the ALDS before recovering in the ALCS to notch a .261/.414/.478 line. He shrank again in the World Series to an awful .136/.130/.136 line. So, he’s gone from a big-game hitter to a not-so-much-of-a-big-game hitter back to a big-game hitter before choking and then recovering from the yips this postseason. Does that make sense to you? Nah, me either.

No, it’s seems more likely that Cano is simply an excellent hitter who ran through an excellent patch of the season, just a slew of games that are coming at the right time (Larry touched on this earlier). Now, it should also be noted that it is more likely that Cano will do this than, say, Francisco Cervelli, but that has more to do with Cano being a good hitter than Cano being more clutch. In a similar line of thinking, good teams that run through the playoffs aren’t really more clutch than other teams. They are just playing well at the right time, but yes, it’s more likely that that the 97-win team will play well than the 89-win team. But again, that has more to do with the 97-win team being better.

Looking from the opposite perspective, Jorge Posada didn’t have an inspiring postseason. He hit .273/.333/.273 in the ALDS before a .263/.300/.368 line in the ALCS. Before you go any farther, what’s your impression of Posada? Clutch or unclutch? Well, his line for his CAREER in the postseason is .241/.349/.381. Ew. So why is that? Is Jorge just a choker? After posting a career regular season line of .275/.377/.479, does he really just fall apart in the postseason? And if he does, how does one explain all the good series (and there are some) he has had in previous postseasons? Now, I’m willing to admit that, after 119 games in the playoffs, there might be something off about Posada in the playoffs. 119 games is still a pretty small sample size, but his lines are not even close to being close. It makes you wonder about “clutchness”, doesn’t it? Sure, but you shouldn’t start there. What other reasons are there? One of the more plausible answers, after dismissing better pitching (sure, but other guys hit okay against those guys) and cold weather (ditto earlier parenthetical), is that the long season for catchers wear on them more. You’ll note that Posada still draws a fair amount of walks in the postseason, leading to a decent OBP, but his power, nahmally good, is absolutely gone. Would the wear-and-tear of a long season on those legs do the trick? I’d be more inclined to believe that than Jorge “I’ve been awesome in New York all my life” Posada can’t perform under pressure, but I’m open to debate. When you look at other players, search for other answers first.

So what’s my point? Am I just trying to rain on Cano’s parade? Nope. I like Cano. I thought he got a bad rap in 2008 when his BABiP tanked. Nope, my point is to make you hesitate a little before naming guys “clutch” and “choker” because it’s often unfair (results bias–if you change your reasoning simply as a result of the result, it’s probably not good reasoning). You have to realize that the playoffs are really just an extension to the season and are bound to the same fluctuations that 5-10 games during the season are. Sometimes you’re good, and sometimes you’re not. Some guys just don’t play well for a few games. Cano was on fire, and he deserves all the praise you can give him about his hitting prowess. But good hitters are just more likely to do well simply because they’re more talented. Alex Rodriguez, the king of chokers (apparently), has a  .290/.395/.528 line in the playoffs, which is just slightly down from his .303/.387/.571 line during the regular season. Don’t let your perceptions of a few games mar your image of a player. It’s disappointing to lose, and it’s understandable to be frustrated. Just take it out on Lady Fortune and not the players, who work their hardest but are at the Lady’s mercy.

Now, about Brooks Conrad … just don’t get me started … something about exceptions to every rule.

7 thoughts on “Robinson Cano and Playoff Success (Or Jorge Posada and the Lack Thereof)

  1. Well every player says the playoffs are different than the regular season. And they feel a different kind or more intense pressure during the games and key points//plays. Everyone responds to this pressure differently. Even away from sports, think about in real life. Some people can't handle deadlines or having there back against the wall, all eyes on them//everyone counting on them. But some people respond to the pressure very well, hell some people ONLY respond when shit gets real and hits the fan. Why wouldn't the same type of thing apply to sports? Some athletes you see the fear in there eyes, or the calm cool collectiveness. In basketball some players want the ball with a second to go and some don't, and in the playoffs I'm sure the "don't" bunch increases.

    Some kids in school aren't good test takers, great on attendance home work, class participation but once they stare @ that scantron and grab open the booklet? All the info from last nights study session is gone. I know singers that sound great when its in a comfortable setting, just a couple people. But are deathly afraid to be on stage or sing in front of strangers. The better the player the more likely it is that they will perform well in the playoffs, 100% no doubt about it, its true. But its not definite just more likely that they will, and the reason its not definite is because of the pressure I believe, and not everyone can handle it.

    Simply put, pressure busts pipes

  2. Jones, you're absolutely right, but the guys who get their pipes busted rarely make it to the major leagues. We've talked a lot here about the quality of "clutch", and about the various sabermetric studies that have tried to determine whether "clutch" truly exists. You can read me riff on this subject here:

    Most of the people who've tried to study "clutch" have concluded that the quality does not exist. Please understand, of course there's such a thing as a clutch hit, a hit that comes at precisely the right time. Moreover, in any year you can identify the guys who got the highest percentage of clutch hits. But it appears that the ability to deliver clutch hits is not repeatable — the guys who do it in one year fail to do it in following years. It's like what we say about Batting Average on Balls in Play — someone like Josh Hamilton may have a season like 2010 when he produces a BABiP way above average, but we can be reasonably certain that he's not going to do it two years in a row, or three. If a player cannot maintain a high rate of clutch hits from year to year, then we have to assume that the clutch hitting we're measuring is a matter of (1) the skill required to hit well in general, and (2) the luck needed to get those hits at the best possible times.

    There are guys out there who think they've been able to measure a sustainable kind of clutch hitting. But even the most bullish guys who've looked at clutch hitting conclude that it's a subtle effect, a small thing. Maybe the best clutch hitters can raise their batting average by 15 or 20 points in clutch situations, so a .300 hitter under normal circumstances might become a .320 hitter in clutch situations. That's a nice quality to have! But it still means that the most clutch guy you can think of can only deliver an extra hit in 50 clutch at bats. I don't think any of the Yankees even HAD 50 at bats in this post-season. So we're not talking about a huge effect no matter which study we might be reading.

    Jones, I know, what I've said above flies in the face of everything we've ever been told about baseball in general and the Yankees in particular. It flies in the face of what baseball players tell us about clutch and pressure. And it may simply be the case that, despite 20 years of effort by some of the smartest people on the planet, we just haven't figured out yet how to properly measure clutch. But I kind of doubt that.

    Think of it this way. What would you say about a baseball player who "dogged it" in the early innings and less important games, but turned on his true talent only when the spotlight was brightest and he was most likely to make headlines? We'd call that guy a "hot dog" or a "glory hound" or something like that. Why wouldn't we expect our best players to perform at their best all of the time, or 99% of the time? If a player only performs at his best in a clutch situation, that's a player that's probably not going to cut it in the major leagues.

    You've described clutch as being the ability to handle pressure, to keep their cool. I agree 100%, and I while I have my doubts about "clutch", I have no doubts about "choke". I think what we hope for is for players who perform equally well whether the pressure is on or not. But I doubt that any ballplayer will get as far as the major leagues if he's a choker. The chokers of the world will flame out in high school baseball or in the minor leagues (believe me, when you're playing for peanuts and borrowing from your parents just to make ends meet, you're under plenty of pressure even if you're playing in Altoona).

    • Your third paragraph is the kicker. On a purely subjective basis – it sure is hard to think that the "best" clutch hitter in existence gets one extra hit per 50 abs. The numbers are there. But its still hard to buy into.

      Shoot – that must explain why no one on the team got the clutch hits when we needed them in the ALCS. ;)

  3. Awesome article and comment thread. New York fans need to hear this. Yankee fans believe in clutch the way Mormons believe in Joseph Smith: they believe in it, and they shouldn't.

  4. Well if you can choke, then I'd think you can be clutch, but I guess its better to just be avg than "choke" meaning your not necessarily clutch but @ least not a choker. But can have you have one w/o the other? If you didn't choke then you were clutch right? Players say they focus more in the playoffs or @ important points of a game, it seems they approach the playoffs much differently than the regular season. Is clutch more mental and internal like heart? And not something you can measure perhaps? I don't really know just wondering. Maybe its harder to judge in baseball cause you fail more than you succeed?

    Has anyone tried to measure clutch in any other sports? It seems obvious to me in the nba but it's easier for one person to influence or take over a game than you can in baseball. Maybe you can't measure it and its not actually real but if its real in your mind then its gonna affect how you play. I wonder how actual baseball players, on any level, feel about clutch? If players stopped believing in clutch how would that affect there play? Or is it even possible to not believe in it @ this point since we've been told it exists for so long?

    • I haven't seen the numbers for "clutch" in the NBA, but I have seen a related study about "hot". I'll post the link later if I find it.

      Everybody knows how you get "the hot hand" in hoops, right? Well, what they found would surprise you – or would surprise you, if you haven't read the above about "clutch". The study showed that "hot" is actually a negative effect. In other words, a player shooting well at the beginning of a game will shoot worse later. The study found that the players *believed* they were hot and took worse shots! Well, the study didn't probe their minds, but it showed that the "hot" players took more difficult shots, negatively affecting their results. Now that you hear that, you might say "hmmm, I *have* seen that. I've been on a team with a guy who never passed after hitting a couple of shots early". This was, if I recall correctly, based on a study of NBA players.

      Just to be clear, this was a single study and I didn't analyze the results that carefully. However, assuming the results are accurate, it represents another case where "we all know that X exists, because we've seen it" gets shot down by the facts and, when we think carefully about "what we've seen" doesn't seem unreasonable.

    • Jones, I won't dispute that players may (might) try harder in the playoffs or may care more. The problem is that A) effort does not necessarily correlate with results, B) both sides are trying harder (ie. in this instance, we are looking at the batter's point of view, but the pitcher is also working harder), and C) there's no real way at all to figure out where and how much clutch plays a part and/or if it has a positive or negative effect.

      And if a player was "clutch" or a "choker", it would show up in the stats. If he was a good clutch hitter, he would do significantly better in those situations, or if he choked, he would do worse. Of course, then you need a significant enough sample size to prove your premise.

      And if a player was "clutch" or worked harder in one at-bat than another, you should probably be pissed. If he figured out a magic formula for getting more hits in a certain situation, I want him doing it all the time, not just occasionally.