clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Thinking about pressure, clutch performance, BABIP, and fuzziness

So last night, I saw a tweet from Keith Law that got me thinking.  Here's his tweet in its entirety:

No, not really. RT @nickelring @keithlaw Its easier to pitch good when no one is watching or cares what happens.

For those who aren't conversant with tweet-speak, the tweeter known as "nickelring" said to Keith Law that "Its easier to pitch good* when no one is watching or cares what happens," and Keith says, "No, not really."

*  Yes, it should be "pitch well."  I have to note this, otherwise Ben will complain in the comments.

It got me thinking about the notion of performing under pressure versus not under pressure.  Is it harder to perform when a lot is on the line?  In certain sports, yes, I think so.  The classic example would be golf...if you've got a $500,000 putt, you are likely to be charged with adrenaline, which makes your hands shake, which makes it a lot harder to putt accurately.  That's why there's controversy over golfers supposedly using beta blockers, which supposedly calm the mind and allow the player to putt without jangled nerves.

And the notion of there being no difference between pitching with 50,000 people in the stands and tens of millions watching on TV and pitching with 50 people in the stands and no one watching on TV is counter-intuitive, to say the least.  Common sense says that it is easier to perform in the latter situation.

Of course, it is counter-intuitive that the earth revolves around the sun, and common sense is what tells you the world is flat, but nevertheless, on a personal level, I think it would be easier for me to go out and throw strikes on a field with no one watching than it would be with a huge audience and lots riding on my performance. 

But even if I'm right, and even if it would be easier for me to do what?  Law and nickelring aren't talking about me, or any other random guy off the street.  They are talking about a professional athlete.  They are, in particular, talking about a professional baseball player, who has run a gauntlet and defied the odds to make it to the major leagues.  They are talking about someone who is the best of the best, who has dedicated their life to honing their skills and their ability to pitching a baseball or hitting a baseball or fielding a baseball.  The ability of the best of the best to do something with millions of eyes on them is a lot different than you or I.

And beyond the talent level, if a baseball player can't perform under pressure, he's not going to make the major leagues.  If he's an American, he's had to perform under pressure trying to get on Little League select teams, then in high school and college play, trying to earn playing time, earn a scholarship, earn a high draft slot.  He's had to play in front of scouts watching his every move, knowing that those scouts' opinions could mean tens, or hundreds, of thousands of dollars.  If he's not from America, he's had to perform at age 15 or 16 with scouts watching his every move, knowing that what he does for these scouts could mean a big signing bonus and a new life for his family. 

Once in the minors, the player is performing every day to show that he's worthy of staying in the organization, he's worthy of promotion, he's worthy of being on the 40 man roster.  Every time a player takes a step up the ladder, the quality of opposition increases, and he faces that much more pressure to show the people watching him every day that he has a future, that he can be a major league player.  "Moneyball" talked about that issue with Billy Beane, and how that contributed to Beane's downfall as a player.

So I don't think that Keith Law, if he had more room to respond,* would necessarily say that there's no difference for the average person of the street pitching in front of a huge crowd versus no one.  But there is a difference with a professional player...there's a selection process in place where a professional player who can't perform as well when eyes are on him or the pressure is on is going to have been weeded out before he gets to the majors, simply because he's not going to have been able to have performed well enough on his way up the ladder to get to the majors in the first place.

*  Given the character limitations, Twitter is not conducive to nuance, unless you go all Buster Olney and just say whatever you have to say in full, stretched across 7 or 8 different tweets.

It is ultimately a complicated issue, one that can be simplified to get the ultimately gist across, but I can understand why someone would look at Keith's response and say, he's full of crap.  It is a fuzzy area.

I think there's a similar issue with talking about clutch performance.  Discussion of clutch performance is usually simply a binary issue -- either there's clutch ability or there isn't.  Statistical studies indicate that players with enough plate appearances to have a statistically meaningful sample to work off of don't deviate from their expected performance in "clutch" situations by a statistically relevant amount.  The response is, get your nose out of a book and watch the game, and you'll see guys who consistently come through in the big moments, and guys who pile up big numbers in meaningless situations.  It is the Jeter v. ARod debate.

Part of the response to this is the same as the pitching in front of a crowd argument...if someone cracks under the pressure of batting as the winning run in the bottom of the 9th, they probably won't have made the majors, since they would have cracked under the pressure of trying to make their high school team or hitting with a scout in the stands or trying to play well enough in the Cal League to make it to AA. 

But the other part of this is that, well, yes, maybe there is a certain "clutch" ability.  Maybe certain hitters can crank it up a little in key situations, or certain pitchers can make better pitches when the tying run is at third base.  Maybe certain players have enough innate ability and talent that they were able to overcome their nerves and the pressure coming up the ladder on their way to the big leagues.

But even if that ability exists, how much difference does it really make?  If Derek Jeter is really more "clutch" than anyone else, but his overall body of work is basically the same in clutch situations, because certain balls didn't fall in or there were a few more bad matchups, is his "clutch" ability really relevant?  Of the difference it makes falls within the margin of error, how do you separate the performance from the noise?

BABIP for pitchers also ends up in this realm of fuzziness.  One pitcher gives up a .340 BABIP over the course of a season, another pitcher gives up a .260 BABIP, when the league average is .300.  What does that really mean?  Is it all defense?  Did the .340 hitter give up more ground balls with eyes?  Is it just bad luck?  Was the .260 guy luckier than average, while the .340 guy just sucked and gave up meatballs?

FIP and its relatives normalize everything to a league average BABIP rate, but as Mitchel Lichtman pointed out recently, we don't really know that that is reasonable.  We normalize using the assumption that every pitcher has the same BABIP rate, but that isn't necessarily the case.  We know there are pitchers who have a well above-average BABIP, but those pitchers don't register on the radar because they don't stick in the majors long enough to matter.

It is also likely that certain pitchers have an inherent BABIP rate that is lower than average.  It may be that the pitcher who allowed a .260 BABIP is inducing weaker contact that the .340 BABIP guy, and has an inherent BABIP rate of .285.  Mariano Rivera, for example, has a career .274 BABIP, despite pitching in front of some bad defenses for much of his career.  His career ERA, 2.23, is much more impressive than his career 2.79 FIP or career 3.03 xFIP.  And yet, anyone who has watched Rivera shouldn't be surprised...he has a 53.9% career ground ball percentage, induces a bunch of infield pop-ups, and his a career line drive percentage allowed (since 2002, when the FanGraphs BIP data is available) of 16.6%.

Is Mariano Rivera lucky, or good?

As Lichtman points out, the sample size necessary to say with any degree of confidence that a pitchers inherent BABIP rate deviates significantly from the norm is so high that by the time we can do that, a player is likely to be approaching retirement.  And on the significantly smaller sample sizes, you have the possibility that as the low BABIP rate normalizes, the strike out rate, for example, may rise, as the low BABIP and low K rate may have been driven by the hitters making weak contact on balls they would, over time, more frequently swing and miss at.

It is a gray area, and thinking about this last night reminded me of how much fuzziness there really is, and how much we don't know.  We tend to make definitive statements on the interwebs and on the airwaves, make things very black or white, but there's a lot more shades of gray that I think we have to acknowledge.