Not for nuthin’: Big Papi isn’t clutch

Not for nuthin’: A phrase uttered by New Yorkers to soften the blow prior to saying something that could be construed as offensive or too strong.

Late last year, Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz announced that he’d retire as a player at the conclusion of this season. As you’d expect, the outpouring of appreciation and affection for “Big Papi” has morphed his last season into a farewell tour.

The revelry is understandable. After all, Ortiz is an iconic player who embodies the rise of the Red Sox during the last decade or so. Since his arrival from the Minnesota Twins in 2003, Boston has won three World Series titles, which happens to be two more than the New York Yankees — their bitter rival.

No, I’m not from Boston, nor am I a “Sawx” fan. But, I root for players and it’s easy to pull for Ortiz. His baseball resume is impressive and — perhaps — it’ll earn him a plaque in Cooperstown someday. However, Big Papi’s brief speech at Fenway Park after the Boston Marathon bombing and his meeting with a little boy named Maverick undoubtedly makes him a Hall of Famer in the hearts and minds of millions.

 By this point, some of you may be wondering why I’d choose a title suggesting that Boston’s designated hitter isn’t “clutch” when all I’ve done is heap praise on him up. I have my reasons and it’s possible that you’ll agree with me by the end of this piece — even if you’re a diehard Sawx fan. Just hear me out.

Consider this thought for a moment. Have you ever been waiting for important news, or maybe a package to arrive? Doesn’t it seem like time drags on more slowly until the news or package finally arrives? Time didn’t slow to a crawl; you just perceived it that way. The same happens with hitters who deliver during pressure situations.

When great ball players continuously get the big hit with the game on the line, they earn the label of “clutch performer.” But, that’s more perception than reality. That so-called clutch player is actually really good and consistent. They deliver regardless of the fans’ stress level or the anticipation created by a good play-by-play announcer. Don’t believe me? Please let me show you.

First, let’s look at Ortiz’s career numbers and see how they stack up against his high-leverage “clutch” production. Some of you may be surprised by the similarities.

David Ortiz Career Splits
Split PA BA OBP SLG OPS BB% K%
Career Totals 9808 .286 .380 .552 .931 13.1 17.4
High Leverage 1932 .291 .388 .551 .939 14.1 17.0

As you can see, Ortiz’s career totals are relatively the same as his stats during critical situations. Based on the praised routinely heaped upon the slugger by network talking heads and the Boston media, you’d expect vastly higher numbers when more was at stake. That’s not the case at all.

Those overemphasizing Ortiz’s performance in clutch situations are doing the 20-year veteran a disservice. His “clutchness” is rooted in his consistency. Big Papi is a great player all of the time, regardless of the circumstances.

High-leverage moments are better remembered by fans and given more attention by the media because everyone’s on the edge of their seat awaiting the outcome. That’s completely understandable, but players with clutch reputations don’t rise to the occasion. They simply play at the same brilliant level when the stakes are raised.

To make my point, let’s look at several other great players perceived as coming up big when the game was on the line. Since there were so many players to choose from, I used an unconventional method to canvas for names. I turned to Twitter.

Yes, social media isn’t exactly a reliable resource for data collection. But, I was looking for players perceived as clutch by fans. So, a random survey of the person on the street — or on tweet — made sense. See what I just did there? I acknowledge that my survey wasn’t exactly scientific. But, it was a fun, interactive way to get input for a story.

Career Splits of “Clutch” Players
Player Split PA BA OBP SLG OPS BB% SO%
Jeff Kent Career Totals 9537 .290 .356 .500 .855 8.4 16.0
High-Leverage 1826 .282 .354 .480 .834 8.9 17.6
 Craig Biggio Career Totals 12504 .281 .363 .433 .796 9.3 14.0
High-Leverage 2228 .279 .362 .412 .774 9.6 13.9
 Dustin Pedroia Career Totals 5969 .299  .365 .445  .810 9.2 9.6
High-Leverage 1001 .304 .379 .446 .825 11.0 10.6
Edgar Martinez Career Totals 8674 .312 .418 .515 .933 14.5 13.9
High-Leverage 1749 .313 .431 .511 .942 16.6 13.2
Smoky Burgess Career Totals 5013 .295 .362 .446 .807 9.5 5.4
High-Leverage 1278 .286 .369 .443 .802 12.0 5.2
Kirk Gibson   Career Totals 6656 .268 .352 .463 .815 10.8 19.3
High-Leverage 1301 .258 .342 .437 .779 10.8 20.0
Reggie Jackson Career Totals 11418 .262 .356 .490 .846 12.1 22.7
High-Leverage 2360 .273 .357 .498 .855 11.3 23.1

The players suggested are all familiar names and are quite random — really random. When was the last time you read a piece discussing Smoky Burgess? Nearly all are Hall of Famers or should be enshrined in Cooperstown.

As with Ortiz, each player was perceived by fans as being clutch, although they were just really good — great actually. The largest variance between any player’s high-leverage performance and career totals was with Kirk Gibson and his numbers aren’t exactly skewed. Considering he only averaged 96 games-per-season during his 17-year career due to injuries, I’m not surprised that his numbers aren’t as closely aligned as his peers.

Most of you have probably noticed by now that I didn’t cover a player mentioned in my tweet — Derek Jeter. Since the retired New York Yankees superstar was known as “Captain Clutch” and “Mr. November,” I thought that I’d quickly discuss the future Hall of Famer separately.

Derek Jeter Career Splits
Split PA BA OBP SLG OPS BB% SO%
Career Totals 12602 .310 .377 .440 .817 8.6 14.6
High-Leverage 2052 .310 .390 .418 .808 10.1 14.8

Jeter earned his “clutchy” nicknames partly from dramatic postseason plays — in the field and with his bat. As a grand finale to his wonderful career, the retired shortstop closed out his Yankee Stadium career with a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth inning. It’s easy to see why “The Captain” was perceived to be better under pressure.

Certainly, Jeter delivered some of the most unforgettable moments on the field during the last two decades. But, the future Hall of Famer’s stats during high-pressure situations are eerily similar to his overall career numbers. The bottom line is that Jeter was steadfastly superb under all conditions. That’s why he’s so well respected and has a date with Cooperstown.

  Some of you may have noticed that I’ve yet to mention postseason play. There’s a reason. I’m not particularly fond of discussing playoff numbers because it requires wading in a small sample pool.

Of all of the players previously mentioned, only three have more than 300 postseason plate appearances — Jeter, Ortiz, and Reggie Jackson. It’s unreasonable to compare players who’ve had a limited number of playoff appearances to others with substantially more October experience.

For example, Ortiz’s teammate — Dustin Pedroia — has just 202 postseason plate appearances spread over four different years. Gibson, best remembered for his walk-off homer against Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley in game one of the 1988 World Series, has just 92 trips to the plate during the playoffs. Despite my misgivings, I’ve compiled a table with the postseason production for Jeter, Papi, and Reggie.

Postseason “Clutch” Players
Player Split PA BA OBP SLG OPS BB% SO%
 David Ortiz Career Totals 9808 .285 .379 .549 .928 13.1 17.4
Postseason 357 .295 .409 .553 .962 16.0 19.9
 Reggie Jackson Career Totals 11418 .262 .356 .490 .846 11.9 22.7
Postseason 318 .278 .358 .527 .885 10.4 22.0
 Derek Jeter Career Totals 12602 .310 .377 .440 .817 8.6 14.6
Postseason 734 .308 .374 .465 .838 9.0 18.4

Once again, the numbers are relatively close. Yes, Ortiz’s on-base percentage and batting average are elevated. But, not by much. Once again, we’re talking about very small sample size — his postseason plate appearances equals about a half-season spread over a decade.

Finally
As David Ortiz’s career comes to a close, I’ll remember him as a great player — not a clutch one. Perhaps, you won’t agree with me. Even if you disagree, I suggest you rooting for this great player as he closes out his distinguished career. You may not want him to help beat your team, but you could offer a respectful tip of your hat if he does.

That may be a tough pill to swallow for some diehard Yankees fans. But, Ortiz is much like Jeter. A local star who blossomed into an iconic figure within the sport. Whether Big Papi’s swan song turns out to be as memorable as Jeter’s remains to be seen. Although, one last great memory from a marvelous player would be apropos, wouldn’t it?

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