What does “clutch” really mean in sports?

one type of clutch

According to Wikepedia, “a clutch is a mechanical device which provides for the transmission of power (and therefore usually motion) from one component (the driving member) to another (the driven member). The opposite component of the clutch is the brake. So, if we take that literally, does that mean that the Houston Rockets of 1994 went from “Choke City,” putting the brakes on winning by their mistakes on the court, to “Clutch City” by simply coming through at crucial moments to win a series of big games on their merry team way to becoming champions of the NBA?

Is it really that simple? Win and you’re a clutch player or team; lose and you’re just another choke artist.

Baseball has done more than any sport to try to quantify the differences between clutch and choke. Hitters are now judged by their RISP records. That is, how they perform as batters with runners in scoring position. And pitchers, especially relief pitchers, are also judged by how many base runners they allow or keep from scoring.

Is “clutch” really as simple as coming through when it’s the difference between winning and losing? If a golfer sinks a 50-fott putt on the 18th hole of the last day in a tournament to win it all, does that make him or her clutch? Or does it depend on whether the golfer is Tiger Woods or John Doe – and the tournament is The Masters and not the Bear Creek Park Open?

When is a great play the result of the payoff on a player or team’s average positive productivity, when is it simply blind luck, or when is due to some transcendent, hard or impossible to measure quality we like to call “clutch” ability?

After all these years, I am no longer sure that I can even pretend to know or exactly describe what “clutch” really is. I just know that I know it when I see it. And I remember it forever.

Vann Harrington

The 1950-1953 Houston Buffs had a popular outfield-infield utility man named Vann Harrington. Vann batted left, but threw right. He batted .296 for the awful 1950 Buffs club, but only hit .357, .236, and .244 from 1950 through 1953. The thing Vann did best, the thing that made him so popular, however, was his ability to get the key hit in late innings that made the difference between winning and losing. When I think of Vann Harrington to this day, I think of him as a clutch hitter, the go-to guy you wanted to have at the plate when scoring runners late in the game was going to make the difference between winning and losing for the Buffs. He did it so well, in fact, that now I’ve even forgotten every single time he struck out or failed to move the runners under those circumstances. SUch probably is the good fortune of all those who imbed themselves in our minds as clutch performers. We simply “forget” all the times that they actually failed in that same situation.

So, is clutch even real? Or it just another of those comfort stations that the human mind uses on the way to generalizing how favorite players and teams succeed in sports?

What do you think? Is “clutch” real or just another mental convenience? If it is real, what is it based upon? Coming through when the game’s on the line? The probable result of a player’s performance at a fairly predictable percentage of time? Or is just plain luck in disguise?

Let us hear from you as a comment on this column.

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5 Responses to “What does “clutch” really mean in sports?”

  1. Tim Gregg Says:

    This strikes at the heart of the project I tried to get off the ground at the beginning of the year. To me, “clutch” refers to a player’s ability to handle high to extremely high levels of stress. Not everyone, myself included, handles high levels of stress.

    My friend Mike Haro, a psychologist, created a color profile assessment many years ago to measure an individual’s ability to handle various levels of stress. His contention, backed by plenty of science, is that our preference for color is a tip-off to our ability to handle stress.

    In the baseball world, being able to measure an individual’s ability to handle stress would seem to be a useful tool in determining a player’s potential performance in clutch situations. By no means do I think it’s luck. I believe I read somewhere that those who are able to slow things down at “crunch time” are those who perform best in clutch situations.

    By the way, Mike is now fighting cancer and I sure wish I could figure out a way to test my theory regarding the value of his color profile assessment as a possible tool in the baseball world.

  2. Bob Says:

    A baseball fan and statistics buff has proven that clutch hitters really do exist, putting statistics behind the obvious.

    The new study, by math and economics student Elan Fuld of the University of Pennsylvania, was announced by the university Thursday.

    Fuld defined a clutch hitter as one who hits better at more important moments. He studied stats on 1,075 Major League players in the 1974-1992 seasons.

    Clutch and Factors determining a clutch hit: how many bases were occupied, the score at the time, the inning, and how many outs. He also counted sacrifice flies, in which a runner scores but no hit is recorded.

    “What I found was that, when I included sacrifice flys in the analysis, there was overwhelming evidence that there were clutch hitters,” Fuld said.

    So who were the greatest under pressure? Frank Duffy, Eddie Murray and Luis Gomez stood out.

    Bill Buckner, known as a choke artist for his Game 6 World Series error in 1986 that many remember as costing Boston the championship, was statistically proven to be a clutch hitter, too.

    Fans and players have always known there’s a lot of psychology to hitting.

    “Once situational importance rose to around at least a certain level,” Fuld explained, “the player would start to think this is very important and start doing something that makes him hit better, if he’s clutch, or panics and does something that makes him hit worse, if he’s a choke hitter.”

  3. Wayne Roberts Says:

    I wonder how closely Mike Haro’s color test for stress corresponds to the Luscher color test. The color test pegged me spot on 35 years ago and still does today though it and I have evolved. I see from Wikipedia that there are critics of Luscher and some evidence that it doesn’t relate well to MMPI. MMPI nailed me too. Just an observation for those familiar with the tests.

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