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Friday, January 18, 2008

Can you predict a clutch performance?

The clutch hitter debate is one of the longest-running debates in the sabermetric community. There's no question that there are clutch hits, and that you can look at players' performances and see how they've performed in the clutch in the past.

But can you predict how hitters will perform in the future?

The best work I've seen addressing this issue is in The Book by Tom Tango et al., who found a small but significant clutch effect...just one that is probably too small to make for reliable predictions. Nevertheless, given how many comments you hear about clutch players every season, it's clear that the majority of baseball fans and personnel don't buy into those conclusions.

Two really fun projects have been launched for the 2008 season that will serve as a great opportunity for those who advocate a predictable clutch skill to put their money where their mouth is.

First, Tom Tango is putting together a clutch project that will ask fans to vote for the guy they think is the #1 clutch hitter on their respective teams. He will then identify, before the season starts, the player projected to have the best overall performance next season. We get to follow those players all season long, and at the end, he'll take the 30 clutch players (one per team) and the 30 unclutch players and pull each player's 50 most crucial plate appearances (probably measured by pLI).

If fans can predict clutch performances, the prediction is that the clutch players will perform better--or at least comparably--in their 50x30=1500 most crucial plate appearances than the unclutch players perform in their 1500 most crucial plate appearances. If clutch skill can't be predicted, then the unclutch players should perform better.

I posted about this over at RedsZone, and it looks as though Reds fans will pick either Edwin Encarnacion or Ken Griffey Jr. as their clutch hitter. Dunn will almost certainly be picked as the unclutch hitter. It'll be interesting to watch next season!

Second, Phil Birnbaum is willing to bet any reasonable sum of real money (and maybe some unreasonable sums as well) that you cannot pick a player, set of players, etc, that will improve more in the clutch than any other player, set of players, etc.

So, if you're at least 67% sure that EDE will improve his performance in the clutch more than Dunn will in 2008 (and you get to define how "clutch" will be determined--RISP, pLI, close & late, whatever), Phil will take that bet. If you just want to bet that Dunn is terrible in the clutch, Phil will take that bet too--you can compare Dunn's performance in the clutch to that of the rest of the league in the clutch.

The prediction, if clutch is as difficult to predict as previous work indicates that it will be, is that the bets should should come out in Phil's favor 50% of the time. Given that he's asking 2:1 odds, that would result in a payout to him of $2 for every $1 he loses. The break-even point is 67% accuracy in clutch (or choke) player predictions.

I hope someone takes Phil up on it--should be fun to watch!!