Monday, July 9, 2012


In my inaugural post, I'd like to discuss an idea of extreme subjectivity and apparently rising popularity in the sports world, clutch performances.

As defined by Merriam-Webster, clutch is "to be successful in a crucial situation." The adaptation of this to the sports world is to be dependable in a crucial situation. This idea is an extremely reasonable idea when applied as a situational standard; a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game and a three-pointer as time expires are both clutch. The temptation though is too great to avoid crowning any individual or outstanding performance whenever possible as clutch.

A few of the problems with evaluating a clutch player or performance include our interpretation of clutch as an innate quality, the variety of contexts in which we evaluate and inconsistent standards for each evaluation. For instance, we've established that making a three-point shot as time expires to win a game is a clutch play. However, is it still clutch  if it was during an exhibition game or if the team has already secured its playoff spot or been eliminated?

Some athletes establish their identity as clutch with a signature performance. Consider Michael Jordan's fifteen foot jumper over Byron Russell or Adam Vinatieri's field goal against the Raiders in the "tuck-rule game." In these cases, the players went on to make a series of clutch plays leading to their labeling as "clutch players." So are Michael Jordan and Adam Vinatieri inherently clutch? Perhaps. There are a number of factors out of their control during those games. Had the long snapper missed his spot or the ball slipped from the placeholder's hands, then Vinatieri might never have gotten a chance to make his field goal. So are those players clutch as well? Probably not. Those are plays that we expect players to make 99 times out of 100. Maybe then it's best to only label plays that are closer to a 50-50 chance as clutch, but then we'll never know if it was truly clutch or just lucky.

Often the context of the achievement will justify the designation of "clutch." On a large scale, certain contests are of greater significance and we therefore designate otherwise unimportant performances as clutch. Mike Miller's performance in the deciding game of this years NBA Finals is a perfect example. In any regular season game, 23 points and seven made three pointers would be considered a fine performance, but nothing more than noteworthy. In early February the Pacer's Paul George made seven three-pointers but the situation had no impact on the season besides a slight adjustment to each team's standing. If asked out of context whether seven three-pointers on the road against the defending champions is more or less clutch than seven-three pointers at home in a blow-out win, the answer is fairly obvious. Clearly context affects are evaluation of clutch.

Frequently players are granted reprieve from criticism due to a recent clutch performance. If Michael Jordan failed to make the necessary plays and emerge with another clutch victory, most would shrug their shoulders and hope for the best the next time. At the other extreme, if a baseball player known to "shrink under pressure" hits a walk-off home run, fans would celebrate and shortly after declare the player's at-bat nothing more than a lucky aberration.

There isn't anything wrong with debating the merits of any player's clutch performance, but it shouldn't be basis for any evaluation of talent. A series of clutch performances is nothing more than the set of timely successes and shouldn't be treated as anything more unless taken with the context of all the other contests, failures and success alike.