A couple days ago Royals manager Ned Yost was asked about an Eric Hosmer home run in the World Baseball Classic: Did Yost think there was such a thing as a “clutch” gene?
The short answer is no.
He didn’t think the ability to perform in the clutch was something you were born with, it was something you learn. And you learn it by experiencing those situations and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
When Alcides Escobar first came to the Royals, Ned was criticized for not pinch-hitting for Esky in crucial late-inning situations. Ned said Esky needed to experience those situations if he was ever going to succeed in them. And what most players learn from experiencing clutch situations is that trying harder doesn’t work.
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If you could swing a bat faster or throw a ball harder or run more swiftly you’d do it all the time, so all trying harder does is make you tight and mess up your natural ability.
According to Ned and just about every other ballplayer, clutch performance is actually the ability to approach a big at bat with the same attitude you have all the time; you don’t try harder, you try the same.
But some people just can’t do that.
The 2016 Twins vs. George Brett
In 2016, the Minnesota Twins were the worst team in baseball and here’s one of the reasons: their overall batting average was .251, but with two outs and a runner in scoring position they hit .197.
If you go on Baseball-Reference website and look up “clutch stats” you’re going to see one called “Late & Close” — these are plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one or with the tying run at least on deck. And in those late and close situations, the Twins hit .205.
Not all the clutch stats for the Twins are that bad, but it’s clear they had a hard time performing at their usual level in those situations.
I once asked George Brett why he was a clutch player and he said some people can’t forget that there are two outs, the tying run’s on second base and it’s the World Series; but when George was going good, he could. So it wasn’t raising his game that made Brett clutch; it was keeping everything the same.
George Brett’s lifetime batting average was .305; now take a look at some of his “clutch” stats.
2 outs, runner in scoring position: .290
Late and close: .301
Tie game: .298
Within 1 run: .305
Within 2 runs: .304
Within 3 runs: .303
Within 4 runs: .304
Brett was remarkably consistent in a variety of situations.
If you play the same and the other guy plays worse, you’ll look even better
I was once watching a Little League World Series game and former big-league pitcher Orel Hershiser was one of the announcers. The other announcer asked Hershiser if players in clutch situations needed to raise their game.
Hershiser said you could try or you could just play the same, let the other guy try to raise his game and when that didn’t work it would look like you had raised yours.
That’s it in a nutshell.
George Brett’s lifetime postseason batting average is .337. In the 1980 World Series he hit .375 and in the 1985 Series it was .370, but he didn’t do it by trying harder. In fact Brett’s mantra was: “Try easier.”
Talk to the players who have been there and done that and they’ll tell you that in a big situation the person who can back off a bit has an advantage. So if the pitchers he was facing in the World Series were more pumped up than Brett: advantage Brett.
The ability to perform in the clutch isn’t something you’re born with; it’s something you learn. And if you can learn to approach a World Series at bat the way you would a spring training at bat, you just might become a clutch performer.