July 21-27, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
A Penn undergrad says clutch hitting can be measured mathematically. But will math and science help the Phillies thrive in the stretch run?
Just three years ago, the Phillies' David Bell was swatting clutch hits well into the postseason. As a member of the San Francisco Giants, the third baseman set off the winning rally of the National League Championship Series with a two-out single in the last game's final inning. In the World Series that year, Bell kept his team alive by smacking a line-drive, game-winning single in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 4.
That's what you call a clutch player, right?
Many baseball theorists claim there's no such thing. If there were champs who always came through, wouldn't they step up in stressful situations, game after game, year after year?
Since joining the Phillies two years ago, Bell has been plagued by back spasms (which resurfaced last week) and shoulder tendonitis. Although his performance has been erratic this season, he still has a knack for coming through with big make-or-break, late-inning hits, such as when he recently helped the Phillies to their first series win in several weeks.
At the end of the school year, University of Pennsylvania undergrad Elan Fuld released a study he says proves the existence of clutch hitters. He created equations assigning a value to the contribution of every hit made in a win-or-lose situation, and compared them with seasonal averages to check which players have the resilience to win when others raise the flag to surrender.
Just after the All-Star break, the Phillies were struggling to get out of the bottom of their division, and if the team members hope to get a shot at playing in October, they'll need to figure out a formula for clutch hitting. (Last week's 3-1 series romp over the pesky Florida Marlins suggests that maybe the team is beginning to put it together.) Math and fundamentals may play a role, but the biggest variable is psychological.
Located in the depths of the still-new Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies Clubhouse looks like a baseball star chamber designed by the Westin Hotel chain. The lockers are lined with wood, the chairs are red leather and the smell of new carpet is surprisingly stronger than sweat.
When I tell a small group of players I'm writing about playing in the clutch, left fielder Pat Burrell gets up from his chair and says, "Don't ask us!" As he walks away, he tosses a "not this again" look over his shoulder.
For much of the past few years, sports columnists have called Phillies batters disappointing and toothless for being unreliable hitters with runners in scoring position, particularly when the game is on the line.
"Them fuckers writing that shit ain't ever been in the clutch," retorts ace relief pitcher Billy Wagner. He knows how the tension of the game can unravel a player's brain. Growing up, he'd get nauseous on the days he was supposed to pitch, sick with anticipation.
Last season, when Pat Burrell's batting average was scraping the dirt, diagnoses flew in from all sides of the surgical theater: Pat hasn't dealt with adversity; Pat's thinking too much; Pat's not thinking enough; Pat needs to study video; Pat needs Mike Schmidt as a batting coach. After a couple of years of rigorous dissection, Burrell says he stopped watching videos of himself because, as he told a reporter, "A video can't tell you what you were thinking at the plate during that at-bat."
Over the course of a career and even an at-bat, a player's attentiveness can sharpen or blur. Given how much of a game occurs above the shoulders, a statement like Burrell's makes one wonder why professional athletes' minds aren't trained like their bodies, to prosper under pressure.
In early June, the first time I asked David Bell about playing in the clutch, he brushed off the question. He was in the midst of a mini-slump. When he overheard me chatting with other players about the subject, he exclaimed, "I can't believe we're talking about this just before a game!"
Then he glared at me venomously, and I saw a bit of what an umpire probably saw a month before when Bell was ejected for arguing a called third strike. The third baseman threw his bat and had to be restrained as he screamed.
I figured I had a decent idea of what was going through Bell's head at the time, but few people have studied the effect of pressure on an athlete's mind more closely than Dr. Roland A. Carlstedt, Chairman of the American Board of Sport Psychology.
If you viewed a brainwave scan of a hitter about to swing, explains Carlstedt, you would discover plenty of activity on the left side, where strategic planning occurs. Just before the pitch, the point where the wind-up has stopped and the arm starts going forward you would see a smooth transition in the batter's brainwaves from left-side planning to right-side action.
During the ball's trip to the plate, as that piece of cowhide stitched together with wool battles wind resistance and gravity, the batter has less than a second to get a solid bead on an 85-mph projectile and decide if he's staring at a pitch he can whack cleanly or one he should just let hit the catcher's mitt.
This shift in activity between the left and right brain occurs in any athlete facing impending action a golfer waiting to putt, a tennis player preparing to serve, a forward lining up a penalty kick in soccer says Carlstedt, author of Critical Moments During Competition (Psychology Press).
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Facing a pressure-free scenario, the shift from scanning to swinging glides easily. The technical skills the compass-like twist, the ability to judge a ball from a strike should all be part of a day at the office if your mind is absolutely clear.
During a clutch moment, the mental game becomes more important than the physical one, influencing 44 to 79 percent of the potential outcome, according to Carlstedt's research. He pinpoints three factors that may interact to dissolve the batter's thinking from "I'm smacking this thing" to "I better not strike out," sparking the fight-or-flight reaction, making the heart pump faster, and clouding visual and mental perception.
Too much neuroticism causes a batter to relive past failures, like a previous strike out. Too little repressive coping will keep him from weeding out any negative stimuli, such as physical pain, and that eight-year old chanting "Choke! Choke!" And your hypnotic susceptibility determines if you can focus in the moment as you watch the stitches twirl and descend, and approximate if they will line up with your sweet spot.
Carlstedt's findings have shown players who perform the best during "clutch" moments display high levels of hypnotic susceptibility and repressive coping, and low levels of neuroticism. Athletes who exhibit a negative combination of the above factors are likely to struggle come crunch-time. Carlstedt trains each person according to his or her profile, using tools such as biofeedback, neurofeedback, visualization and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Now consider one of Bell's at-bats from a recent game against the Red Sox. It was the bottom of the seventh inning and the Phillies had just staged an impressive comeback, scoring to tie the game 8-8. With a man on first, Bell had a chance to drive in the go-ahead run, or at least put that runner in scoring position.
Bell took the first pitch outside for a ball. The second pitch was high and inside, for a count of 2-0. He'd already hit a single that day, so he knew he could definitely get his bat on the ball. The pitch was high, but he swung, and popped up for an easy out. At the time, Bell's batting average was a passable .257, yet in "close and late" situations he was .030 points lower. In the following innings, the Red Sox battled back to win the game 12-8.
While many say the "close and late" statistic is arbitrary, the Phillies' batters have been trailing their opponents in the category for much of this season, and it points to a problem that's part of the reason the team isn't winning: succeeding under pressure.
"Close and late" tracks late-inning pressure situations, at-bats made in or after the sixth inning with the batting team either ahead by one run, tied or with the potential tying run on deck. But a two-out hit in the fifth inning with the bases loaded that ties the game would certainly seem to be clutch, wouldn't it?
In a way, a clutch moment is all about how you view it, and the key to defusing its inherent stress may be rethinking expectations.
Second baseman Chase Utley, who's been gaining a reputation for coming through in high-pressure moments, says he doesn't fret too much at the plate because he knows the odds are that he will fail a good batter only hits three times out of every 10 attempts. Yet maintaining that mental framework isn't easy when you have 40,000 demanding, critical fans eyeing every snort and spit. (Fans can have a notable impact on a game or a team, say several psychologists.)
To prove the existence of clutch hitting, Penn's Elan Fuld crunched batting statistics from 1974 to 1992 (Fuld chose those years because he's a student and those stats were available for free online). When the computer chips were done sifting, only 15 or so players were categorized as likely "clutch," certainly fewer than sportscasters had knighted during those years.
How does one mathematically divine a clutch player? Fuld assigned a percentage to the contribution that a single, double, triple, home run or sacrifice fly would add to the team's chances of winning given the point spread, number of outs, men on base and inning. (The "clutch" equation could probably be used as a sleep aid in bleachers across the country.)
After the computer chips did all the sifting, the names that popped out included the expected Eddie Murray (a Hall of Famer) and the somewhat surprising Bill Buckner (who's been recognized as a strong hitter, but is often remembered for letting a ground ball go through his legs in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, eventually costing Boston the championship).
Former Phillies on the list were Oscar Gamble (who played here from 1970-72) and Mike Easler (1987). No Mike Schmidt. No John Kruk. No Lenny Dykstra. Pete Rose appeared as a possibility, but couldn't be verified statistically.
Still, Fuld is pretty confident that the batters he named excelled in tight situations, albeit with one caveat: Critics argue that the honor student's numbers only become significant when he assigns a value to sacrifice flies rather than just marking them as plain old outs. Fuld says he expected to be debated on that point, and still doesn't think it discounts his findings. (If you want to read more about the study, you can look it up at http://www.soapboxincyberspace.com/clutch.htm.)
Why are some mathematicians so preoccupied with explaining the game of baseball using percentages and equations?
Photo By: Courtesy of MLB
"It seems like the game is very solvable," replies Fuld. "With a finite number of variables four bases, nine innings, three outs you should be able to break it down easily. When you ask a really deep question it seems like you can get the answer, but it's much harder than it looks."
In professional sports, there's a fat-wallet wisdom that suggests if you pay an athlete enough money he should be able to quell any fears. But the nervous system isn't designed for standing in a batter's box and having balls thrown at the head with two men on and two out. Why do some players staring down strike three respond by hitting it over the fence?
The Boston Red Sox's designated hitter David Ortiz secured his reputation as a clutch player in Game 4 of this past October's American League Championship Series, when, facing elimination by the Yankees (who were up three games to none), he hit a 12th-inning, game-winning home run.
The next game, trailing 4-2 in the eighth inning, Ortiz whacked a home run, starting a rally that would tie the game. In the 14th inning of Game 5, with two men on base, and looking at his 10th pitch, as well as the end of his season, he singled to center for the win.
What about Ortiz makes him able to come through in the clutch?
"I'm not a quitter," he explains, "and I always look at things like that's the last chance we have."
What gave him the fortitude?
"I grew up tough," he explains. "Coming from the Dominican Republic is not like growing up here. I was lucky that I had two responsible parents, that they teach me how to do the right thing. They can't afford to give everything that you want to give your kids. From the time you're born, you've got to learn the hard way that you've got to get what you need without getting in trouble."
Coming of age in a country where children are known for learning how to play baseball using milk cartons for gloves and sticks for bats might not seem like the best training for major league heroics. Yet the research of psychologist Salvatore Maddi suggests Ortiz's background offered him the ingredients for mental resilience on and off the playing field.
In 1975, Maddi began a long study to test his theory that certain people thrive in stressful situations. He evaluated supervisors and managers at Illinois Bell Telephone using psychological tests, medical examinations and performance reviews.
Six years into the research, an interesting thing happened: The courts ordered the deregulation of the "Ma Bell" monopoly, forcing the company to rethink how it did business and to downsize from 26,000 to 14,000 people.
Employees had to function while supervisors changed numerous times within a 12-month period, writes Maddi in Resilience At Work (Amacom), which he co-authored with Deborah Khoshaba.
Nearly half of the IBT managers and supervisors lost their jobs and two-thirds broke down in some way: suffering heart attacks or anxiety disorders, abusing substances, getting divorced or acting out violently.
The other third, however, viewed upheaval as an opportunity to grow. They were fully engaged in improving the situation and worked for positive change. The research also showed that hardy strivers shared similar childhoods. "The people who survived and thrived the upheaval described an early life that was stressful, but their parents were very supportive and their parents actually defined them as the hope of the family," explains Maddi. "And they accepted that role."
In the early 1990s, Maddi tested his beliefs about resilience on three Southern California high school varsity basketball teams. After Maddi and his partner Michael Hess administered tests at the beginning of the season, the coaches kept statistical records about individual players: points scored, shooting percentage, free throw percentage, rebounds, assists, steals and turnovers. In six out of the seven categories, hardiness positively predicted success.
Many details of Ortiz's upbringing align with Maddi's findings: The oldest of four children in a tight-knit family, the ballplayer has developed a reputation for imbuing the Red Sox with the calm toughness he developed in his childhood home. Eddie Murray, that renowned clutch hitter, was part of a "baseball-crazy" family of 12 children raised in East Los Angeles by a father who worked as a mechanic for a rug company and a mother known for her strictness.
Of course, not all ballplayers have the benefit of a trying childhood, and some stress responses may have even deeper roots. Research out of Harvard has postulated that a fast fetal heart rate can indicate an infant will be fidgety and whiny, and that person will exhibit higher than normal levels of anxiety, depression and hostility in adulthood.
Or, as Ortiz says about coming through in the clutch: "You might have the ability, but not know how to get control of it."
Sit in the office of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and he'll talk about clutch hitting like he's giving a front-porch seminar, speaking about focus, comfort and relaxation, and resolve. He's part old-school yarn spinner, recalling the determination of sluggers like one-time Cleveland Indian Albert Belle ("He would fight you to get up at the plate") and part New Age motivational speaker: "I think it's very important to remain positive in everything I do, and consistency is very important. Try to be upbeat. Try to reinforce compliments. Having eye contact with the players and if a guy is down, try to get him up."
On a recent morning he had three different meetings all about one topic: determination.
Manuel learned a good deal of his sensitive approach to the mental game from Charlie Maher, sports psychologist for the Cleveland Indians, the organization where Manuel worked as hitting coach and manager for several years.
Maher, whose psychological program with the Indians is one of the most extensive in the major leagues, estimates only 12 professional baseball teams have a person dedicated to sports psychology while 80 percent of professional football teams have one. Many of the therapists on baseball teams are only in place if a player wants to talk about his troubles, not improve focus, which is more or less the case with the Phillies.
For the Indians, mental testing begins in the drafting process. Maher administers personality tests to all potential players, drawing a profile of each's abilities, including coping characteristics, competitive nature and compatibility as a teammate.
A player with a good profile, Maher explains, is high in "tough-mindedness," low in anxiety and a little bit more self-reliant than the average person. Athletes who exhibit low confidence, or worrying or are potentially high maintenance will be assigned "amber" or "red" flags.
How much do Maher's findings influence the selection of draft picks?
"It's a factor," he explains, noting that the team assesses players on physical, mental and fundamental abilities. If the Indians are choosing between two equally talented, equally priced players and one is a "green flag" and the other a "red flag," they would go with the green.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
When a potentially problematic player is drafted, Maher (whose day job is professor of applied psychology at Rutgers University) has therapists assigned to the minor league teams in the Indians organization to spotlight potential shortcomings at the plate, in the field or on the mound.
"Our concern is if someone is more likely to worry, how can we help that individual when that game is on the line and they have to throw one quality pitch?" he asks.
Maher, who has also worked with Cleveland's Cavaliers and Browns, estimates that if a player is motivated and willing to use his techniques, the success rate is usually about 65 to 70 percent.
While that's still tough to quantify, slugger Manny Ramirez gave the psychologist the best credential he could hope for. In the late '90s, the then Cleveland Indian was in a slump and searching for a way to keep his at-bats from speeding into strikeouts. He worked with Maher on focus, and over the course of a month or so, the outfielder started hitting again, so well that Ramirez gave his head doctor the 1998 MVP award he won.
But many baseball players, including Ramirez, shy away from publicly acknowledging psychological shortcomings because machismo still prevails in America's pastime.
Maher says he used to consult Phillies first baseman Jim Thome when the 400 home run hitter was with the Indians. Thome, on the other hand, says he was friendly with Maher (who's "a great guy"), but denied working with him.
If you were spending $95 million to field the strongest team you can, as the Phillies are, you'd probably want the team not only physically fit, but also mentally fit.
Manuel sees the value of a sports psychologist like Maher, but stops short of saying the organization could use one. According to a organization representative, the Phillies now have a psychologist who's under contract yet not utilized, as well as a certified employee assistance professional assigned to reach out to players such as Phillies pitcher Tim Worrell, who recently took time off for "psychological reasons" and Jason Michaels, who got in trouble tussling with a police officer.
As far as the drafting process, the Phillies don't test the mental fitness of prospective players. The ball club attempted to do so years ago, and backed off once agents got involved.
While Manuel has been pushing for players to lighten up and have fun, he also appreciates the gauntlet a player's mind ambles through on the way to the batter's box, particularly when facing a win-or-lose moment. He's given decades of consideration to why certain athletes thrive, from the way players were raised to the need for maintaining intensity after years in the big leagues.
One of the biggest problems he currently faces? Money. Not too little of it. Too much of it: Players who get long-term contracts and big payoffs have less reason to go all-out every game.
"When guys have a lot of things, you can have a letdown," notes Manuel. "That love, that passion. We can have fun, but we have to play as if every game counts."
How do you motivate the astoundingly wealthy?
"A lot of it comes from the individual. He's got to remember how he got there," says Manuel. "He's got to remember how he got to be a professional."
A player who's earning one of the lowest salaries on the team (around $350,000) turns out to also be the person who Manuel thinks, and many fans agree, exhibits the most passion: Chase Utley.
"He could be having a bad game or a so-so day, not having any hits, but when the game's on the line or it's a big moment in the game, he wants to be there."
(You've got to wonder what Utley thinks when he looks across the clubhouse and sees Thome, who's been on and off the disabled list for the past two years and is suffering through a slump that's costing the Phillies more than $13 million this year.)
One thing that both Manuel and Maher agree on is, even with the best players and coaching in place, each athlete has to have a desire to succeed. But such phrases are flipped around easily. The necessary hard work doesn't come easily.
In the eighth inning of the final game of the 1980 National League Championship, the Phillies' Del Unser was sent in to pinch-hit. Tied 2-2 halfway through the seventh inning, the Astros had scored three runs to give them the lead at the beginning of the eighth.
Going into the eighth inning with the lead, Astros pitcher, legendary fastballer Nolan Ryan, was overwhelmingly favored to win.
Then the Philadelphia batters reeled off a single to left-center, an infield hit and a smooth bunt to load the bases.
By the time Unser got up to the plate, a run had been walked in to make the score 5-4. There were two outs, including a Mike Schmidt strikeout.
Unser had been to bat three times in the playoffs without a hit. Now the tying run stood at third base and another runner was on first. On the first pitch, Unser snapped the ball to right-center where it dropped for a single, tying the game and sending it into extra innings. The hit was one of several that earned Unser the nickname "Mr. Clutch."
Unser wasn't always the type of batter who overcame pressure. When he was named American League rookie of 1968, the title was mostly for his agility as a center fielder, not his .230 batting average.
"I wouldn't have wanted to be married to me the first few years I was in the big leagues, because every game was just a tragedy because I was going to make more outs than I was going to make hits," remembers Unser.
He hit well for the Phillies in 1973 and 1974, yet his best year was with the Mets in 1975, when his average was .294. But then the outfielder got injured and traded to the Montreal Expos, where he started pinch-hitting rather unsuccessfully in 1977 and 1978 (going 7-for-58).
At the plate, Unser had been overcompensating for a crosswind that blew through Montreal's stadium, and his swing became uneven. Secondly, he says he had to get into the game better mentally.
When Unser was traded back to Philadelphia in 1979, he leveled out his cut. His way of getting back into the mental game was a little more complicated. Around 1973, the Phillies had brought in a transcendental meditation expert, riding the American popularity of the Asian tradition. Most of the players laughed it off, but Unser continued to meditate except on game days, because batting requires a quick-twitch reflex in addition to the patience to wait for the right pitch.
In the game film room, the former math major studied the best pitches of the person he was about to face, calculated the probability of which one the pitcher would throw and which he could hit. Unser was typically brought in late in the game to be the tying or winning run, and he says if he didn't succeed at pinch-hitting he knew he'd be out of a job. To survive, Unser became a mixture of a sports psychologist and an odds maker.
"They usually had one pitch that you had a real, real good chance with," explains Unser, who's now a scout with the Phillies. "What relaxes the mind, what helps you, is to understand what the situation is, but then focus on what you're going to do. This was the one shot I was going to get and then I might have to sit for three or four days and think about it."
I asked several members of the Phillies how important the mental game is to succeeding at baseball, and most told me 50 percent or more. Then I asked what they did to prepare mentally for the game. About 90 percent gave the same response: "Nothing." Some of the pitchers refrain from talking to anyone on game day, and several position players listen to music or play Game Boy, but few people seem to be actively working on focus.
Centerfielder Kenny Lofton considers baseball a simple game that should be kept simple. Do clutch moments get to him?
"The ball is the same. The glove is the same. Just because the situation is changed doesn't mean anything else is going to change with it," responds the 15-year veteran.
That approach would sound great if Charlie Manuel hadn't recently stated that Lofton has a tendency of thinking too much about his hitting and getting worn down. When Lofton was on the Indians, he said he didn't work with Maher, and didn't think much of taking advice from someone who hadn't played the game professionally.
Shortstop Jimmy Rollins says every day is a clutch situation: "When you're playing against a better team, of course you get a little more adrenaline. When you're playing against a team that's in the cellar, it's more like, man, you better not lose to this team and here I am in this situation."
Some other players who have been struggling at the plate, like catcher Mike Lieberthal, didn't want to talk about playing in the clutch.
There's a reason why Manuel has been having meeting after meeting about determination: The team has plenty of pricey talent with wavering focus and drive. If you were to tell team members many who succeeded for years in other organizations that they had to get their heads in order, it's likely they wouldn't listen.
The tricky thing about repressive coping (the ability to weed out negative thoughts) is that it can turn a moderately gifted physical specimen like Pete Rose into a superstar player. But if you have too much of it, you won't know when to ask for or accept advice.
On a recent Saturday morning, a circle of reporters are cross-examining David Bell about a decision he made in the previous night's game against the Washington Nationals. With no outs, the score 8-7 and the Phillies trailing, Bell was standing on third, another man was on first and a chopper was hit to third.
Bell dashed for the plate, figuring that there could be a possible double play and he should try to score: At worst it would leave men on first and second and just one out. But when he got tagged out in the middle of the base path the fans booed. Was it a loss of concentration or a smart gamble? If the double play had been turned, leaving Bell on third with two outs, would the Phillies' chances of scoring have been worse?
The sportswriters' inquisition returns with a split decision about whether Bell's attempt was careless or canny. Away from Bell, one of the reporters later mutters: "He may not be a good player, but he's a smart one."
After the trial has broken up, I ask Bell if he mentally prepares for games.
"Oh, you have to," he responds. Ten years into his career, he's bounced back from several slumps. "The mental side of the game is important; it's actually the most important thing."
Not only does Bell know Maher from his short stints in Cleveland, he worked with him on relaxation, focus and simplifying stressful moments.
"I continue to use his techniques all of the time," he says.
In that day's game against the Nationals, a grueling pitchers' duel goes into the bottom of the ninth tied 0-0. Bell gets up to the plate with the bases loaded. He's 0 for 2 on the day, having popped up in his last attempt.
He fouls the first pitch back, and then takes another pitch outside. He checks his gloves. Maher teaches batters who lock up in clutch moments to identify their "pressure points," like runners in scoring position, and focus on three elements.
"First, how's my breathing? If it's too shallow, make it deep," says Maher. "Am I relaxed? If not, do something to shake it off. Take the batting gloves off. Thirdly, where's my mind? It should be on the task at hand: on the particular pitch that's coming up. You want to give them a way to alleviate all of the externals and then keep themselves calm."
When the pitcher throws the next pitch near Bell's chin, the batter ducks away. He swings at the next pitch to make the count two balls and two strikes. The crowd starts clapping to the "We Will Rock You" beat.
Bell steps out of the batter's box and kicks away the dirt beside the plate. He fouls off another pitch. Persistence is what he's got left to work with.
He fouls off another pitch, and if each fouled pitch is like water torture for the crowd, it's certainly worse for Bell. On the next toss, he swings and hits a long fly ball, it's up and floating and caught. But the runners tag up on the sacrifice fly, and Bell's shot makes him the hero of the day.
Was it a clutch hit?
Fans will say one thing, statisticians another. But his at-bat won the game, no matter how you think about it.Close Calls
The "close and late" batting statistic (which tracks hits made after the sixth inning during tight games) may start more arguments about clutch hitting than it resolves. Lately, the Phillies' "close and late" average has ranked 11 out of the 16 National League teams. But consider that the Mets, who have spent much of this season at or near the bottom of the Eastern Division, top the statistical category and the Washington Nationals, who have one of the best records in baseball, rank 15 out of 16 in "close and late." Here are the averages for the Phillies' position players from the start of the season to the All-Star break.
OBP=On Base Percentage
Statistics according to MLB.com.
Elan Fuld's equation for clutch:
|Clutch index ij =||f(HRij) + f(3Bij) + f(2Bij) + f(BBij) + f(HBPij)|
|HR + 3B + 2B + 1B + BB + HBP|
Let f (EventXij) = EventX[Pr(batting team wins|EventXij) - Pr(batting team wins|SOij)] Where EventX = the league average frequency of EventX per plate appearance and the subscripts ij denoting the player i's jth plate appearance.