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Robbie reax

Steven Goldman would like to say that he has not seen "Avatar" and doesn’t feel all that bad about it. At first I was bummed out because I can no longer perceive 3-D and felt like I must be missing something special, but the more I hear about the film the less special it seems. As such, I will muddle on, Avatar-free but happy.

After the Robinson Cano post, I got an interesting email from reader JP:

Regarding Cano, the numbers speak for themselves, and confirm what we all have seen watching him. You seem to conclude -- and I can't disagree -- that, with the statistics being what they are over a significant sample size (unlike, say, A-Rod's tiny postseason history pre-2009), clutch hitting is a skill that Cano does not have. Hence your argument that he be slotted in the batting order to acknowledge this fundamental weakness -- a weakness that you by definition are implying is somewhat likely to show up in Cano's performance going forward.

But that implies, of course, that clutch hitting is a skill that one can possess (or in Robbie's case, NOT possess) -- a notion that I've generally seen disputed (with extreme prejudice!) on BP and elsewhere. So -- at long last -- my question: how can we declare Cano (or anyone else) a bad clutch hitter -- someone who lacks the skill of clutch hitting -- while still disputing that the skill of clutch hitting does not exist? Doesn't one side have to give?

You’ve taken quite a big jump here, one that isn’t supported by the case. Just because Robinson Cano can’t do something does not necessarily prove that someone else can do it. I’m not sure which classic logical fallacy is being invoked here, but I know one when I see it. The problem is that you haven’t framed the issue correctly. It’s not that we’re saying that Cano is a poor clutch hitter, but rather that he lacks the ability to hit up to his skill level with runners on.

The arguments about consistent clutch hitting come down to this: for us to say that a player has a skill, it must be something that he can do over and over again. This is easily seen with home runs. If we didn’t insist that a player do something repeatedly, we could make mistakes like this: "Power hitters hit home runs. Brett Gardner just hit a home run. Therefore, Brett Gardner is a power hitter." We know that this isn’t true; before we call a guy a power hitter we have to see him do it over and over again, perhaps 30 times a season. Similarly, though we have all seen players hit in the clutch, it does not necessarily follow that clutch hitting exists as a skill. Yet somehow, because anecdotal evidence is so powerful to the human mind, we don’t hold clutch hitting to the same standard. It’s a bit like a conversation we’ve all had with friends:

"I went to Bob’s House of Beef on Sunday and had a terrible meal there. The waiter dumped the soup in my lap and the meat was undercooked."

"Darn it, I had heard it was good, but now that you say that I’m going to cancel my reservation."

Just because the first speaker had a bad experience at Bob’s doesn’t mean that all meals at Bob’s are bad—perhaps the staff was having an off night—but we’re usually willing to take that one example and run with it. The same is true of clutch hitting. Because in almost every game SOME player gets a clutch hit we tend to assume that we’re seeing an actual skill at work that is distinct from the hitter’s general ability to hit at a major-league level.

In general, good hitters hit well in most situations, and when a Derek Jeter drives in a run in the bottom of the ninth, you’re seeing his overall ability to hit at work, not his special clutchiness. Jeter is actually a great example of this: with two outs and runners in scoring position he’s a career .313/.417/.446 hitter, which is not too different from his overall career rates of .317/.388/.459. Within that average, there’s a lot of room for luck or short-term variation. In 1997, Jeter hit .194 with two outs and runners in scoring position. In 1999, he hit .394 in those situations.

If clutch hitting existed as a skill and Jeter possessed it, we’d expect him to be closer to 1999 every year, but that hasn’t been the case. Some years he’s been very good, in others quite ordinary. Last year he hit .259. That’s admittedly a narrow definition of clutch hitting ability, but if we expand it to career "late and close" situations we see that Jeter has hit .295, worse than his career .317. How about in the postseason? Well, Jeter has had many great October series, not to mention a few good November games as well. Still, the overall record shakes out to .313/.383/.479 in over 600 plate appearances. In the end, what is repeatable for Jeter is his ability to hit a little more than three times in every 10 trips to the plate. Sometimes that means a hit in the clutch, sometimes it doesn’t.

I’d prefer not to drag the question of clutch hitting into the Cano discussion. I see his case as more of an example of psychological factors undermining a player’s innate ability to hit. Cano is even more impatient than usual when he hits with runners in scoring position, and he’s normally mighty impatient—he ranked 147th out of 154 qualified major leaguers in pitches per plate appearance last season, with 3.4. That breaks down to 3.5 pitches with the bases empty, 3.3 with runners in scoring position, a small but significant difference. Forgive me for taking the presumptuous step of trying to read Cano’s mind, but it seems as if he’s pushing himself to hit with runners on and swinging at anything. It’s possible the Yankees would be better served if they just gave him the take sign now and again, not so often that it became a pattern, but just every once in awhile when he bats with runners on: Dude, don’t swing at the first pitch. You’re not going to do anything with it anyway.

Cano’s inability to focus with runners on, if that’s what it is, is seemingly curable. If any hitter is in need of some relaxation videos or some of those albums of whale song and falling rain, it’s him. Until such time as he gets them, he remains a very talented hitter and valuable player who has an unfortunate weakness. If he resolves it, he can join the ranks of players who hit in the clutch but aren’t necessarily clutch hitters.