Fallacy of 'clutch' hitting shouldn't factor into MVP race
A player hits a solo homer in the fourth inning to give his team a 4-0 lead. The same player hits another solo homer in eighth inning to break a 7-7 tie. Which home run is worth more?
The correct answer is: neither. They are both worth exactly the same. One run. That's it. The homer in the eighth might "feel" more important. It will make the highlights, merit a feature in the postgame show, get tagged as a game-winning RBI, and be considered a "high-leverage" moment. But it is not worth any more than the one in the fourth inning. As long as each run is worth one, and we determine a winner by a higher run total, they have precisely and exactly the same value.
This question is especially relevant now that the Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera debate regarding the American League Most Valuable Player Award is heating up. You can say MVP Award arguments are silly, but they are extremely useful in sparking interesting thought experiments in assessing value. It's a jumping-off point to bigger questions, and helpful in illuminating our perception and bias.
A major part of the Cabrera for the AL MVP Award argument seems to be that he is at his best when it's late and close -- in "clutch" situations. And indeed, his numbers are very good there. So, by the way, are Trout's.
But I have another question for you: If someone can "come up big" late in games, why can't they "come up big" early, too? These players we see as "clutch" are usually just that -- players who we see as clutch. It's our perception.
Cabrera doesn't give away early at-bats, it's just that we remember the late RBIs better than the early ones. Just be aware that late production doesn't count any more than early production. Not even a little. I mean not one bit. One equals one.
Advanced analytics -- in its pursuit of performance evaluation -- is also delving into moments that are higher and lower leverage, giving more credit to production when what is called "win expectancy" is on the line. There are a diminishing number of outs from which to work as the game goes on. I understand that. Understand, though, that a run is a run is a run.
We place more importance on the close and late moments, but what about Trout leading off in the fourth inning with the Angels leading, 2-0? What if he singles, steals a base, scores on a single and sparks a rally that makes it 5-0?
What if, then, the Angels' pitchers go on to give up four runs the next inning, and the end result is a 5-4 Angels win? There's nothing seemingly "clutch" about Trout's hit, but that's a winning moment. We just didn't know it at the time.
Game 7 of the 2003 AL Championship Series, Yankees and Red Sox. Pedro and Grady Little. We all remember Pedro Martinez unraveling in the eighth inning, and Jorge Posada's double that drove in two runs and tied the game, 5-5.
Do you also remember that Jason Giambi hit not one, but two solo home runs in that game? One in the fifth to make it 4-1, and one in the seventh to make it 4-2. Without those two home runs, the Yankees are not within reach of the Sox in the eighth.
I happened to be at that game. Yankee Stadium woke up on the Giambi home runs, but the place absolutely shook during Posada's double. They were both worth two runs. Exactly the same. Giambi's home runs aren't as well remembered despite yielding exactly the same number of runs as Posada's "close and late" high-leverage double.
Don't miss the point here. Posada's hit was huge. It did tie the game. It is a signature moment. One to remember. But ... Giambi hit two home runs to make that signature moment possible. Every run counts. And in player evaluation and comparison, production that happens to come late in a game is actually not any more important.
Another idea that seems to be floating around the baseball media world in the AL MVP Award debate is that one player is "finishing strong." Does that matter? "Late in the game" is a lot like "late in the season."
Not buying? I have another question for you. A team wins a game in early April. Same team wins a game in late September. Which one is worth more? (Come on now!)
The answer is: neither. They're worth exactly the same. One. That's it. You have 162 games, and a late win -- even in the final days -- absolutely, positively, does not count more than a win earlier in the season.
That being the case, why would what someone does in September be of any greater importance than what he does in May? The answer is, it isn't. It just seems like it. We remember it better.
It seems like the season is "on the line" in the final weeks. The truth is, the season is always on the line. There may not be as much intensity, and there is time to overcome an early stumble, but those wins count precisely the same amount as wins gained when the schedule is shrinking. You have 162 games. You have 27 outs per game.
May got a bad rap. May is just as important as September. The early innings are just as important as the late innings. The game, and the season, is always on the line. "Late and clutch" make for a better story, but that's all it is. When looking to hand out the AL MVP Award, go for the best player, not the best story.
Brian Kenny is a host for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.