Please let it stop. The inane chatter about Mr. May vs. Mr. October, and the argument on a nightly basis that Alex Rodriguez -- or whoever else has become the baseball media's flavor of the day -- belongs in one category or the other. Please. Let it end.
Because it's an argument without an answer. Technically speaking, there is no such thing as a clutch player. Not in baseball.
|Alex Rodriguez is a great player no matter what month it happens to be. (AP)|
Joe Montana and Tom Brady have a combined five Super Bowl MVP trophies. Why? Because they're Joe Montana and Tom Brady. They're great players, and they're doing what great players do in football. The same goes for Tiger Woods in golf, which reminds me of one of the greatest lines in comic history, courtesy of Chris Rock, commenting on a circus tiger in Las Vegas that went crazy and bit its owner.
"That tiger didn't go crazy," Rock said. "That tiger went tiger."
Think about that. And then think about how right NFL coach Dennis Green was when he melted down and blurted out about the Chicago Bears: "They are who we thought they were!"
No need to shout, but he's right. When it comes to a sport like football -- or basketball -- you are who we thought you are.
But in baseball, you aren't. Not on a nightly basis. This game, where success at the plate is defined by a 30 percent success rate, is simply too difficult.
So don't tell me that Alex Rodriguez has all of a sudden learned how to handle the pressure of postseason baseball in New York because he's going off in these playoffs. He hasn't learned anything, and he'll be the first to admit that. Every time someone like me asks Rodriguez why he's hitting the ball so well, he says something about "seeing the ball" and "hitting the ball" and being "in a very good place." Translation: He has no idea.
So let me explain:
Baseball is all about the sample size, stupid.
Sometimes a small sample size works in your favor. Sometimes it does not. It didn't work for Hall of Famer Willie Mays. He made three postseason trips in his prime, playing in 17 October games, and those 17 games he hit .234 with no home runs and five RBI.
The small sample size worked against Willie Mays, but it worked for Willie Mays Aikens, the nondescript Kansas City Royal who launched four home runs in the 1980 World Series. Was Aikens that clutch? No. He was that lucky to have a good series in October, as opposed to June. He was the best player in the 1980 World Series because someone had to be, and Aikens won the cosmic lottery. He returned to the postseason just once more, in 1981. Three games, no home runs, no RBI. So he choked? No. The sample size got bigger, and the real Willie Mays Aikens started to reveal himself.
That's what has happened to A-Rod here in these 2009 playoffs. The law of the sample size has caught up to him -- and because he's a great player, the law is working on his behalf. His struggles in previous Octobers were poor luck and timing, nothing more, but they weren't going to keep up. Not if he played enough games for the numbers to balance out.
It really is this simple: A-Rod hasn't been clutch -- he has been due. The numbers even out in baseball, which means it's the players like Willie Mays Aikens who have one great postseason who are the lucky lottery winners. And so someone awful like Brian Doyle, a lifetime .161 hitter who hit .438 in the Yankees' 1978 World Series title run, gets to go down in history as being a clutch player.
And it means that someone astounding like Barry Bonds goes down in history as a choker. After the 2001 season Bonds had played in 27 postseason games, and in 97 postseason at-bats he had produced a .196 average, one home run and five RBI. Extrapolated over 162 games, that would translate to six HR and 30 RBI.
But then came the 2002 playoffs, when sample size met supreme talent. Bonds set an MLB record with eight postseason home runs while hitting .356 with 16 RBI. That bumped his career playoff production -- if extrapolated over a full 162-game season -- to 34 HR and 80 RBI.
That's more like it. But don't tell me that Barry Bonds, after years of "choking," responded with three weeks of being "clutch." He didn't do either. He simply played the hardest game in the world long enough for his postseason numbers to move within range of his regular-season production.
The coldest yet most insightful thing I've ever heard from a baseball man was when Dave Dombrowski, then general manager of the Florida Marlins, told me in 1996 why he wasn't concerned about an early-season slump by outfielder Jeff Conine.
"He has a track record," Dombrowski said. "You don't worry about a player who has a track record. At the end of the season, his numbers will be in line with where they've always been."
And Dombrowski was right. By the end of that 1996 season, Jeff Conine was Jeff Conine. On a much smaller but much grander scale, the same thing happened to Barry Bonds in 2002 -- and it's happening to Alex Rodriguez in 2009.
Give a baseball player enough at-bats, and he is who we thought he was. It's not a romantic thought, but it's reality: Our national pastime is a game that is played on the field -- but belongs on the back of a baseball card.