Is Justin Turner Clutch?

Clutch! Or not.

Is Justin Turner clutch?

The short answer is "It's too soon to tell." The longer answer is "Probably not, but has certainly shown a tendency to perform better in clutch situations." There's more than just a semantic distinction between saying Turner is a clutch hitter and saying he has hit well in the clutch, as the latter merely describes events that have happened while the former implies not only that a particular skill exists, but also that Turner happens to be in possession of it and, most importantly, will continue to possess it.

One big reason to be skeptical of claims to a particular player's clutchiness is the language used to explain why he might be hitting better in clutch situations. For example, on Metsblog the other day, Brian Erni wrote about Turner's exceptional performance with two outs:

Turner puts himself in a situation to succeed in these spots thanks to a short, quick swing. This approach was on full display before Turner sprained his ankle, and now that he’s back, he’s picking up right where he left off. With men on base, he looks to just use the middle of the field and get good extension on a ball that’s middle-out. It’s refreshing to see a player go up and resist the temptation to muscle up in these spots.

I don't mean to pick on Erni here, as this sort of anecdotal post-hoc explanation for out-of-character clutch performance pervades sports journalism across the board. It's not unique to blogging and it's certainly not unique to baseball. The problem with this explanation is that it doesn't really explain why he's so much worse in non-clutch situations, because the approach he's alleged to have taken — a short and quick swing, using the middle of the field, not muscling up — are things he doubtless does — or at least tries to do — all the time. But he happens to have found more success in clutch situations, so those things get mentioned as if they describe a more refined approach at the plate that he adopts when he has RBI opportunities.

I'll happily point out that Turner has, in fact, performed much better with two outs and runners in scoring position (and other so-called clutch situations) not just in 2012 but throughout his career.

2012

Situation PA AVG OBP SLG
Overall 88 .247 .295 .321
2 outs & RISP 14 .462 .500 .538

Career

Situation PA AVG OBP SLG
Overall 615 .249 .321 .338
2 outs & RISP 74 .365 .459 .476

Anyone familiar with the effects of chance on small numbers — viz., a small number of plate appearances — will look at Turner's performance this year and over the course of his career with two outs and runners in scoring position and immediately see the problem with reflexively ascribing to him some mystical clutch ability. Yes, he has been much better in clutch situations than overall, but even for his whole career, which has covered about a full season in aggregate, he has only had 74 opportunities to prove (or not) his clutchiness. That's the equivalent of about eighteen games, which is so small as to be essentially meaningless.

The best players in the game have had terrible eighteen-game stretches, and the worst players have (probably) had transcendent eighteen-game stretches. Just as those eighteen games hardly define those great and terrible players, Turner's eighteen games of clutch-situation at-bats throughout his career don't really tell us much, except that he happened to perform well in them. We have no defensible reason to believe he'll continue to hit well in this situations, but plenty of good reasons to believe he won't (see: his hitting, generally).

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