Pitching and clutch hitting in Major League Baseball: What 109 years of statistics reveal

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Abstract

Objectives:

Theory on performance under pressure in sport has proposed that an athlete may be disrupted psychologically when distracted, or when explicitly monitoring too much the skills involved (Beilock & Carr, 2001; Masters, 1992). Research has also suggested that the extent to which an athlete allows pressure to impact performance may be greater for skills of increased complexity, such as hitting a baseball (Kinrade, Jackson, Ashford, & Bishop, 2010; Masters, Polman, & Hammond, 1993). Accordingly, hypotheses for the current study were that baseball hitters would be more susceptible to pressure-induced performance changes than pitchers, whose skills are less based in hand-eye coordination.

Design & method:

An archival design was employed, accounting for 109 years of historical baseball data at both the team and individual levels.

Results:

In line with hypotheses, for players with a minimum of 10 postseason innings pitched in a single year (n = 835) pitching statistics were significantly correlated from regular season (less pressure) to postseason (more pressure). For those with a minimum of 20 postseason at bats in a year (n = 1731), hitting statistics were similarly correlated from season to postseason; overall, however, the weakest such relationship was batting average. For teams (n = 370), regular season pitching was expected to be the best predictor of postseason success rates; this hypothesis was supported, but only for the most recent era of baseball history (1995–2011).

Conclusions:

The data imply that, while hitting should not be wholly neglected, a successful, clutch baseball team should be built primarily around pitching.

Highlights

▸ An archival design was employed, accounting for 109 years of baseball statistics. ▸ Theory on pressure performance in sport was applied to inspire hypotheses. ▸ Individual- and team-level statistics were analyzed across years. ▸ Pitching statistics remain consistent across individuals from season to postseason. ▸ From 1995–2011, better regular season pitching predicted team postseason success.

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