Some of the best baseball arguments often center around an individuals performance relative to previous seasons. For instance, a fan may simply look at a batting average and suggest a player has either vastly improved or is playing much worse while another fan may say the players batting average is just a reflection of increased or decreased BABIP (see Casey Kotchman in Tampa Bay and Austin Jackson in Detroit).
Tony Lastoria of IndiansProspectInsider.com & SportstimeOhio.com tackled this perception question about Indians DH Travis Hafner in an article titled Is Hafner Really That Different This Year? In his article Lastoria tackles the perception of many fans that Travis Hafner, is back to being a productive and feared hitter in the lineup. Many fans also believe that Hafner was not very good the previous two seasons and looked as if his career was fading.
Lastoria concludes that based on Hafner's statistical body of work (shown below and excluding 2008 injury shortened season) that Hafner is really not much different at all this season and that he has leveled out and become a consistent above average hitter. Lastoria feels that Hafner is still one of the best designated hitter options around and that the Indians need Hafner's veteran, power bat in the lineup.
So, why is there, as Lastoria points out, a perception that Hafner is a productive a feared hitter in the lineup? One explanation may be that Hafner is performing very well in 2011 with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP).
The table below indicates that Travis Hafner in 2011 has been much more "clutch" than in the prior seasons. In 2011, Hafner has posted a 1.231 OPS and in only 80 Plate Appearances has surpassed his home run totals of 2008 through 2010. It is only human nature that fans remember the "clutch" at-bats and weigh them more heavily than a leadoff double in the second inning with nobody on-base. This weighted perception may help explain the fans belief, regardless of what the statistics presented by Lastoria indicate, that Hafner is once again a productive and feared hitter in the American League.
Fans may also have a weighted perception of Hafner as he has delivered two key "walk-off" home runs in front of home crowds. One came on May 13th against Mariners closer Brandon League and the second was a dramatic walk off Grand Slam off Toronto lefty Luis Perez.
For additional reading on "clutch hitting", check out this article by Jim Albert (author and Professor of Mathematics Statistics at Bowling Green University). Jim Albert Clutch Hitting Paper (Here). Albert comes to the same conclusion as Bill James who said:
“No one doubts that over the course of a season, clutch performance exists. When the scoresheets are available, and the issue can be studied for a year, we will most certainly find that some players have had an impact beyond what their numbers would suggest. What is subject to question is that this represents an ability. If there is such as thing as “clutch ability,” then exactly wha t is it? We know what its signs would be, but what is it? How is it that a player who possesses the reflexes and the batting stroke and the knowledge and the experience to be a .260 hitter in other circumstances magically becomes a .300 hitter when the game is on the line? How does that happen? What is the process? What are the effects? Until we can answer those questions, I see little point in talking about clutch ability.