Let’s Talk About: The Human Element of Baseball

Over the past decade and a half — and certainly, over the past five years — sports have transitioned into an era of sabermetrics and advanced statistics. That has meant new ways to evaluate players (from actual production to expected production), as well as new on-field strategies in the game (the opener, best player hitting second, etc.). Analytics is no longer just “information”, it is the “proper analysis of baseball”.

If that introduction sounds like one from a guy who hates analytics, that is not the case. Despite writing for a site that specifically mottos itself as “outside the box journalitics” for about two years as of the publishing of this, I have only been a fan of advanced analytics for about a year and a half now. Suffice to say, I look at myself as the hybrid fan: one who looks at the sabermetrics and growing analytics of baseball and one who looks at some of the traditional values of baseball.

So when our founder, Jeremy Frank aka @mlbrandomstats tweeted this, it was something that I could not help but smile at:

Some people focused on analytical strategies, some people focused on how saves are stupid, some focused on how bunting is important. A lot of people on both sides of the table mentioned one word: clutch. What is clutch? According to the Oxford dictionary, clutch is an informal term that is “referring to or performing at an important moment that will decide the result of a game or competition”. So that would mean Kirk Gibson blasting a home run into the Dodger Stadium right-field seats on one leg, or Jim Thome blasting an MLB record 13 walk-off blasts in his career, or Didi Gregorius destroying the Twins’ hopes every single postseason like it’s Christmas in October. But are people naturally born with a “clutch gene” or do certain people just react to high-pressure situations differently? I’ll answer that later.

Yoenis Cespedes attempts to blast baseball into space, flips bat ...
Yoenis Cespedes’ booming bat flip after a homer in Game 3 of the 2015 NLDS. (GIF via MLB Cut4)

I start with those questions to introduce a new point: the traditionalist mindset of an analytical fan is incorrect. Too many times, on the radio, on television, and from athletes themselves, we are tied to the notion that “we only care about the numbers”. We do not believe that athletes have a heart. We believe that any numbers that are put on paper or our computers are equivalent to the bible and if you disagree with that, you are wrong. If the stuff in the statistical bible that is Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, or Baseball Prospectus ends up being wrong, it is attributed to luck.

Some of these concerns might be true. I have had to fight people because I still have a slight preference for actual productivity over expected statistics. Too many times have I noticed an argument between analytical baseball fan and traditional baseball fan that ends with the latter being called “a(n) (insert pejorative phrase to degrade someone’s intelligence here) that knows nothing about the game of baseball”. Those people do exist, and that is a contributor to the problem of this “war” between traditional and analytical fans, but that’s an entirely different subject for another day.

The same people that “don’t believe in heart” are the same people who loved the Soto shuffle that captivated hearts in the 2019 postseason. They are the same people who love the emphatic expressions from a pitcher after a key strikeout. They are the same people who would love to see the benches clear. I can tell you from experience, not one “nerd” or “analytical fan” is sitting here expecting every single player to act like robots and perform to what the bible says.

Third baseman Evan Longoria has spent his entire career in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, but will now head west to San Francisco.
Evan Longoria had one of the clutchest moments in Rays’ history. Is he “clutch?” (Photo via Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports)

Let’s bring back the clutch topic for a moment: does clutch exist? Are individual players clutch? In sports, especially a sport like baseball, it is impossible to measure if a player is clutch. Yes, there are clutch moments, and some players have more of those than others, but it is impossible to say that almost every time there is a big moment at a player’s disposal, he is going to come through. For example, noted postseason hero David Fresse had just a .325 and .242 wOBA in the 2012 and 2013 postseasons, respectively. Do different players respond differently to such high-pressure situations? Of course. A star who has never had a postseason at-bat before will likely have their heart race more at a bases-loaded, two-out situation than the star who has played in 10 consecutive postseasons. That is just the nature of us humans. Expecting every player to have the same emotion in such situations would be ignorant. But if you take that and say that you would rather have David Freese or Gregorius at the plate in that situation over, say, a Mike Trout or Aaron Judge, you might have lost your entire mind.

So, in conclusion, clutch individuals (at least in baseball) do not exist. Clutch moments absolutely exist, that’s not even an argument, but consistently clutch individuals do not exist in the sport of baseball. That response and emotion to a high-pressure situation? Absolutely. But neither of those can be measured outside of a scattered, small sample size of individual achievements, therefore it is impossible to define someone as such, and should not be used to say a sentence such as “Player A is better than Player B because Player A is more clutch.” It just can’t happen.

Boston Red Sox third baseman Mike Aviles watched the Orioles celebrate after the Red Sox blew a one-run lead in the ninth inning.
Once considered the best Red Sox squad of all-time, the Red Sox would completely lose it in September 2011. (Photo via Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

But the human element goes far beyond that. In fact, part of the job of the analytical manager still involves managing the human element. You can be the greatest baseball decision manager of all-time, if you cannot communicate well with players (and the media) and keep the clubhouse from exploding, it is going to be a tough time for you. Whether team chemistry is a factor or not is still up for debate, especially with the developments discovered in The Last Dance. But there is no way you can say that the 2011 Red Sox and 2015 Nationals (both talked about as potentially one of the best of all time) fell off and part of the reason for that was not the complete loss of the clubhouses.

I could go further. Those umpires that we want to get rid of so badly? Just about the biggest human element in sports. The ups and downs endured during a 162+ game season? That’s tied to human elements. That battery between pitcher and catcher? That sounds like an element to me. The yips? You can only forget how to throw a baseball if you are human. A top-tier reliever that, for whatever reason, forgets how to throw strikes in the ninth inning in a one-run game? That probably ties into being clutch, but either way, that’s the human element. The reaction to 40,000 fans cheering your name, or the 40,000 opposing fans jeering you in the worst ways possible? Human element. The ability to calm down a struggling player, or the player that makes situations worse in the clubhouse? Human element. Off-the-field situations that might happen to trickle onto the field, whether mentally or physically? Human element.

Image: League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Six
(Photo via Elsa/Getty Images)

Think about it. If the game had very little to no human element like people claim it has, the Astros would have won three straight championships, cheating or no cheating. There would be no point in playing the ballgames, as the games would have already been decided by technology. There would be no purpose of saying a word in the stands, because the words would affect none of the players. Luckily, even with numbers and stat sheets taking over the game, these moments and more that make this game the one we love still exist.

The point is, no matter how much analytics become an influence on the game of baseball, the human element of baseball will ALWAYS be a very big factor. The problem is these emotions cannot be measured, which gives the appearances that the analytical fans do not care. Analytics can (and has) done a lot of things for baseball. It can’t predict a player going through a tough time in his personal life that gets in his head. It can’t predict the top-tier closer you acquired choking your star player in the dugout. It can’t predict a bunch of pitchers electing to play video games and eat fried chicken during crucial games. Those will be around forever. Analytics are not here to erase all of that, they are here to enhance such an experience.

Until the baseball world is full of cyborgs and robots, I can assure you most analytical fans do—and will continue to—appreciate the humanity of baseball.

Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14).

Payton Ellison

Payton Malloy Ellison is a recent graduate from SUNY New Paltz with a degree in journalism. He has been writing his entire life, and about sports in various genres and settings for five years, starting with monthly coverage for the NBA and Major League Baseball on Grrindtime. He has been the Managing Editor for Diamond Digest for two years, written and edited articles produced live content and assisted in growing the brand for four years. He has also served as the sports director for the New Paltz campus radio station, WFNP The Edge, and had provided play-by-play and color commentary for SUNY New Paltz basketball.

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