Baseball BeatJune 08, 2011
By Rich Lederer

1. Being or occurring in a tense or critical situation: won the championship by sinking a clutch putt.
2. Tending to be successful in tense or critical situations: The coach relied on her clutch pitcher.

My friend Jeff Wimbish called yesterday late afternoon while both of us were driving home from our respective offices, rhetorically asking me if Placido Polanco was "clutch." Jeff was listening to the Dodgers-Phillies game and L.A. play-by-play radio broadcaster Charlie Steiner said, "Polanco has always been a great clutch hitter."

Off the cuff, I told Jeff, "I doubt it." I proceeded to say that Polanco was the type who announcers love to call a "professional hitter." How does one become a professional hitter, you ask? That's simple. You have to be a (1) veteran, (2) make good contact, and (3) hit for a high average. As it relates to Polanco, he is 35 years old. Check. Secondly, he has struck out in only 6.6% of his plate appearances over the course of his career (vs. a league average of 17.1%). Check. Lastly, he has a lifetime average of .303. Check mate.

Circling back to the question at hand, I concluded that Steiner would have served his listening audience better had he backed up his claim that Polanco was clutch. Thanks to all the public resources available to us, I was able to check Polanco's splits to determine if he was indeed clutch when I returned home. I'm not sure how one qualifies, but I suspect Polanco doesn't quite make the grade. I put together the following table to satisfy my curiosity.

Career .303 .348 .411 .758
Men On .315 .358 .409 .767
RISP .307 .354 .405 .758
2 Outs, RISP .263 .328 .350 .678
Late & Close .283 .340 .382 .722
Tie Game .300 .344 .401 .745
Within One Run .303 .350 .414 .763
High Leverage .305 .347 .399 .746
Low Leverage .301 .342 .417 .759
Innings 7-9 .287 .336 .383 .720

Oh... Polanco went 0-for-3 with a BB and an RBI. In the bottom of the first inning, no score, and a runner on second base with nobody out, he grounded into a fielder's choice (1-5). In the home half of the second, the Dodgers up 1-0, bases loaded with two outs, he walked on four pitches and was credited with an RBI. In the fourth, the Dodgers leading 4-1, nobody on with two outs, he lined out to third. In the seventh, the Dodgers still on top 4-1, a runner on first with one out, he flied out to right. It was Polanco's final at-bat of the game as he was on-deck when Shane Victorino flied out to center to end the contest. The Dodgers beat the Phillies, 6-2.

The outcome may have turned out differently if only there had been a clutch opportunity or two for Polanco.


I'm actually a big fan of the term "professional hitter", but not how it's often (mis)used.

In my view, "professional hitter" has more to do with your approach at the plate than your performance...hence, many great hitters (for example, Robinson Cano) are NOT professional hitters as I define it, and hitters who are not particularly great can be.

How do I define it? The biggest key is the hitter needs to have reasonable plate discipline and be able to handle pitcher's pitches, so they never waste at bats and can make the pitcher work. They don't need power, and they don't even need to hit for average...but make sure you don't waste at bats.

My favorite example of this type of "professional hitter" is John Olerud at the very end of his career. At that point, he wasn't what he used to be, especially in terms of power, but you still never came away from one of his at bats saying "wow, that was awful". This definition is very different from the one you mentioned above, as that definition would apply to an older Nomar Garciaparra, a great contact and average hitter, but also the king of the wasted at bat.

"Professional Hitter" always makes me think of the one and only Matt Stairs.