One long debated question in sports is whether clutchness exists — do some athletes consistently win in key moments of maximum stress because they rise to the occasion above their normal level of performance? Or is everything merely probabilistic results stemming from the interaction of different levels of ability at the moment with random luck?
Clearly, there are athletes who can’t handle pressure. But most jocks we see on TV are guys who have thrived in a long series of pressure-packed moments from childhood onward to get to play on TV.
Or clutchness could be a manifestation of athletes not trying very hard most of the time and only bearing down in the big moments. No doubt there are some examples of this, but in modern big money sports, players seem to try pretty hard most of the time. Team sports are particularly not conducive to a lackluster effort much of the time.
Late in his career with the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan would arrive late for training camp, skip exhibition games, and use the first month of the regular season to work himself into shape. But that wasn’t Jordan goofing off, that was Jordan strategically saving his body for the long playoffs after the regular season.
It was not easy to be a teammate of Michael Jordan, but his teammates tended to adjust.
Jordan also made many famous game-winning shots on the last play of the game. Was that because he was clutch or because he was the best player on the court when everybody is trying their utmost?
If any baseball pitcher could be said to be clutch, it would be the L.A. Dodgers’ 1960s hero Sandy Koufax, who in his prime had an unbelievable record in games when the D0dgers scored no more than 2 runs. If your team only scores 2 runs, you are very likely to lose, unless you were Sandy Koufax in his glory days.
Before then, however, Koufax pitched from 1958 to 1961 for the Dodgers in the Los Angeles Coliseum, a football and track stadium repurposed, awkwardly, for baseball while Dodger Stadium was under construction. It was only 250 feet down the left field foul line and 320 to left center. So visiting teams would load their lineups with right handed hitters who would get cheap extra base hits off lazy flyballs to left.
This was a very bad setup for the lefthanded Koufax. In his Coliseum career, Koufax was 17-23 with a 4.33 ERA.
Also, until 1961, Koufax pitched in a knuckleheaded fashion, throwing ultra-hard but walking a huge number of batters. The most famous Jewish pitcher ever, Koufax was strikingly lacking in cleverness and guile. He was kind of a little boy’s vision of a cowboy hero in a white hat, just matching strength-against-strength. Unlike his ultra-WASPy teammate Don Drysdale (the namesake of the banker in “The Beverly Hillbillies,” who led the league in hit batsmen four times as part of his strategy of intimidating batters through terror and who was widely suspected of throwing a spitball, Koufax never did anything ethically edgy on the diamond. (E.g., in his last season, 1966, Koufax threw a huge 323 innings without ever hitting a batter.)
Finally, in 1961 he took the advice of Norm Sherry and took a little bit off his fastball to throw more strikes. It worked, and he went 18-13.
The next year, the Dodgers moved into vast Dodger Stadium with Willie Davis in centerfield to track down anything not hit over the 410 foot centerfield fence. Koufax went 57-15 with a 1.37 ERA in Dodger Stadium.
In 1963, baseball foolishly expanded the strike zone at the top and bottom, ushering in the pitcher’s era that culminated in 1968. The tall strike zone was perfect for Koufax’s combination of sailing high fastball and dive-bombing curveball.
The downside was that the Dodgers didn’t hit much either.
But Koufax was a great pitcher’s duel pitcher. Across his career, when the Dodgers scored zero to two runs in a game, his record was 31 wins and 51 losses, a .378 winning percentage.
His 1960s National League Hall of Fame peers weren’t close. Koufax’s teammate Don Drysdale’s record when the Dodgers gave him 0 to 2 runs was 31 – 109, a .221 winning percentage. Juan Marichal was 27-87 with no more than 2 runs. Bob Gibson was 37-111. Jim Bunning was 27-124.
In the American league, pitching in a pitcher’s park, Yankee Stadium, Whitey Ford was 25-64 at .280.
But in his 1962-1966 prime, Koufax went 25-24 in games when the Dodgers were either shutout or scored only one or two runs, which is nuts. Drysdale, a Hall of Famer, pitching alongside Koufax went 12-44 over those same five seasons.
Koufax’s record when the Dodgers scored no more than 2 runs:
1962: 4 wins – 4 losses, 1.93 ERA
1963: 6 – 3, 1.29
1964: 3 – 4, 1.48
1965: 7 – 5, 1.20
1966: 5- 8, 1.94
A classic illustration of Koufax’s clutchness was during the September 1965 pennant race when the Dodgers got 1 hit against the Chicago Cubs, but won 1-0 because Koufax pitched a perfect game (no hits or walks) with 14 strikeouts against a Cubs team with 3 Hall of Fame batters (Santo, Banks, and Williams).
In the Dodgers’ two world championship years in the Sixties, he shone. During the 1963 regular season, he was 6 – 3, and then 1-0 in the World Series.
1965, a year when the Dodgers’ best hitter was Drysdale, Koufax was 7-5 in regular season games in which the Dodgers scored no more than 2 runs, then 1-1 in the World Series, including a 2-0 win in the 7th game on two days rest (a short schedule necessitated by his having sat out game one because it was Yom Kippur).
Among contemporary pitchers, Dodger Clayton Kershaw is 27-53 for a .338 winning percentage when the Dodgers score no more than 2 runs in regular season games, which is really good, although his postseason record is 1-7.
Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals, now in the World Series, is only 13-58 in the regular season. Justin Verlander, pitching in the higher scoring American League, is 14-80. Zack Greinke is 19-79.
So, was Koufax a clutch pitcher? Or was his performance simply what you’d expect given his great ability in those low-scoring circumstances?
One thing to keep in mind was that Koufax suffered terrible arm pain during those five seasons, finally walking away from baseball after going 27-9 at age 30 in 1966 because the pain was so bad. So, the idea that Koufax might have gone on cruise control more in games where the Dodgers were scoring well, but bore down hardest in games when they most needed him could make sense because for him pitching hard hurt so bad.