Important sports ‘intangibles’ remain difficult to quantify

Was Michael Jordan clutch? Did Pete Rose hustle? Was Joe Montana a leader?

The best and most successful athletes in professional sports are clearly freaks of nature. Their physical abilities and characteristics defy human norms. Take the 6’1” Rajon Rondo’s wingspan: it’s six feet and ten inches! What about Aroldis Chapman’s fastball? It’s 103-104 miles per hour–consistently! Jamie Moyer just won a major league baseball game at 49 years old! Although those three examples represent the extremes among their colleagues, I think we can all agree on the reality that a person must be absurdly talented to even compete at the highest level of sports.

I return to my beginning “questions.” Michael Jordan is the probably the most clutch player in the history of basketball. Pete Rose hustled so hard that other players complained to him that he was showing them up. Joe Montana–a four time Super Bowl Champion–was of course a leader! So no, my questions were not really questions, but that’s not the point. My point is, do these qualities matter? Are they worth something in a sports community consumed with stretching their dollars further and further through statistical analysis? After all, how do you measure how clutch a player is, or how much heart a player has? What about measuring how much of a calming influence a player can be? These qualities seem to be the last ones in sports that haven’t been turned into some sort of RELIABLE statistic (there actually is a formula for “clutch” in baseball sabermetrics, but it’s not very telling). So how, then, do you decide how valuable these abstract intangibles are? Furthermore how do you determine whether or not these abstract intangibles even exist?

First let’s examine the heart/hustle quality. Hustle or heart can be described as not only the willingness, but the obligation to give 110 percent on EVERY play. Whether you are diving for a loose ball on an unforgiving court, obstructing a 100 mph slap shot with your torso, blocking the plate with Dan Uggla barreling down the line (biceps included), all of these acts can be defined as sacrificing your body for the team. What does this quality bring to the team though? Well the first and most obvious benefit is that hard work reaps results (if you dive for a loose ball, you are more likely to retrieve the loose ball than if you do not dive at all). Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, you gain the respect of your teammates and your coach. By having that respect, your teammates will look to you and follow your lead. There is no dispute that this trait is valuable, but even the best statisticians have been unable to quantify it and decide how much of their payroll it is worth.

Leadership, on the other hand, doesn’t fit one singular and limiting definition. Instead, leadership takes on many forms or appearances. First: the vocal leader who is public with his expectations and is quick to offer advice i.e. Kevin Garnett. Garnett, a knowledgeable player with a lot of experience (another invaluable trait), was reluctant in his “early veteran” years (if that makes sense) to share his knowledge with teammates. Now he gives advice to his younger teammates regularly and without hesitation. Second: the leader who has a calming effect around the clubhouse and keeps everyone on an even keel a.k.a. Larry “Chipper” Jones. Chipper has been around and around and around again (he turned 40 a week ago (assuming Bi-Line comes out week 4/30) and has begun his eighteenth season in the Bigs all spent with the Braves). This experience has led him to see just about everything, so nothing really phases the third base man and this rubs off on some of the young players. Lastly there is the “Shut up and do what I do leader” i.e. Kobe Bryant. Now Kobe’s talents make leading an easier task, but this mentoring ability makes him even more valuable. Like Chipper and Garnett, Kobe rubs off on people and that’s DEFINITELY a good thing. Has leadership been quantified yet? Well judging by the contracts leaders such as Garnett, Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, and Albert Pujols despite their age-related regression, it appears that franchises are willing to pay extra money to get that leader on their team as well as put a few more fans in the stadium.

Finally, I’d like to address the most hyped and sought after trait in athletics: clutch. This hopelessly diminished and irresponsibly overused word describes a player’s ability to perform under intense and high pressure circumstances. Clutch can be measured by the number of buzzer beaters, the number of walk-off hits, or the number of come-from-behind drives engineered by a quarterback. However, how much of this ability to perform with pressure is just a matter of tons and tons of practice? Did Tiger Woods sink his putts because he was clutch or because he has practiced more hours of golf than we have spent in school? But on the other hand, there’s no way that putting in your backyard equates to putting to win the Masters. So how do you measure the magnitude of a situation compiled with rate of success? Well believe it or not, baseball statisticians have developed a statistic called “Clutch Rating.” It can range from around +2 to around -2 (+2 being excellent, -2 being awful). The statistic is way too complicated to explain in this small space, but if you are curious I do encourage you checking out (one of my favorite baseball sites) to learn more about it. What I will tell you is that most of the top players in baseball are at the top of the clutch list, which then begs the question, ‘are these players clutch because they are good or good because they are clutch?’ That question appears to have an indistinguishable answer that even the brightest statistical minds have not figured out.

Having illustrated the types of intangibles most commonly referred to in sports and the players who best represent them, this column serves as food for thought more than anything else. These questions have no obvious or, up to this point in time, even complicated answers. So while front offices may not make decisions based on these characteristics, although they do seemingly exist, the concepts of hustle, leadership, and clutch make the realm of sports and its heated debates and arguments so much more compelling and entertaining than just statistical analysis. After all, where would we be without the topic of “clutch” in the Kobe and Lebron debate? (Lebron would have established his supremacy if it weren’t for his incomprehensible lack of “clutch” and he might even have a ring.) But that’s a whole other debate entirely.