Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Intangibles, etc.

During yesterday's Titans-Colts game, Tony Kornheiser made a big stink about how Vince Young isn't a QB who produces good stats, but it doesn't matter because he wins games. Kornheiser apparently believes that VY's splits from 2006--where he went from first-quarter dud to fourth-quarter stud--were not a fluke, but rather evidence that he can push a magic button and will his team to win.

If this sounds oddly familiar, it's because you hear the same propaganda about David Ortiz, David Eckstein, Scott Spiezio, or any number of "clutch" players. In mid-summer last year, John Kruk firmly believed that Ortiz transformed into a .700 hitter with power as soon as the game was on the line. Apparently Big Papi just doesn't believe any other situation is worth expending full effort. Similarly, if you think Vince Young's first- and fourth-quarter stats are meaningful, you must acknowledge that he is too selfish to give full effort at the start of the game.

Let's just get this out of the way:

I believe that actual intangibles--things we do not pretend we can measure--exist and are meaningful.

I believe that some players have the ability to improve their level of play in the clutch, relative to their opponents.

I believe that some quarterbacks can contribute many things towards a team victory that do not show up in the stat sheet.

That said, I would be stunned if any of these effects were 5% as relevant as ESPN thinks.

The Titans' turnaround under Young last year was impressive, but at the same time, was he really the reason they won all those games? Tennessee won a game last year on a last-second 60-yard field goal. If Rob Bironas had missed, as one would expect him to do, does that reflect poorly on Young in any way? Yet he is the one getting credit for the team's victory.

The Titans also won a game last year when Young was wrapped up for a sack on fourth down with the clock running out, but the Giants defender let him go to avoid a potential penalty, extending the drive. Is that really evidence of VY's clutch abilities?

The truth is that the public will never accept that a result like this is 5% clutch skill and 95% variance. It doesn't make for good copy. Wherever there's an effect, people want an iron-clad cause for it, and "intangibles" or "clutch play" sell. Readers of this blog will hopefully know better by now.

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