By now, just about every baseball fan is aware of the game's newest official stat—it's only three years old—the game-winning RBI, the ribbie that puts a team ahead to stay. It means that if you lead off a game with a home run and your team goes on to win 11-10 without surrendering the lead, your first-inning homer is the GW-RBI. Don Baylor, who signed a $3,675 million contract with the Yankees in December, was the best clutch hitter in baseball last season as a California Angel, with 93 RBIs, of which 21 were "gamers." He led the American League and tied the Giants' Jack Clark and the Cardinals' Keith Hernandez for the major league lead in GW-RBIs.
But that's only part of the story. Baylor was the top clutch hitter because of the way those gamers were distributed: 10 of them came after the sixth inning, when throats get dry, Adam's apples start bobbing and batting averages often plummet. No one else hit double figures for the late innings, though the Royals' Amos Otis, who tied for second with the Orioles' Eddie Murray in the American League with 20 gamers, had nine of them after the sixth. A second-year player for the Red Sox, Reid Nichols, was the percentage leader—all six of his GW-RBIs came late in games. Nichols was at once pleased and mildly chagrined when told how heroic he'd been. It seems he'd just signed his 1983 contract and wished he had known that stat beforehand.
Reggie Jackson, stat freak and pressure hitter, has some strong opinions about what makes a man perform in the clutch. "It's an ability to concentrate, and it entails a certain strength of character," says Jackson, a teammate of Baylor's last season. "I really think that strength of character is the most important aspect, and it's something you've got to have, something you can't make or fabricate."
Hernandez certainly proved his character in the last three games of the 1982 World Series, in which he went 7 for 12 and drove in eight runs after going 0 for 15 in the first four, but only three of his 21 gamers in the regular season came after the sixth inning. Clark did better, with eight. All told, 665 of the 1,968 major league gamers, or 33.8%, came in the final third of the game.
Says Jim Palmer, pitcher, pitchman and philosopher, "Mature, confident hitters don't expand their strike zones in late-inning clutch situations. They don't swing at the pitcher's pitch. I think the hitter has the advantage, but I'm not so sure most of the hitters realize that."
But Baylor does. As Palmer says, "He's the last guy you want coming up."
"Sometimes you try so hard you get too tight," says Baylor himself. "If you're not relaxed, you'll hit at a pitcher's pitch and make a foolish out. And there are still times for me when I have to step out of the batter's box and rewind myself."
But when he is rewound and relaxed, this is what happens: "When I'm totally tuned in," Baylor says "it's like I'm looking down a tunnel where there's nothing else but the pitcher. I'm aware of the fans, I can hear the noise, but it doesn't bother me."
Clutch hitting can have a powerful impact on a team's overall performance. The Angels, with Baylor, made it to the American League playoffs. The surprising '82 Giants, who were in the pennant race through Game 161, got a lift not only from Clark but also from Joe Morgan; five of his 10 gamers came after the sixth. The Giants had the highest percentage of late-inning game-winning RBIs (45.1) in the major leagues.
But sometimes a team doesn't need that kind of heroics. The Brewers made it into the Series and led the majors in home runs and runs scored, but they had the lowest percentage (23.0) of late-inning gamers. This was for the best of reason's—seems like they usually led 8-0 after two innings.