July 16, 2012: Milwaukee, WI, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday (7) hits a two RBI single during the ninth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE
Matt Holliday has hit a million ground balls to the right side before. That's not an exact number; in 2012 he's hitting .364/.364/.388, exactly, on ground balls, if you'd like one. For his career Holliday is hitting .296 on ground balls, which is still considerably better than the league average, because the league-average player isn't throwing the bat at the ball quite so furiously.
Nevertheless: He's hit a million balls about as hard as he did Monday night, and most of them were not breathtakingly necessary RBI singles that reset the course of the season and made Cardinals fans rethink the legacy of a guy who will eventually have played seven-and-a-half years in St. Louis.
Individual hits, in baseball, sometimes seem impossibly random; over a single game a new fan who isn't inured to that would probably find the individual quanta of a box score arbitrary at best . That's why it's good that they play 162 games; it's also why baseball maps so terribly to the crypto-moral tags that make certain players Clutch and certain other players Chokers.
There's this urgent desire, among the fans Derrick Goold has taken to calling the Church of Clutch, to ascribe moral success and failure to baseball successes and failures, but the only way to do that is to drastically oversimplify everything that goes into those successes and failures. So Matt Holliday's first-inning double Sunday, a classic Holliday line drive that nearly decapitated Jay Bruce, was nothing at all; his ninth-inning single Monday, a ground ball slapped to that spot on the outfield grass where Ronnie Belliard always stood, was the culmination of everything a deserving All-Star has done this year.
It's not the desire to see clutch and unclutch that frustrates me about the idea; I get it, even though it seems, to me, that the only good or decent thing a baseball player can do on the field is carry himself more like Ozzie Smith than Ozzie Guillen. What's frustrating is that in the service of this idea baseball fans collapse everything that's great about the game, all the nebulous things that go into every confrontation between pitcher and batter, into Good Outcome and Bad Outcome, Clutch and Unclutch.
We're accused, on the internet, of watching spreadsheets instead of baseball, but I can't think of any way of watching baseball that's more reductive and damaging than turning 10 Matt Holliday at-bats you kind of remember into an accusation against his character. Matt Holliday didn't come to bat Monday against his own reputation; he came to bat against John Axford, with Allen Craig and the Cardinals lineup behind him and an underachieving Brewers bullpen against him.
Was he clutch before he slapped a ground ball past Rickie Weeks? Does it make him more or less clutch, afterward, to know that Rickie Weeks has, per DRS, been a -42 fielder over the last two-and-a-half seasons?