T.R. Sullivan, statheads, and the RBI

T.R. Sullivan's blog entry from yesterday leads off with a lengthy paean to the RBI.  And it got me thinking.

OBP seems to be the poster-stat for the ongoing stathead/traditionalist..."feud" is probably not the right word.  Battle of paradigms?  Or paradigae?  Whatever the plural of paradigm is?

But even the anti-stathead types will acknowledge that OBP has some importance.  OBP matters...there is just a differentiation of how important it is, how much weight should be put on it, compared to other stats.

But RBIs?  The more extreme statheads call it a junk stat, irrelevant.  The more extreme traditionalists use it to justify MVP and All Star votes.  The RBI was at the heart of the very passionate disputes last season over the value of Sammy Sosa, which raged until late in the year when the Rangers just quit playing him.  The RBI is a big part of the Jim Rice Hall of Fame debate, and the reason guys like Steve Garvey and Joe Carter have reputations that exceed their performances (or at least, their stathead-perceived performances).

Sullivan was one of the biggest Sosa fans last year -- even naming him the club's first half MVP -- and leaned heavily on RBI totals in his support.  So it isn't surprising, I don't think, that Sullivan is presenting an ardent defense of the RBI (in response to Bill James being critical of the RBI on 60 Minutes).

The single most important offensive statistic in baseball is hitting with runners in scoring position. It's not any more complicated than that.

The Rangers hit .173 with runners in scoring position during their seven-game losing streak. They have hit .352 in their last eight games and have won six of those.

No question, hitting with RISP is crucial.  The Rangers have had a pretty fair spread this season between the number of runs their stats suggest they should have scored, and what they've actually scored, and that's due almost entirely to poor performance with RISP.

(Although I would like to point out that, contrary to what many have suggested, this isn't a lengthy trend.  There is a meme out there that the Rangers have tended to put up empty offensive numbers and then choke in the clutch, but the team has actually done better with RISP over the past few years than would be expected).

Is it the single most important offense statistic in baseball?  I doubt it...but then, the "most important stat" argument is a little too esoteric for my tastes.

However...

The runners are going to get on base. The opposing pitcher will see to that. Some offensive players will get on base more than others and the value of that can't be denied. But it's all about getting them home and any Red Sox numbers cruncher is going to look like a genius when David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are hitting 3-4 in a lineup.

Is this really logical reasoning?  Couldn't you just as well say, the batters are going to hit with RISP, the law of averages will see to that, but it is all about getting runners on base so that batters will have guys to drive in?

I'd say that baseball history supports my statement moreso than the first statement.  Some pitchers allow a lot more baserunners than others do.  Some hitters get on base a lot more than others do.  But how many pitchers have a dramatic differential between allowing hits with RISP and allowing hits normally?  How many hitters have a dramatic differential between performance with RISP and overall?

Yes, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are great at driving runners home...but isn't that because they are great hitters?  What reason is there to believe that they are making Bill James look good because of some innate run-driving-home ability that is separate from their offensive ability?

Bill James would say that Ramirez and Ortiz drive in lots of runs because they are great hitters who get lots of opportunities to hit with runners on base.  And that, really, is all that RBIs are...a function of offensive ability, opportunity, and some luck (because whether Big Papi hits 25 points better or 25 worse than overall with RISP is, at the end of the day, a matter of luck). 

Opportunity and luck are outside of the control of a player.  And offensive ability can be measured more accurately by looking at how a player hits overall, in all situations.  So if you are measuring a player, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to put any weight on RBIs, given that all it does is take something that can be more accurately determined with other methods, and then combines it with factors beyond a player's control to turn it into an irrelevant mash.

Look at David Ortiz.  He has a career .287/.382/.554 line overall.  With RISP, he has a career .303/.408/.523 line.  Is he a "run producer", or just a great hitter?  Ditto Manny...his overall line and RISP lines are similar.  He drives in runs because he's a great hitter.

But nobody was better at getting them home than Juan Gonzalez when he was at his best. Will Clark and Rusty Greer were pretty good at it too and Michael Young has proven time and time again his ability to hit with runners in scoring position.

Juan Gonzalez, in his career, overall:  .295/.343/.561

Juan Gonzalez, in his career, w/RISP:  .292/.358/.543

Or look at Juan's 1998 season, the year he had 30-something RBIs in April and people were talking about him breaking Hack Wilson's RBI record:

Overall:  .318/.366/.630

W/RISP:  .315/.381/.612

Juan Gone had 157 RBIs that season, despite hitting worse with RISP than he did overall.  Why did he have 157 RBIs that year?  Because he had a whopping 372 plate appearances with runners on base.  (The only player with as many PAs with men on in 2007 was ARod.  He had 156 RBIs last year.)

Juan hit cleanup every game except 1 in 1998.  Ranger leadoff hitters had a .369 OBP that season.  Ranger #2 hitters had a .376 OBP.  Ranger #3 hitters had a .373 OBP.

Juan didn't have a ton of RBIs in 1998 because he had a special knack for getting runners home.  He had a ton of RBIs in 1998 because he had a great offensive year, and had a whole bunch of runners on base in front of him.

Pitching and defense are important, no doubt about it. But without spending a lot of time in a San Francisco hotel crunching numbers, experience says most close games are determined by which team is better at getting runners home.

Well, yeah.  But that begs the question...do some teams have a particular knack for getting runners home?  Or are the teams that are better at getting runners home simply the teams that have the better hitters? 

Every year, you hear people say about bad offensive teams, "They need to win with timely hitting."  That seems to be another way of saying, "They need to win by getting hits disproportionately often when they have runners on base." 

And sure, in the abstract, that's fine.  In reality, though, that works about as well as saying, "I'm going to provide for my retirement by having the winning lotto numbers disproportionately often."  It simply isn't an executable strategy.

The RBI still lives as an important number and if Nate Gold is going to drive in 103 runs in two straight Minor League seasons then somebody ought to be paying attention.

Nate Gold hit .290/.346./.516 last season for Oklahoma.  Pretty pedestrian numbers for a 27 year old AAA first baseman, and not the sort of line that is going to get you on the prospect radar screen.

The implication in the above quote, though, is that Gold deserves a shot because he's a Gonzalezian "run producer," based on two years in a row of 103 RBIs.

Gold's performance with RISP in 2007:  .284/.335/.512.  Basically, the same as his overall line.  But he had 297 PAs with men on base...2.43 per game played.  Basically the same rate as Juan Gonzalez in 1998.  Gold had a bunch of RBIs in AAA last year because he had a lot of guys get on base ahead of him. 

In fairness to Gold (and Sullivan), Gold did much better with runners on than not in the Texas League in 2006.  But I'd want to see more evidence that that to believe he warrants a major league job based on his run producing ability.

And the reality is, while baseball people may pay lip service to that sort of skill, they don't really believe in it.  Not really.  If they did, someone would have snagged Nate Gold in the Rule 5 draft, or would have given up a Michael Hernandez or Scott Shoemaker to get him from the Rangers.  If they did, someone would have signed
Sammy Sosa this year, based on his great run producing numbers from 2007.

The reality is, the more you look at the data, the more you see that clutch hitting and run producing correlates with overall performance.  If you can hit, then over time, you'll drive in runs if the opportunities are there.  If you can't hit, you aren't going to drive in the runs, even if you are considered to be a run producer.

And at the end of the day, this debate will continue to be, I think, the real Rubicon for the stathead/traditionalist splits.  The traditionalists will look at the Rangers performance vis-a-vis bringing home runners in 2007 and see it as a failing of character, of will, of coaching, of approach, of...of something tangible, definitive, correctable.  And they will look at RBIs as a meaningful proxy for whether a player is a run producer, or whether he's just an empty numbers guy who can't get guys home.

And guys like me will see it as a small sample size aberration, shrug our shoulders, and wait for the inevitable reversion to the mean.  And will see RBIs as a distraction, rather than anything meaningful.

 

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