Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Breaking Down Walls: The RBI

Even Snoop could get 100 RBIs batting cleanup for the Phillies
A hypothetical conversation overheard in Cask N Flaggon yesterday:

“Bro, our offense SUCKS this yeeeah. Nobody’s drivin in any friggin runs!”

“Guy I know. We need to get a real sluggah into the middle of this lineup.”

“Ya dude, a real RBI guy. We should get Ryan Howid from the Phils, dude’s leading the league with 32 ribbies right now.”

“Totally bro. Nobody besides Gawnzo has more than 20 ribs right now on this friggin team. Do you think they’ll take Lestah and Pedey for him?”

RBI stands for “run batted in”. A player earns an RBI when a teammate scores a run as a result of something the player does be it a hit, fly out, ground out (but not a double play or error) or walk or hit by pitch with the bases loaded. A player even earns an RBI when he hits a home run, scoring himself.

The RBI in and of itself is a nice statistic. It’s really easy to understand (although the fact that players get double credit for a run and RBI on a home run is a little wonky) and it explains a key occurrence in a baseball game. The ultimate goal of a team is to score runs and this simple stat helps explain part of the group responsible for creating those runs.

The major issue with the RBI is its use in assigning value to a player. “An RBI guy” is a guy who accumulates a lot of RBIs, but does that mean he is actually a good hitter?

In 2008, Ryan Howard hit .251/.339/.543 for a .881 OPS earning him a second place finish in the NL MVP voting. That same year, Adrian Gonzalez hit .279/.361/.510 for a .871 OPS in a much tougher home park (Petco Park in San Diego) to hit earning him an 18th place finish in the NL MVP voting. Gonzalez was also the much better fielder (he won the Gold Glove) and getting on base is a little more valuable than hitting with power, but the Padres also finished a distant 5th while the Phillies won the NL East. But was their finish in the MVP voting solely due to their teams' drastically different finishes, or was it something else?

Also that season, Howard led the NL in RBIs with 146. Gonzalez finished with 119 RBIs.

This is not to illustrate that Howard had a poor season, in fact Gonzalez’s was only a little better with the bat. But I think the MVP vote is instructive of how much weight is given to RBIs as an indicator of value to a team. It also shows that two hitters with fairly similar seasons could have such wildly different RBI totals. A little more information about the players that season: Howard spent the year hitting cleanup behind All Stars Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley while Gonzalez spent the season hitting 3rd or 4th behind immortals like David Eckstein, Tadahito Iguchi, Jody Gerut and Kevin Kouzmanoff.

Finally we get to my point (I know, sorry for making you read 7 paragraphs before making my point), which is RBIs are completely based on context. That season, Howard came to the plate with runners in scoring position 223 times, while Gonzalez came up in the same situation 194 times, a difference of 29 times. Howard had a 1.028 On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) in this situation. Gonzalez had an identical (not making this up) 1.028 OPS in the same situation. To refresh your memory, Howard finished the year with 146 RBIs and Gonzalez had 119. A difference of 27 RBI.

(Note: This was a total coincidence finding a comparison that worked out so perfectly. I knew Howard's RBIs make him seem better than he is so I looked for his worst season with the bat, found that he had a lot of RBIs for a great offense, finished highly in the MVP vote and had a lot of opportunities with runners in scoring position. For contrast, I knew Gonzalez was a superior hitter playing in a worse offense in a worse hitters park so I thought he'd be a great example. I had no idea they would have the same OPS with runners in scoring position and have the difference in plate appearances in this situation almost equal the difference in total RBI. As always, baseball numbers are awesome.)

The problem with the RBI and having it define a player’s ability is the question of opportunity. A player can lead off the game with a triple and then the next batter can hit a weak grounder to first base and receive credit for the RBI when the leadoff scores. Sure the leadoff guy gets credit for a run scored, but did the second hitter really do anything worth giving extra credit to or did he just come up to bat in an awesome situation?

Not to pick on Howard too much, but the current NL leader in RBIs is only 13th in OPS. How is he maintaining his moniker as a great (maybe the top) RBI guy? On average, Major League hitters come up to the plate with runners in scoring position 26% of the time this year. Howard comes up with runners in scoring position 36% of the time (for comparison, Gonzalez comes up in this situation just 30% of the time this year, above league average because he is a middle of the order hitter, but well below Howard's level). 

In case you run into the two hypothetical idiots from the beginning of this post pleading for the Sawx to get an RBI guy, just tell  them the runs will come once the whole team starts getting on base more. Gonzalez and Youkilis are doing their job, they just need the rest of the guys to get on base so Gonzo and Youk can guide them home safely. It's all about the situations we find ourselves in.

All numbers courtesy of

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