Devaluing the RBI


About a week ago, I heard an MLB Radio network commentator say  Jeff Kent deserved to be in the Hall of Fame, which isn’t big news in itself. Plenty of fans and media personnel feel the same way. What came next was both surprising and disappointing.

This particular analyst continued to make his case for Kent by noting Hall of Fame outfielder Andre Dawson “only” had four seasons with 100-plus runs batted in (RBI) compared to Kent’s eight. Somehow, this rationale was supposed to reinforce Kent’s case.

At this point, I wondered if I was back in the late-seventies after hearing a media member use the RBI as a qualifying component of a player’s Hall of Fame résumé.

As I considered what I was hearing, I realized that more than a few talking heads – and possibly members of the Baseball Writers Association of America – still use an “old school” statistic to gauge a player’s value. That’s disappointing.

It’s not just writers and talk show hosts who refer to this misleading statistic. You’ll hear RBI mentioned during virtually every broadcast when either the play-by-play announcer or the color analyst discusses the qualifications of a hitter. This insanity leaves me chiding the announcers as if they can actually hear me – if only.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand there’s a certain demographic of both fans and media who view “new age” metrics embraced by the sabermetric community with great skepticism – I get it. I too grew up in an era where 30 home runs (HR), 100 RBI and a .300 batting average (AVG) were the only statistics needed to differentiate a good season from a great one.

Who needs wins over replacement (WAR) to figure out how a player’s doing, right? Just look at the back of the baseball card – or the bottom of the television screen when a player is hitting – and you instantly have an idea on whether a player was good, great, or so-so by their HR, RBI, and AVG. Most of the time, those numbers were all you needed to understand the worth of a player – most of the time.

Hitting 30 home runs is still a big deal, even players reach the milestone more often than when I grew up “back in the day.” Most players achieving the mark have at least starter-level value.

Oops, I let it slip. I’ve succumbed to the dark side and actually use WAR and other “fancy” numbers from time-to-time. That doesn’t mean I don’t refer to those time-tested stats from my younger days – if they make sense.

I’ll look at a player’s batting average, although I know that it’s not the best measurement of a hitter’s effectiveness. A .300 hitter is usually pretty good, but there are exceptions.

On the other hand, the 100-RBI mark isn’t a reliable metric – ever. Players who register 100 RBI may be good, but they can be really bad too.

To illustrate my point, I’ve compiled the ten worst 100-plus RBI seasons since 1975 – based on the batting element (Rbat) of Baseball Reference’s version of WAR. Rbat quantifies the value of a player’s bat in terms of the number of runs above/below average. If you’d like to know how Rbat and WAR are calculated, you can find it here.

Rk Player Rbat RBI Year Tm PA H 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS
1 Joe Carter -21.9 102 1997 TOR 668 143 30 4 21 .234 .284 .399 .683
2 Tony Batista -19.1 110 2004 MON 650 146 30 2 32 .241 .272 .455 .728
3 Vinny Castilla -16.5 102 1999 COL 674 169 24 1 33 .275 .331 .478 .809
4 Ruben Sierra -14.8 101 1993 OAK 692 147 23 5 22 .233 .288 .390 .678
5 Tony Armas -14.5 107 1983 BOS 613 125 23 2 36 .218 .254 .453 .707
6 Jeff Francoeur -12.6 103 2006 ATL 686 169 24 6 29 .260 .293 .449 .742
7 Joe Carter -11.6 115 1990 SDP 697 147 27 1 24 .232 .290 .391 .681
8 Paul O’Neill -9.7 100 2000 NYY 628 160 26 0 18 .283 .336 .424 .760
9 Rico Brogna -9.6 102 1999 PHI 679 172 29 4 24 .278 .336 .454 .790
10 Joe Carter -8.3 107 1996 TOR 682 158 35 7 30 .253 .306 .475 .782
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/2/2016.

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I’m sure some people will overlook the negative Rbat values. They’re not interested in seam-head gibberish. That’s why I highlighted all below league-average “slash” numbers in yellow. Maybe, that will help RBI proponents see the light.

How many people expected to see Joe Carter on the list three times? I didn’t. After all, he was a productive hitter, right? That depends on your definition of “productive.”

As you can see, the eight players listed were below league-average for on-base percentage (OBP). Six out of ten times, a player was below league-average in three or more categories. Sure, these guys exceeded the 100-RBI mark and a few even hit 30-plus homers. But, they weren’t nearly as valuable as some believe.

Okay, let’s shift our focus to current players. I promise I’ll stick with more straight-forward “old school” statistics from this point going forward, although I did add a wrinkle to the 2015 comparisons.

Instead of just looking at the top RBI producers from last season, I decided to take the top-10 HR hitters from last season and review their RBI totals. My rationale is that the guys who hit the most homers would have the most “built in” RBI and should have the easiest path to the “prestigious” century mark.

For example, Chris Davis had 47 HR last year. Therefore, he was almost halfway to the prestigious 100-RBI mark with just 47 swings of the bat. This made sense in my head, but didn’t play out on paper.

Player Tm RBI PA H 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS
Nolan Arenado COL 130 665 177 43 4 42 .287 .323 .575 .898
Josh Donaldson TOR 123 711 184 41 2 41 .297 .371 .568 .939
Chris Davis BAL 117 670 150 31 0 47 .262 .361 .562 .923
Jose Bautista TOR 114 666 136 29 3 40 .250 .377 .536 .913
Edwin Encarnacion TOR 111 624 146 31 0 39 .277 .372 .557 .929
Bryce Harper WSN 99 654 172 38 1 42 .330 .460 .649 1.109
Carlos Gonzalez COL 97 608 150 25 2 40 .271 .325 .540 .864
Albert Pujols LAA 95 661 147 22 0 40 .244 .307 .480 .787
Nelson Cruz SEA 93 655 178 22 1 44 .302 .369 .566 .936
Mike Trout LAA 90 682 172 32 6 41 .299 .402 .590 .991
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/2/2016.

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This group of players were far more superior that the ones on the previous table. Eight of the players received most valuable player (MVP) votes. Yet, the wide-ranging RBI differential between the first and last player on the list should help convince RBI aficionados the statistic isn’t an optimal metric for gauging a hitter’s run-production proficiency.

Mike Trout had significantly better slash numbers and only one less HR than Nolan Arenado, but he finished with 40 less RBI than the Colorado Rockies third baseman. Why the disparity?

That’s easy to answer. Despite the fact Trout – once again – had great offensive numbers and finished in the top-two of MVP voting, he came to the plate with significantly fewer runners on-base than Arenado. It shouldn’t be a surprise the Millville, NJ native had significantly fewer RBI.

The following table helps illustrate how RBI is largely an opportunity stat. I’ve sorted players by the number of base runners (BR) on base when they came to the plate in 2015, plus their offensive statistics with base runners.

Player BR H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Albert Pujols 435 60 12 0 15 .225 .318 .438 .756
Jose Bautista 419 74 18 1 16 .302 .413 .580 .993
Josh Donaldson 417 84 25 1 13 .332 .405 .593 .998
Nolan Arenado 412 89 17 2 24 .330 .373 .674 1.047
Edwin Encarnacion 410 72 16 0 21 .300 .399 .629 1.028
Bryce Harper 402 78 15 0 17 .336 .490 .621 1.111
Chris Davis 400 67 12 0 23 .279 .395 .617 1.011
Nelson Cruz 373 69 9 0 13 .275 .362 .466 .829
Carlos Gonzalez 343 66 5 0 21 .275 .318 .558 .877
Mike Trout 341 65 13 3 10 .317 .455 .556 1.011

 

Three of the four players with 95 or fewer RBI – Trout, Nelson Cruz, and Carlos Gonzalez – had the fewest RBI opportunities is the best reason to avoid the RBI. Why would anyone hold their RBI total against them? Hitters can’t control who’s on base when he enters the batter’s box.

Granted, a player has to do something when he’s batting with base runners. Obviously, Arenado took advantage of his RBI opportunities – so did Trout, although he had far fewer chances to cash in.

Conversely, Albert Pujols didn’t. Pujols came to the plate with the most runners on base – thanks to having Trout batting in front of him – but he drove in just five more runners than his Los Angeles Angels teammate.

The bottom line is the RBI isn’t a good indicator of offensive performance. A player can have a great year – like Trout or Cruz – and not drive in a bunch of runs. On the other hand, players can drive in over 100 runs and not be nearly as productive as some perceive – refer to Joe Carter. RBI is a devalued statistic that should be avoided.

I don’t know if Jeff Kent will ever get into the Hall of Fame, but I’m confident that his eight 100-RBI seasons won’t be the deciding factor, thankfully. Unfortunately, I’m equally certain some broadcasters and writers will continue to rationalize a player’s MVP or Hall of Fame credentials by referring to his RBI totals. To me, that methodology is nothing more than lazy analysis.

 

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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