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I am giving the 2012 Ty Cobb Award (I previously named it the Babe Ruth Award) for best offensive player in baseball to Mike Trout, rookie center-fielder for the Los Angeles Angels. Now before anybody gets all riled up: I know all about Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown. It is a special achievement, and is something that had never before been done in my lifetime. Getting the Triple Crown (i.e. leading the league in Home Runs, Batting Average and RBI) is an indicator of an outstanding offensive season. There is no doubt about that. But the Crown is also a remnant of old-school thinking, and I am a fan of the new-school of thinking, which gives the RBI stat a much lower place in the pantheon of statistics. So before I compare and contrast Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, and because the Triple Crown is such an important factor in this year’s MVP discussion, I feel the necessity to explain my thinking on the RBI, and its place in statistical analysis. Before I begin, let me be very clear on a few things:

  • First, I do not think we should get rid of the RBI stat.
  • Second, I do not think the RBI is worthless, or that it is completely based on luck. You only get an RBI by putting the ball in play or drawing a walk, so skill is involved.
  • Third, I realize that bad players do not end up leading the league in RBI, so arguing the value of the stat itself is not a knock on any RBI leaders in baseball history.

The RBI (Run Batted In) sounds, in theory, like an excellent statistical measure of effective hitting. The goal of the game is to score the most runs. Therefore, batting in a run is a direct contribution to that goal. In that sense, an RBI is in fact a good indicator that something very positive happened as the result of a player’s appearance at the plate. Yet a problem arises when we attempt to use the RBI statistic as the measure of a single player’s performance. The plain and obvious reason for this is that, unless a batter hits a home run, the only way he can be awarded an RBI is if someone else on the team already got on base before he came to the plate. This fact extends directly into my first point:

  • Point 1: A good hitter on a team with bad hitters in front of him in the lineup will not have as many opportunities for an RBI as would a good hitter on a team with good hitters in front of him in the lineup. In fact, a great hitter who comes to the plate after poor hitters might very well end up with fewer RBI than a merely good player who bats after other good hitters. Batters who are good at getting on base, stealing bases and can score from second base on a single vastly increase the subsequent batter’s chances at an RBI.

  Counter-argument to Point 1: This is true, but the hitter who comes to the plate with men in scoring position still has to execute to get the RBI! A poor hitter would fail to knock in the run.

My response: Absolutely! A poor hitter who strikes out, pops up or hits a weak dribbler to the pitcher fails. A good hitter puts the ball in play, either for a hit, a deep fly ball or a ground ball deep enough to avoid a throw home. So my answer is this: we give the hitter credit by giving him an RBI, but temper our enthusiasm for the RBI by realizing that the hitter would not have gotten that RBI without the execution of the player(s) hitting before him.

You can compound this issue by expanding, by use of the same reasoning, to the second point:

Trout sliding into the bag.

  • Point 2: A batter’s chances at an RBI are also dictated by his placement in the lineup. The best hitters are usually bunched into the 1,2,3,4,5 spots in the lineup, while the poorest hitters usually bat 8th and 9th (especially in the National League). So a player batting 5th may lose chances at RBI because the 4th batter has already driven them in, and the 9th hitter may have very few at bats with the 7th and 8th hitters on base in front of him. A batter hitting 6th or 7th on a poor team will simply not get the same opportunity for an RBI as the 4th hitter on a good team.

Counter-argument to Point 2: But, almost as a rule, the best hitters do not hit 6-9 in the batting order! If they were better hitters, they would be placed higher in the lineup.

Cabrera swinging away.

My response: This is true the vast majority of the time. I can’t argue that. Yet, if we take a look at who in the lineup gets the best chances at RBI, we see very quickly that there are only three spots that would be considered ideal for RBI chances (and even that changes by the team). The lead-off hitter, as we mentioned above, has very few chances. To continue that train of thought, the 2nd batter also has limited opportunity, though slightly more than the lead-off hitter, because the lead-off hitter will probably be better at getting on base than the 8th and 9th hitters. When it boils down to it, the 3rd and 4th spots will by far have the most likely RBI opportunities, with the 5th spot a close second. So while the 3-5 hitters are generally considered to be the best, we have to be careful of dubbing them “the best” in any significant way because of their high RBI totals. (They are the best, so we give them the most RBI chances, plus, we also consider them the best because they get the most RBI. That would be a mistake). It is a potentially dangerous circle in terms of accurate evaluation. Hitters 1,2 and 6-9 do not often get to hit in the same context as the 3-5 hitters, and therefore should not necessarily be measured by the statistics that measure the results of those hitting contexts (“those hitting contexts” being: coming to bat with fast runners already in scoring position). If we use RBI as a high standard of excellence, we are in reality limiting our judgement of excellence to hitters who have been placed (by their managers) in those 3-5 spots in the lineup. In other words, they get the RBI not only because they are good, but because they are already considered to be good and so they are given the best opportunity. Again, this is fine by me, as long as we realize what we are measuring.

  • Point 3:  The RBI stat is diminished for me due to the fact that a hitter can be awarded an RBI for pedestrian efforts, like a fly ball out or a ground ball out to the opposite side of the field. We can certainly give some credit for these results; the batter with a man on third may face a certain kind of pressure, and by putting the ball in play, we can say that he did not completely choke by striking out. So we give him an RBI. But we cannot forget, when looking at year-end statistics, that the RBI is composed at least in part by those mediocre efforts. Getting a hit with a man on base that scores the run can be credited at least in half to the hitter. Grounding out to second base and getting an RBI because the infielder has been instructed not to  throw home is largely a benefit of circumstance.

Counter-argument to Point 3: Yet a player who puts the ball in play has not failed at all. A deep fly ball or a grounder that makes an infielder range far to their left or right is all that was needed to score the run, and scoring runs is the goal!

My response: Yes, the player was able to execute enough to score that one run. However, in doing so they also recorded an out, rather than reaching base. We can give them credit for moving along the runner, but only so much credit can be given for an act that also results in an out. With the exception of a sacrifice bunt (a play that you won’t find many 3-4 hitters attempting these days), a player is nearly always trying to get a hit. Sure, he will take a deep fly out because it is better than striking out; yet it is still not as good as getting a hit. So again, it comes back to tempering the credit we give for the RBI given.

SO I CONCLUDE THAT, if a stat can be highly effected by the quality of teammates and placement in the lineup – two things that are out of a player’s control – and can be achieved in part as a result of mediocre performance (fly out or ground out with a runner on 3rd base), then it should not be considered as one of the best measures of the individual success of a hitter.

NEXT TIME in PART II : Better alternatives to the RBI stat, and examples of how the very best RBI hitters will still be found (by other metrics) to be among the best hitters