Thursday, December 18, 2008

In defense of the RBI

I'm a traditionalist at heart, even though I do like the sabermetric stuff also. I read most of the sites that offer it, buy the books and understand the majority of it. But I still think some of the old stats are good, and shouldn't just be overlooked because someone doesn't particularly like it. I think people that dismiss the RBI as a relevant stat are missing something important.

To start, here are the top 50 all time in RBI's:

1 Hank Aaron 2297
2 Babe Ruth 2217
3 Cap Anson 2076
4 Barry Bonds 1996
5 Lou Gehrig 1995
6 Stan Musial 1951
7 Ty Cobb 1937
8 Jimmie Foxx 1922
9 Eddie Murray 1917
10 Willie Mays 1903
11 Mel Ott 1860
12 Carl Yastrzemski1844
13 Ted Williams 1839
14 Rafael Palmeiro 1835
15 Dave Winfield 1833
16 Al Simmons 1827
17 Frank Robinson 1812
18 Ken Griffey 1772
19 Honus Wagner 173220
Manny Ramirez 1725
21 Frank Thomas 1704

22 Reggie Jackson 1702
23 Cal Ripken 1695
24 Sammy Sosa 1667
25 Tony Perez 1652
26 Ernie Banks 1636
27 Gary Sheffield 1633
28 Harold Baines 1628
29 Goose Goslin 1609
30 Alex Rodriguez 1606
31 Nap Lajoie 1599
32 George Brett 1595
Mike Schmidt 1595
34 Andre Dawson 1591
35 Rogers Hornsby 1584
Harmon Killebrew1584
37 Al Kaline 1583
38 Jake Beckley 1575
39 Willie McCovey 1555
40 Fred McGriff 1550
41 Willie Stargell 1540
42 Harry Heilmann 1539
43 Joe DiMaggio 1537
44 Jeff Bagwell 1529
Tris Speaker 1529
46 Sam Crawford 1525
47 Jeff Kent 1518
48 Mickey Mantle 1509
49 Dave Parker 1493
50 Carlos Delgado 1489

Of the top 50, 35 are in the Hall of Fame. Of those, only Tony Perez doesn't also make the Baseball Think Factory Hall of Merit. An iffy choice, by the Veteran's Committee, but not a terrible choice. Just not a good one. Only 1 of 35. Not bad. Of the other 15, 12 aren't eligible yet.

The locks for the Hall there:

Barry Bonds
Ken Griffey, Jr
Manny Ramirez
Frank Thomas
Sammy Sosa
Gary Sheffield (I think he'll make it)
Alex Rodriguez
Jeff Bagwell
Jeff Kent

The questionable choices here:

Rafael Palmeiro
Fred McGriff
Carlos Delgado

The three who are eligible but haven't made it:

Andre Dawson
Dave Parker
Harold Baines

And Dawson makes the Hall of Merit

So, of the top 50 all-time in RBI's, 45 are legitimate Hall of Famers, or will be, and only 5 probably don't make it, but that could change. That tells me that great players get a lot of RBI's. And having a lot a lot of RBI's help make someone a great player. I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I do remember my algebra. If A=B, then B=A. It might not be the greatest analogy, but it works for me.

Now, while no one can argue too much with the information above, this is where I make my argument for the RBI.

The most important stat for a batter is the Run. Runs scored, or runs prevented, are the really only important stat. The rest of them evaluate how well a player or a team causes that event to happen. Without runs being scored, you can't win enough games. If you don't win enough games, you don't have a good year. So it’s all about the run. And there are limited amounts of ways in which a run can score.

Hit a homerun
Steal home

That's it. That's all an individual player can do to score a run without help from another source.

Scoring based on defense:
Wild pitch
Passed ball
Error on pick-off throw

If I've missed something, let me know.

Scoring based on an event caused by a teammate:
Flyball error
Groundball error
Popup error
Catcher's interference

Each of these are separate events, because a runner could be on any base, or bases, and scoring a run from each of these is different. A runner can obviously score from third base on any of these, but several of them will score runners from second and first also.

So, as I see it, there are 20 unique events that can cause a runner to cross the plate and score a run. Of those, the batter/runner can only influence 2, the defense influences 5, and a teammate causes the event 13 different way.

So your scoring opportunities are caused by:

Batter baserunner: 10%
Defense: 25%
Teammate: 65%

So, 65% of opportunities to score a run are caused by a teammate.

To look a little farther:

In 2008, 22,315 runs were scored. Of those, 4878 were a batter scoring on his own homerun. I can't quite figure out Retrosheet yet, so I can't find the exact numbers, but let’s say there were 25 steals of home last season. Let’s assume each team scored 50 runs last season on balks, wild pitches, passed balls, errors on pickoffs, and obstruction. I think that's kind of high, but we'll use it. So 1500 runs scored on the defense. The rest were caused by an event caused by a teammate.

So here's how the runs scored:

Batter/runner: 4903 22%
Defense: 1500 7%
Teammate: 15912 71%

So 71% of all runs were scored due to an event caused by a teammate. And that's where the RBI comes in. It measures the amount of times that a teammate causes a teammate to score. And the more times a player does that, the more runs his team scores. The more runs a team scores, the better the chance of winning. So, in my opinion, the RBI is an important stat. If someone wants me to believe the RBI shouldn't be an important stat, then all they have to do is show me how runs score. Explain to me what event causes more than 70% of runs to score. Show me how these runs score without the benefit of a teammate.

Lets look it a different way, just to be as fair as we can. Just to see where we are at. What we are looking at is a batter doing something to cause his teammate to score a run. There are 107 players in history who have had 1000 rbi's, minus their homeruns. In other words, 107 players have done something to cause a teammate score a run a minimum of 1000 times:

Cap Anson 1979
Ty Cobb 1820
Honus Wagner 1631
Hank Aaron 1542
Al Simmons 1520
Nap Lajoie 1516
Babe Ruth 1503
Lou Gehrig 1502
Jake Beckley 1489
Stan Musial 1476
Sam Crawford 1428
Eddie Murray 1413
Tris Speaker 1412
Carl Yastrzemski 1392
Jimmie Foxx 1388
Dave Winfield 1368
George Davis 1364
Ed Delahanty 1363
Goose Goslin 1361
Harry Heilmann 1356
Mel Ott 1349
Lave Cross 1324
Ted Williams 1318
Yogi Berra 1283
George Brett 1278
Tony Perez 1273
Rafael Palmeiro 1266
Cal Ripken 1264
Joe Cronin 1254
Eddie Collins 1253
Harold Baines 1244
Willie Mays 1243
Charlie Gehringer 1243
Sam Thompson 1236
Barry Bonds 1234
Frank Robinson 1226
Pie Traynor 1215
Jim Bottomley 1203
Manny Ramirez 1198
Hugh Duffy 1196
Paul Waner 1196
Dan Brouthers 1190
Al Kaline 1184
Roger Connor 1184
Frank Thomas 1183
Joe Medwick 1178
Joe DiMaggio 1176
Rusty Staub 1174
Ken Griffey 1161
Robin Yount 155
Dave Parker 1154
Pete Rose 1154
Andre Dawson 1153
Bill Dahlen 1149
Ted Simmons 1141
Jeff Kent 1141
Jim O'Rourke 1141
Reggie Jackson 1139
Frankie Frisch 1139
Mickey Vernon 1139
Enos Slaughter 1135
Gary Sheffield 1134
Joe Kelley 1129
Ernie Banks 1124
Zack Wheat 1116
Al Oliver 1107
Bobby Veach 1102
Tommy Corcoran 1101
Sherry Magee 1093
Brooks Robinson 1089
Bobby Wallace 1087

Luis Gonzalez 1085
Jeff Bagwell 1080
Paul Molitor 1073
George Sisler 1073
Heinie Manush 1073
Yogi Berra 1072
Luke Appling 1071

Jim Rice 1069
Roberto Clemente 1065
Willie Stargell 1065
Sammy Sosa 1058

Ed McKean 1058
Fred McGriff 1057
Alex Rodriguez 1053
Joe Carter 1049
Yogi Berra 1049
Mike Schmidt 1047
Sam Rice 1044

Stuffy McInnis 1043
Steve Garvey 1036
Willie McCovey 1034
Bill Buckner 1034
Andres Galarraga 1026
Bob Elliott 1025
Bobby Doerr 1024
Chili Davis 1022
Julio Franco 1021
Garret Anderson 1020
Carlos Delgado 1020
Ruben Sierra 1016
Bid McPhee 1014
Tony Lazzeri 1013
Harmon Killebrew 1011
Bill Dickey 1007
Joe Sewell 1006
Tony Gwynn 1003

Of the 107 players who have driven 1000 or more of their teammates, 83 of them are Hall of Famers. I would have to put that down as more than just a coincidence. In fact, the first non-hall player is at 22, Lave Cross, a turn-of-the-century third basmen, who drove in 1371 runs on only 47 home runs. Seems like he took advantage of his opportunities with runners on base.

Tony Perez comes in at 26. Not a top-25 guy, which is most people use as thier cutoff. Yeah, he took advantage of the opportunities of having runnners on base. But he still had to do something with the ball to get them to cross the plate.

The rest of the top 51 are all Hall guys, except for Palmiero at 27 (use your judegment there), Baines at 31 (maybe just longevity, maybe not), Rusty Staub at 48, and Dave Parker at 51. So, 24 of the top 25, and 46 of the top 51 are all Hall guys. Jim Rice comes in 79. Of the other 18 non-hall guys, none of them are serious candidates for induction. But 78% of the guys on the list are in one of the Halls.

So here, at last, is my point. The RBI is a good stat. Players who get a lot of them are good players. Because they help their team score runs, which is the whole point of it. Players who don't get a lot of them need to do something else well, because they aren't helping their team score runs.

There might be a better way to count them, and there are some good ones. Percentage of RBI to RBI opportunities. RBI’s as a percentage of runs scored. I don’t know. The numbers guys can come up with something different. The point is that RBI’s need to be used in some form. No stat by itself is useful. If you say someone hit 34 homeruns, is that good or bad? We don't know. But if we quantify it by saying it happened before the All-Star break, or in a season, or in a career, or in 1000 at bats, then it becomes clearer. If someone has a .450 OBP, that's good. But was it in 100 plate appearances, a season, or a career. Every number needs another number to make it work.

One of the arguments against the RBI is that its context driven, by who hits in front of each player, and where each player hits in the order. Yeah. Its context driven. Sure it is. Welcome to the planet Earth. Life is context driven.

Rickey Henderson scored more runs than any other player to play the game, largely because of his time as a leadoff hitter, and his ability to move around the bases. But if you batted Rickey Henderson ninth instead of leadoff, he's not going to score nearly as many runs. If you put pitchers in the leadoff spot, they're going to score more runs than they would batting ninth because they'll have more opportunities. Pitchers will still score less hitting leadoff than Rickey Henderson would batting ninth, because Rickey is a better player. That's context-driven.

The RBI is not a flawed stat. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It measures the amount of times a player does something to cause his teammates to cross the plate and score runs. And it does a good job of that and recognizes who is good at it and who isn't. The RBI should't be discounted as an important stat just because it doesn't fit into someone's formula.

The problem is, the perception of the RBI is flawed. And we need to find a way to fix that.

Just because some sportswriters and older ballplayers can’t give up on it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used. We've already seen the ability of some of the sportswriters and media to accurately evaluate a player. They can't. That's why the awards system and the Hall of Fame voting don't work they way they should.

I don't' think a player is an MVP because he has more RBI's than any other player. Sorry, Justin Morneau and Ryan Howard. It’s just one measure of the worth of a player and there are many other things that need to be done. But what the RBI does is tell me that Justin Morneau and Ryan Howard cause a lot of their teammates to cross the plate and score runs. So their teams score more runs and win more games and make a run for the playoffs, or win a World Series. That tells me they are valuable players. Not just the most valuable

And the context driven argument doesn't work for me. If you replace Justin Morneau with Michael Cuddyer, or Ryan Howard with Jayson Werth, those players aren't going to have as many RBI's as the star. And their teammates won't score the same amount of runs. So the team gets less runs, therefore less victories, therefore no playoff run.

So I'm going to stick with RBI's. I'm going to continue to look at it and say players with a lot of RBI's are good players, among the best. And I will continue to use RBI's in my personal evaluation of players. If anyone really thinks I'm wrong, then all they have to do is show what causes 71% of runs to score.

I think there is one relevant stat that is missing. If a batter gets to first, then moves to second or third and scores on a hit, not all proper credit is given. A player should get credit for doing something to move his teammate into scoring position. Some is, as in the sacrifice, but usually not. A player who gets hit and moves a runner to second or third, or grounds out and moves the runner up, just doesn't get enough credit. There should be a better way to recognize this.


Nick said...

I've always thought there should be some sort of RBI% that equalizes those that don't bat in the middle of the order. You're right the the best RBI guys are ususally the best players, otherwise they wouldn't hit in those positions. But then you have a guy like Jose Guillen or Emil Brown...

Ron Rollins said...

Yeah, but Jose goes get guys across the plate. The problem is, he doesn't take advantage of his opportunites. Or let others.

If he walked more, or had a higher average, then the guys behind him would get more opportunites also.

You're right, it needs to be looked at from different angles to properly evaluate what a player is doing. But by itself, its still a decent enough stat, if you know what it actually means.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

Nice post Ron. I agree that the RBI is a good stat. For a career, you generally can discount the "context" thing. You're going through a lot of different players at different stages of their careers, so if a guy continually puts up lots of RBI's, he is a good hitter. For a season, it's harder to tell because of the difference in AB's. Ryan Howard isn't a better hitter because he had more RBI's. If you exchange Pujols for Howard, Pujols probably has 20 more RBI's, at least, than Howard had with the Phillies due to contact and batting average.

Ron Rollins said...

I agree completely. It's a good stat, like a hit tells you how many times a get swings the bat successfully, but doesn't give you a complete picture. The RBI does exactly what it should, but needs something else to go with it. Nick had some good suggestions.

Interesting note about Lave Cross. 22nd on the list, with all those Hall guys. Is that an accident, or are we missing something.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

I'll have to look up who Lave Cross is.