Jan
25

The Almighty RBI

By

Amazingly, all 1,831 of A-Rod's career RBI's have come in blowouts. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

Runs batted in is one of baseball’s oldest and most sacred stats. It tells us how effective a player is at capitalizing on run scoring opportunities, driving in his teammates when they’re out on the bases like ducks on a pond. Except it doesn’t really do that, at least not with the proper context, anyway. It doesn’t tell us about the situation, how the runner was driven in, how many opportunities a batter has had to drive in a run, nothing. It’s a just a raw counting stat devoid of important information.

If we’re going to resort to using RBI, the best way to do so is with a rate stat, just like batting average or K/9. It’s actually pretty amazing that they used a rate stat for batting average back in the day but not for RBI. I guess it wasn’t easy to keep track of RBI opportunities back then, but it shows that the grandfathers of the sport and statistical record understand that a rate stat was the way to go. Despite that, the stat has remain unchanged for the last century.

The table on the right has RBI opportunities and conversion rate for 2010 Yankees with at least 200 plate appearances, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus. This is the number of times a player drove in one of his teammates, so it doesn’t count the times he drove himself in with a homer. The league average RBI rate among batters with at least 200 plate appearances (345 qualified hitters) was 14.3% in 2010, with a standard deviation of 2.89%. The top RBI man in baseball last year was (wait for it) Ryan Hanigan of the Reds, who drove in 23.3% of runners on base. He only had 243 plate appearances due to injury though, so if we limit it to guys that played essentially a full season, the leader was Carlos Gonzalez at 22.1%. A-Rod was third, and then you had Pedro Alvarez and Delmon Young at 20.1% and 20.0%, respectively. There’s a few players in between A-Rod and those two, but they’re all right at 200 PA.

So this data is great, it’s certainly more useful than straight up RBI, but how stable is it? Does RBI rate fluctuate wildly from year to year like BABIP tends to do, or is a repeatable skill like say, drawing walks. I suspect it’s the former, but let’s look at some more data. Here’s the current Yankees that have played full-time over the last five years…

The rates for the individual players jump around quite a bit from year to year; the smallest gap between highest and lowest percentage is Nick Swisher at 2.4%. This isn’t much of a surprise, RBI’s almost always come on balls in play, so they’re just as prone to BABIP fluctuations as batting average.

Scoring runs and driving them in are obviously quite important, but the idea of an “RBI guy” is a fallacy. The best RBI guys in the game are the best hitters, period. Driving in runs requires the same set of skills – a) not make outs and to a slightly lesser extent, b) hitting for power – as hitting with the bases empty. If you can do those things, you’ll be productive no matter what kind of situations your presented. The Yankees were an above average RBI% team in 2010, and they will be going forward because they have some really awesome hitters in the lineup.

Categories : Analysis

33 Comments»

  1. bakekrukow412 says:

    I’D LOVE to show this to the nay-sayers who claim Alex doesn’t get the job done when it counts.

  2. Mickey Scheister says:

    So it looks as if we’ll see a regression from A-Rod, Cano and maybe Swisher. Cano being a fixture behind A-Rod most of the season last year may have caused his to increase, and hopefully stay increased. I’d love to see Grandy, Jeter, Teix and Posada rebound this year to offset. It looks like this data does solidify what has been said about Grandy, being a better hitter with the bases empty or no RISP. Hopefully the work with Long helps in all facets of his game! I wonder how it calculates a runner that is caught stealing, if that counts against the data. Very enlightening, I’ve never seen RBIs broken down like this. I like, I like.

    • DF says:

      I don’t think the data shows that about Granderson. Except for this year, he’s been primarily a leadoff hitter. I would imagine he has consistenly had lower “men on base” totals than hitters lower down in the lineup would have, so his data would suffer from sample size problems and their attendant fluctuations.

      • Mike Axisa says:

        Another part of it is placement of the runners. It’s harder to drive in men from first then men on third. That’s another thing that would have to be considered in a more in-depth analysis.

      • Mickey Scheister says:

        Yeah I should have clairified in Grandy, the past couple of years per MSM outlets. I understand he was a leadoff guy but that was more in Detroit, not enough in NY to make a difference, IMO. I remember some staggering stat two years ago that Grandy hit 15 (not sure of exact number) straight homeruns with nobody on base. For a guy with 25-30 homerun power, 10, 15 or any double digit number of PAs with hitting homeruns with nobody on (they weren’t all lead-off shots ether) has to be hard to do, he must change his approach or pitch selection with runners on. I love me some Grandy, I strongly think he’s gonna rock this year if he brings the 2nd half approach from last year.

        It still looks like Grandy could rebound in terms of a higher percent, as he was 14.5-15.7% years one through three then 11 and 12% respectively the past two years. Really just being at MLB average would be great.

        • It'sATarp says:

          Grandy’s BABIP has been uncharacteristically low for a guy with a 20% line drive rate for the past two years. basically once his BABIP (which sat at .270ish for the last two years where it should be at .300) normalized i expect we also see an influx in his RBI%

        • delv says:

          That bit about solo HRs needs a lot of context to be properly digested. Of Cano’s 29 HRs last year, 18 were solos.

  3. Steve H says:

    After reading the caption in that picture I almost didn’t want to read the whole post, that caption was the icing on the icing.

  4. ledavidisrael says:

    lololol @ CAPTION

  5. STEVIS says:

    who ranked above A-Rod?

    • JGS says:

      The top RBI man in baseball last year was (wait for it) Ryan Hanigan of the Reds, who drove in 23.3% of runners on base. He only had 243 plate appearances due to injury though, so if we limit it to guys that played essentially a full season, the leader was Carlos Gonzalez at 22.1%. A-Rod was third

  6. losjanks says:

    …don’t understand why homers are removed…isn’t a player more valuable if he drives himself in (in addition to teammates) more often than one who does less often (or never)?

  7. Steve H says:

    RBI% as stated above is a much better metric than straight RBI, and yet is still extremely flawed. Granted Barry Bonds is the outlier of outliers, but his 2003 season speaks to this. He only knocked in 13% of of baserunners that year, which if in the wrong hands (I’m looking at you Joe Morgan) would lead you to believe he was a bad RBI guy. Bonds, with runners on that year batted .331/.592/.611, and with runners in scoring position he hit .338/.654/.558. He certainly didn’t clam up with runners on base. As the post notes, The best RBI guys in the game are the best hitters, period.

    • The Evil Umpire says:

      That .654 OBP indicates that he walked almost a third of his RISP appearences that year. Credit should be given for AB’s in which the hitter keeps the inning going (i.e. with a walk, hbp, infield single, or one of those fluke hard singles to the right fielder where the runner can only advance to third).

  8. Slugger27 says:

    Shouldn’t it be done by at bats instead of PAs? If there’s a runner on 2nd w 2 outs and cano is intentionally walked, that shouldn’t count against his rbi%

    Although then there’s the sac fly problem, since that doesn’t count as an AB

  9. Mike P says:

    Given your conclusion, wouldn’t you agree then that there would be little added value in changing the RBI into a rate stat? It’s one of those that can be kept simple, like the HR.

    • Esteban says:

      I don’t think that’s what the conclusion says. While not the be-all-end-all, a player’s homerun totals are not affected (or barely) by his teammates. RBI totals certainly are affected by teammates, which is why, if one is going use RBIs at all, RBI% will isolate a player’s skill much more than straight RBI totals.

  10. King of the Troglodytes says:

    Driving in runs requires c) the ability to put the bat on the ball and hit a grounder or a deep enough fly with a runner on 3rd with less than 2 out.

    Something the Yankees struggled with mightily last season.

    • Steve H says:

      Something the Yankees struggled with mightily last season.

      Despite leading the majors in RBI.

    • Steve H says:

      And, with runners on 3rd and less than 2 outs, the Yankees, as a team, hit .311/.389/.522.

      I’d say they are donig just fine.

      • Mike Axisa says:

        A .311 AVG and .389 OBP are bad with a runner on third. You’re supposed to hit a grounder or a sac fly to score that run. Outs are sexy. The lower the AVG/OBP, the better.

    • bexarama says:

      Hey, it’s King of the Troglodytes.

    • I know you like to troll, but I’m still going to respond to this.

      To say the Yankees struggled mightily is a stretch. There are two ways of looking at this. First is that the Yankees brought home a runner on third, with less than two outs, 196 times last season, which was the second most in the league. The only team that drove in more runners in the same situation was Tampa.

      The other way to look at it is that the Yankees had the second most opportunities, and when taken as a percentage they scored the runner 49 percent of the time, which was 1 percent below league average.

      I know you like to hate what the Yankees do, and in this instance you might have a point. But you’d come off a lot better if you didn’t overexaggerate it.

  11. The Captain says:

    You mean to say that guys who are good hitters and can hit for power will drive in more runs??? No way!!

    This kind of basic, statistically-supported logic would not be supported by the likes of John Kruk. He used to play the game, so he KNOWS an “RBI guy” when he sees one.

  12. Ted Nelson says:

    “The best RBI guys in the game are the best hitters, period.”

    This may very well be right (I’d guess it is), but I agree that a more in-depth analysis would definitely be needed to prove it. Interesting stuff for what it is, though.

  13. China Joe says:

    “The best RBI guys in the game are the best hitters, period.”

    The best RBI guys are the best hitters in the game who are lucky enough to be in placed in a lineup behind hitters who excel at getting on base.

  14. mike hc says:

    Excellent analysis. Interesting. Obviously there is more in depth factors that could be taken into account, but as a general look at things this was quite good.

  15. king of fruitless hypotheticals says:

    so if we just go by opportunities…Arod is pretty clutch; he comes through when the opportunity is there.

  16. Poopy Pants says:

    How many RBI’s would A-Rod have if Jeter didn’t GIDP so much?

  17. Avi says:

    I’d love to see the RBI rate broken down by which base the runners are on. I’d imagine the percentages go up as the runners are closer to home.

  18. Wil Nieves #1 Fan says:

    LOVE the caption. And 21.6 RBI% is absolutely ridiculous.

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