The problems with runners in scoring position

The RAB Radio Show: May 26, 2011
Joba Chamberlain and the first pitch

For stretches this year, the Yankees have played frustrating baseball. They do lead the league in many offensive categories, including SLG and wOBA, but there have been times when it appears that they simply cannot bring home the men they’ve put on base. Sure, they’ll crack more than their share of homers, which helps the issue. But if they’re not hitting for power, it can seem as though they’re not hitting at all. It appears to be the biggest problem with the offense this year.

Yet, it’s not actually that big a problem. And where it is a problem, it is somewhat solvable. Let’s start with the last part first. Here’s the Yankees’ most common starting lineup, with their respective OBPs listed.

The problem at the start is having four guys in the lineup who have a .321 or lower OBP. That’s not something we typically see from the Yankees. There are mitigating and damning circumstances around these numbers — they don’t necessarily reflect recent slumps and streaks, for example. But for the most part the guys with the ultra low OBPs aren’t doing much.

While that’s a problem itself, the further problem arises when we take into consideration their positioning. Derek Jeter‘s .310 OBP atop the lineup doesn’t help one bit. It means that the high-on-base guys behind him aren’t hitting with as many men on base. Then we get to the five spot, after three guys with high OBPs. Robinson Cano makes a lot of outs, and therefore kills rallies in the process. After him comes a high OBP guy, followed by two low-OBP guys, followed by a high OBP guy — and then back to low again. It’s unsurprising, then, that the Yankees have trouble sometimes getting a rally started.

The solution, of course, is to keep the high-OBP guys bunched together. Lead off with Gardner and move Martin up to fifth. That way they might be able to get something of a rally going. It creates a crater at the back end of the lineup, but that’s a better situation than having them littered throughout the lineup, ready to kill a rally with their out-making ways.

There is another question to ask, though. Are the Yankees actually bad with runners in scoring position? The answer might seem like an obvious yes, but we can’t answer that question without first examining the environment. That is, run scoring and power are down this year. Every team has seen a downturn in offensive output. Something has changed in the game, and we have to adjust our expectations.

The Yankees are actually 14th in the league in batting average with runners in scoring position. That’s not nearly as bad as it feels. While we expect them to be better than average, I’d say that the perception is that they’re below average. This is simply not the case. And, because the Yankees put more runners on base than most other teams, they benefit more from that average hit rate with runners in scoring position. For a quick illustration, the Orioles are second in the league with a .295 average with RISP, but they are 18th in OBP. They might hit home the guys they have, but they don’t have many guys in scoring position in general. I’d much rather be in the Yanks’ position than the Orioles’.

Another point in the Yankees’ favor is their ability to cash in their base runners. They have had 1,130 runners this year, and 173 of them have scored. That’s good for a 15 percent rate, which ties them for second in the league. Cleveland is first at 17 percent, and Minnesota is last with 12 percent. When viewed from a league-wide lens, the Yankees are better than their opponents at bringing runners home. In a game that pits teams against each other directly, that’s clearly an advantage.

There’s a good chance we see the Yankees improve on their performances with runners in scoring position. For that we turn to trusty friend BABIP. The Yankees have a .260 BABIP with runners in scoring position, which ranks 25th in the league. Of course, not everyone will finish with a league-average BABIP. Regression doesn’t work that way. But regression does tend to work out and eliminate outliers in the long term. A team with an offense as potent as the Yankees simply should not have one of the worst BABIPs with runners in scoring position. Even a modest level of regression to the mean will pay off big for the Yankees.

The level of frustration with the Yankees’ offense has, at times, risen high this season. The six-game losing streak in particular seemed like a low point for the offense. But throughout the season they’ve remained one of the best offensive clubs in the league. Even with runners in scoring position they’ve been no worse than average. Given their lower than expected BABIP, we should see that performance improve in the coming weeks and months. It makes the true potential of the Yankees’ offense difficult to imagine. Run scoring is down, yet the Yankees are nearly matching their output from last year. It’s scary to think what they could do if they hit even slightly better with runners in scoring position.

The RAB Radio Show: May 26, 2011
Joba Chamberlain and the first pitch
  • KyleLitke

    14th in the league or 14th in baseball? I assume baseball since 14th in the league would be dead last.

    • Guns of the Navarone (a mushroom cloud layin’ mothafucka, mothafucka!)

      Even 14th in MLB would be “as bad as it feels.”

      • Clay Bellinger

        At least that’s slightly over average though. 14th in the league would be anemic.

  • Slugger27

    Due to the leaguewide downturn, their team OPS+ (115) is actually higher than last year (109) and 2009 (114). Leads me to believe there isn’t much wrong with the offense at all, and makes me even more confident their RISP numbers will eventually climb to where they need to be

    Teams just care more about defense now, doesn’t mean the hitters are worse

  • Billy Mumphrey

    What we need to do his flip Jeter and Gardner in the lineup and move Martin up to 2nd, Grandy to 5th, Cano 6th until he can learn how to take a pitch. We need to trade for a right fielder and wait for Chavez to come back to take over at DH.

    • Clay Bellinger

      We won’t. I’ve been told that the manager is spineless.

      • KyleLitke

        Moving Jeter right now will cause a season long distraction that will make this whole year miserable, like in 2006 when all anyone would talk about is
        ARod. I don’t like him leading off but there are concerns beyond just the numbers. Unless Gardner hits .300 with a .400 OBP while Jeter totally sucks, the media will be all over Gardner with every 0 for and it’ll be a huge distraction. Jeter should step up and ask to be moved down, but he wont.

  • jon

    Its mind bottling that jeter is still the leadoff man

    • The209

      your comment is mind-boggling

    • Slugger27

      Really? Im pretty sure everyone here knows exactly why he’s still hitting leadoff, even if they don’t want him to be

  • Nogomo

    I’m still getting used to this whole “RBIs don’t matter, they’re a stupid stat” thing, and I even somewhat agree, and yet, at the same time, the constant bitching about the Yanks not getting runners in. I understand, it’s not as meaningful a stat for judging an individual’s relative performance as wOBA, but then it seems contradictory to make a fuss about it when guys are NOT getting them! In most other spheres of human effort, if a guy gets the desired result he is not penalized because it wasn’t achieved ENTIRELY independently (and let’s not forget that RBIs on solo homers in fact ARE independent and should not be devalued at all). So, in baseball, where we’ve always counted RBIs as a notable achievement, and really, at the end of the day, it’s absolutely the number one thing you want from hitters, suddenly it is being devalued as a stat?

    • pete

      It’s devalued as an evaluative tool, not necessarily as an achievement. You do have to do something right to get an RBI, so it’s not completely arbitrary. It’s just not an effective tool for comparing players, as it is still often used.

      To me, RBI’s are like the lame, basement-dwelling brother of the more successful and charismatic HR, which is still not a wildly useful tool for predicting a player’s value to an offense, but it is A) a much better correlation, and B) HRs are just plain better than RBIs, from an entertainment standpoint.

      Neither of these statistics, however, is really worth discussing when stats like wOBA and wRC+ exist (with a few exceptions for HRs based on park effects and such), if for no other reason than that their perceived validity will encourage the use of either as a counter-argument to the more encompassing and effective statistics.

      For example, if somebody were to say “Jose Bautista is clearly the best offensive player in the league; his Bondsian wOBA of .534 is .075 better than the next guy – he’s got a wRC+ of 251!”, somebody could theoretically counter “Well sure, but he’s only 15th in RBIs. Clearly there has to at least be some room for debate there”, and if we didn’t automatically dismiss RBIs as a legitimate evaluative statistic, then we might think that there was something valid about this argument, which there obviously isn’t.

    • Nigel Incubator-Jones

      I think, like Wins, it’s just not great as a player stat, but is a great team stat.

      Obviously a win is the most important stat for a team, so as a team it is important to have alot of wins.

      However, there are so many deciding factors in a win it’s not very useful to give it to one player.

      Same with RBIs. Excepting the solo homer, which you pointed out, all (most?) other RBIs take more than one player to make, therefore as a team you definately want a crap load of RBIs, but as an individual stat you are giving to much credit to the player that gets the number in the RBI column. Obviously they had some part in the RBI, just not the whole thing.

  • Joseph Cecala

    Has Robbie’s OBP been going up? He seems a little more patient at the plate lately (Seeing 2 pitches).

  • Cris Pengiuci

    When I read articles like this, I find it amazing that fans are able to analyze statistics available to us and draw conclusions (that are very supportable in most cases) about what changes should be made. Yet the team, which should have even better stats to analyze and salaried employees to do real in-depth analysis, doesn’t seem to use these.

    While I certainly “get” (and to some extent support) the political side of things, such as Jeter batting leadoff), there are still other changes that can be made within a politically charged environment that should improve the offense. It’ll be interesting to see if the team quickly moves Jeter form the leadoff spot after his 3,000th hit if he contiues to perform at current levels. If they don’t, the organization clearly isn’t as smart or doesn’t review or trust advanced metrics as much as we do!

    • Mike HC

      I don’t think it has anything to do with advanced metrics. The unadvanced metrics paint the same picture.

    • Nigel Incubator-Jones

      I think it will be 3000+ hits, plus where they are in the standings, i.e how they’re playing.

      Even if Jeter has the same triple slash line as he does now, there’s no way they move him in the order if they are still playing well enough to be in or around first place.

  • dalelama

    I would like to see the stat developed so that when someone hits into a double play they have an on-base occurrence subtracted from their total to reflect the guy they wiped off base (2 subtracted if they hit into a triple play). I wonder how much Jeter’s OBP would dive then.

    • king of fruitless hypotheticals


    • Nigel Incubator-Jones

      Well, since he’s only grounded into 4 this year, not as much as Old Man Pujols who’s hit into 14.

  • jim p

    On terminology and clarity. There are two leagues, the AL and the NL, referred to as “The Major Leagues.”

    So when you write about the Yankees and “the league” the natural thought is “American League.” When a reader sees “are 25th in the league”… well, that throws every other usage in the essay into question.

    So now the reader has to wonder “are the Yanks 14th in the American League, or 14th in the Major Leagues?” and reassess every other usage.

    Please, for clarity’s sake: “leagues” for both leagues, “league” for just one of them. Obviously the American in a post about the Yankees. Thank you.

    Just now scanning other comments, other people are confused about this, too.