The RBI Stat Is Not Worthless

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Because of advanced statistics, the relevance of the run batted in has been diminished to the point where some don’t even want to know how many RBI a player has because they see it as totally irrelevant.

In a sense, I understand their point. RBI are only as good as how many opportunities a player has; he has no control over how many runners are on base when he comes to the plate; no say in whether he has teammates in the lineup who get on base; and doesn’t write the lineup so he can dictate where he’s going to bat or who’s in front of him. Like runs scored, an RBI is accumulated whenever a player hits a home run.

This makes it easy to see the redundancy of the “stat” that Mike and the Mad Dog, Mike Francesa and Christopher Russo, used to use to assess players—their version of “runs created”—calculated by adding together home runs, RBI and runs scored.

It’s not a stat; it’s a simplistic number that meant absolutely nothing.

But there is a place for RBI in dissecting a specific player’s numbers; it’s especially valuable when it’s a player who’s expected to be the main offensive force in his lineup and his numbers don’t quite add up to what logic says they should be.

Jose Bautista is one such player.

How is it possible that a player like Bautista, with 39 homers and a .450 on base percentage only has 91 RBI and 95 runs scored?

Part of the reason, obviously, is that Bautista is playing for a team with a .318 cumulative on-base percentage.

In comparison, Adrian Gonzalez of the Red Sox (playing for one of the league leaders in on-base percentage at .348) has 16 fewer homers than Bautista, but 103 RBI and 92 runs scored.

There are other aspects to consider.

The Red Sox have stolen 94 bases and been caught stealing 33 times—11th in the league. The Blue Jays have stolen 113 bases and been caught 43 times. The Red Sox don’t steal bases capriciously just for the sake of them; the Blue Jays run the bases with abandon and it costs them baserunners; baserunners that might be on base in front of Bautista at some point.

For most of the season, Bautista had Yunel Escobar and Corey Patterson batting in front of him. Escobar gets on base; Patterson doesn’t.

Gonzalez has had Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia batting in front of him. Ellsbury with his .372 OBP and Pedroia at .396 provide greater opportunities for Gonzalez to drive in runs.

What of the lineup protection provided for each player?

Stat people diminish the concept of lineup protection, but despite so-called evidence that there’s no correlation between performance and the hitters batting behind a Gonzalez or Bautista, looking at the players who’ve batted behind each and you see Gonzalez has had David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis alternating between batting fourth and fifth; Bautista has had Adam Lind and the likes of J.P. Arencibia; Aaron Hill; and Juan Rivera “protecting” him.

Their results with runners on base go as follows:

Bautista:

Split G PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB BAbip tOPS+ sOPS+
RISP 91 150 94 22 5 0 4 42 50 29 .234 .500 .415 .915 39 .281 76 153
120 291 242 74 8 2 26 26 48 48 .306 .423 .678 1.100 164 .286 100 207
Men On 118 261 194 61 14 0 13 64 61 44 .314 .479 .588 1.067 114 .343 99 190
1– 88 111 100 39 9 0 9 22 11 15 .390 .450 .750 1.200 75 .395 118 221
-2- 51 52 33 6 1 0 0 4 18 12 .182 .481 .212 .693 7 .286 40 94
–3 28 29 16 4 0 0 1 9 13 2 .250 .586 .438 1.024 7 .231 99 171
12- 29 33 23 4 2 0 2 10 9 11 .174 .424 .522 .946 12 .200 76 171
1-3 17 15 12 5 1 0 1 8 2 3 .417 .533 .750 1.283 9 .500 136 226
-23 16 15 6 3 1 0 0 9 8 0 .500 .733 .667 1.400 4 .429 168 260
123 6 6 4 0 0 0 0 2 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 0 .000 -100 -100
on 1st, lt 2 out 84 115 96 39 9 0 11 36 17 17 .406 .487 .844 1.331 81 .400 141 243
on 3rd, lt 2 out 34 38 23 9 0 0 1 22 12 1 .391 .553 .522 1.074 12 .333 105 160
on 3rd, 2 out 25 27 15 3 2 0 1 6 11 5 .200 .556 .533 1.089 8 .222 107 219
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/3/2011.


Gonzalez:

Split G PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB BAbip tOPS+ sOPS+
RISP 101 192 162 54 12 0 3 74 25 34 .333 .411 .463 .874 75 .392 86 139
129 295 268 88 20 1 15 15 24 47 .328 .390 .578 .968 155 .354 101 171
Men On 128 317 279 99 20 2 8 88 31 51 .355 .416 .527 .943 147 .404 98 156
1– 105 125 117 45 8 2 5 14 6 17 .385 .424 .615 1.039 72 .421 116 181
-2- 57 76 65 18 5 0 1 15 11 18 .277 .382 .400 .782 26 .370 67 117
–3 20 22 15 8 0 0 1 14 5 1 .533 .591 .733 1.324 11 .467 179 245
12- 38 44 42 16 3 0 1 19 2 6 .381 .409 .524 .933 22 .429 96 167
1-3 26 22 19 7 3 0 0 9 2 4 .368 .409 .526 .935 10 .438 96 140
-23 14 14 8 1 0 0 0 7 4 1 .125 .357 .125 .482 1 .111 11 24
123 14 14 13 4 1 0 0 10 1 4 .308 .357 .385 .742 5 .444 58 108
on 1st, lt 2 out 92 139 129 53 13 1 4 35 7 17 .411 .446 .620 1.066 80 .450 123 179
on 3rd, lt 2 out 35 41 30 14 4 0 1 30 6 4 .467 .488 .700 1.188 21 .433 148 178
on 3rd, 2 out 25 31 25 6 0 0 0 10 6 6 .240 .387 .240 .627 6 .316 39 84
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/3/2011.

This too can be taken out of context, but Bautista is batting under .200 with two runners on base; .250 with the bases loaded; and .390 with one runner on.

Gonzalez is batting .385 with one man on base and a ridiculous .533 with the bases loaded. Gonzalez has had almost 60 more plate appearances with runners on base than Bautista has.

Like most statistics, it’s easy to misinterpret the value depending on how it’s used. If RBI is taken as an end unto himself by saying, “wow, X has 20 more RBI than Y!” or “X should be the MVP because he had 135 RBI when Y had 101”, but it ignores other bits of information that could be just as or more important than an easy statistic to reference as validation for a successful season.

It’s only worthless if it’s taken wrongly; but that doesn’t make it entirely worthless when used as part of the big picture and is interpreted by one who knows baseball and doesn’t take reading a stat sheet to be expertise.

Because it’s not.

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