The Great RBI Debate

Our very own ‘Take writer MJ Lloyd and I were text messaging back and forth during one of the World Series Games when a decent debate was born. MJ believes RBI’s are a worthless stat of randomization. I personally belong to the school of thought that RBI’s have some levity to them.

We decided that the topic would make a good debate here at The ‘Take and readers should feel free to weigh in.

The following is my argument as to why RBI’s are not a meaningless statistic.

Many fans like to think stats measure individual ability. RBI’s are a function of how many at bats a player has with runners on base and how well he does in those at bats.

RBI’s are not random. Better players are very likely going to drive in more runners, but one might argue (in this case it’s M.J.) that way too many variables are in play for RBI’s to be the sole prominent and useful stat in gauging offensive ability. That is definitely true.

Healthy players with more ability who have guys with a high OBP hitting in front of them will tend to have more RBI’s. This means you hit leadoff or 8th, you’re not likely to rack up RBI’s. Hit behind a player in the mold of Ricky Henderson and you’re going to look good.

Healthy players who hit well with men in scoring position and have guys with a high OBP hitting in front of them will have even more RBI’s. We want to think that bearing down when guys are on base is a measure of character. The flip side of that position is that there are time that professional athletes are not trying as hard as they could. If you can hit extra special good with a guy on second, then why don’t you hit extra special good all the time. Note that this is different than saying ALL players hit better with guys on base.

RBI’s aren’t the perfect measurement of run production, but they aren’t meaningless either. I say that not all things with flaws are useless. All in all, I think that players who drive in the most runs are generally pretty good hitters. It is also fairly easy to pick out the outliers, if circumstances warrant it.

Some hitters are fully reliant on having RISP when they come to the plate to get an RBI. The best hitters can create some of their own RBI opportunities. I think RBI’s have the ability to tell you whether a player is more likely to strike out with a guy on third base or hit a ground ball to the right side that scores the runner. There is a school of thought that would tell me that Joey Votto is just as likely to strikeout with a runner on third as he is with no one on base but I feel that some players like Votto have the ability to bear down and grind a little harder and focus a little longer to create the run.

I also believe there are times when a pitcher attempts to get a little too cute with Ryan Howard looming on deck instead of going right after the hitter in front of Howard. This leads to walks and mistakes that allow higher on base average for the hitters ahead of the big thumper in the middle of the lineup. Thus RBI opportunities created.

I will conclude my argument by saying that RBI’s are a statistic highly dependent on the rest of the team a player is on–but the best players in baseball are still likely to have the most RBI. If you think RBI are a meaningless stat, you must watch a player who really presses in situations with runners on base. There are often players who should have had around 120 or 130 RBI but due to inability and pressing in situations with ‘ducks on the pond’ these players end up in the 90’s despite proficient power numbers.

Often in that situation, people will want to see the player’s average with RISP or RBI opportunities. And in that case you will need more than just the round number of RBI’s to tell you whether the player struggled or not.

Maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe I’m just a brainwashed traditionalist who owned way too many Topps cards in the 80’s and got used to seeing the bold numbers in the RBI column with a player having in the 120’s and a switch flipped inside me that I need to have shut off. I am certainly open-minded enough about it to see that there is another school of thought and that we have evolved to desire a deeper ‘tell’ on how a player performs. And there are better devices to tell us what we want to know. But for the lazy fan, the RBI is still a lead indicator that we can deduct some things from.

Now that you probably have a headache and have seen the term ‘RBI’ a dozen times more than you care to, you can let us know your feelings on the stat.

Tags: Statistics The Great RBI Debate

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