The Great RBI Debate – No One Ask Me But. . .

The recent discussion about the usefulness of the RBI  –  The Great RBI Debate and the Flip Side – seemed to leave the situation unresolved. So while no one actually asked me, I thought I’d just settle it. :-)

If you missed those posts, Clint said that RBI had some levity (sic) in them – didn’t quite understand that I’m seen some funny things but a funny RBI?? – and argues that

“…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…”

while in the Flip Side MJ argues that,

“… it doesn’t tell us anything about an individual player’s value, skill, talent or anything else of importance…”

Now that we know where they stand, as an independent arbiter – I’m a traditionalist and I love numbers, I guess I’m schizophrenic – I’ll try to get to the reality of it all.  The answer is. . .Clint’s closer to correct.

MJ’s Position

MJ is obviously a devotee of Sabermetrics. His position is that advanced data tracking and application of at times intricate and obscure data, provide a number that is far more definitive than RBI in terms of an individual player’s overall production. In his opinion RBI lack the precision provided by such investigation and number crunching and being imprecise aren’t useful.

The Sabermetricians Are Amongst Us

Sabermetricians are essentially fans who love and understand the art of numbers as well as baseball. Throughout baseball’s history statistics have been a part of the game, beginning with the rudimentary box score provided in newspapers that told fans how team performed the prior day. As baseball’s fan base grew those box scores became the focal point for discussions about player’s relative merits. Soon seasonal totals of runs, hit, errors, strikeouts and RBI were printed alongside them. It’s easy to see why those who define things with numbers found baseball’s numeric history fascinating, it produces the most prolific array of stats of any sport.

For these statistics driven baseball fans (lovingly called stat heads), an in depth evaluation of players is unacceptably inaccurate without thoroughly researched and processed data, validated over time. Their work is largely the reason fantasy baseball exists and that player evaluators, GMs and those making decisions regarding the spending of genuine money as well as hiring and firing players today, look at things aside from raw talent. The aforementioned individuals understand the new metrics available, as well as the old standby’s like RBI, either because they choose to study them as a cult hobby or because their job is to apply them effectively. Today the RBI is merely one stat among the multitude. It is an old, certainly not intricate stat and can be affected by scorekeeper subjectivity. The newer stats are certainly more researched and intricate models, and they too are affected by subjectivity of scorekeepers, stingers and the assumptions made by those compiling and analyzing the data. Even with all of today’s precision the sabermetric community lacks unanimous agreement on which stat provides the best picture of player production. Is RE24, REW, WPA, WPA/LI the most accurate? Yes, of course it is, they are. . .or aren’t. Those discussions are certainly and understandably important to stat heads and those that apply their findings every day. However, when we discuss the general population of baseball fans, stat heads are a minority.

Fans Are Just People

As impossible as it is for some – and I stress some, no one is this current conversation I’m sure  – stat heads to grasp, the average fan doesn’t understand or want to learn what a determines a standard deviation or the formula for calculating today’s favorite statistic. Most assiduously avoided statistics in college;  even those forced to take it remembered little the next week. What the average fan wants is something easy to understand and relatively accurate that gives them a general idea what to expect. They don’t bet serious money on the game, aren’t involved in fantasy drafts or committing large payroll to players. They love the game and don’t what to attain an advanced  to talk about it

When one of this group is cornered by a true believer who starts to explain in decimal points why he/she knew that you shouldn’t walk Albert Pujols to pitch to Lance Berkman because Pujols is likely to make an out 65% of the time, their eyes glaze over. All they know is Pujols is considered by almost everyone the finest hitter in the game and Berkman isn’t. When faced with that choice you pitch to the guy that isn’t number one even if he’s number 1A. That’s what they understand.  One more illustration.

Prior to his ill judged (in my opinion at least) move to the White Sox you could pencil in Adam Dunn for 80-100 walks, 35+ home runs, a.380+ OBP and around 100 strikeouts and 100 RBI every year. Why? Because he’s done it almost every year. People understand that. Telling them his career WPA is 22.5 and his WPA/LI is 24 tells them less than nothing about Dunn. It does tell them that you don’t understand and won’t encourage future discussions with you.

Fans- ordinary non-stathead fans – want to keep it simple so they can enjoy the game, not get a headache trying to remember park factors.  They need something they understand to help make sense of decisions and discuss the game with other ordinary fans.  Something like ERA, a pitcher’s won-lost record and the RBI.

Post Game Recap

While MJ is correct that the RBI is not the definitive statistic providing – in my best Ed McMahon voice- everything you need to know or want to find out about Adam Dunn with men on base, fully and completely…without omission”, it is far from useless.   The shortcomings that exist are primarily meaningful to a small – but growing – segment of fans; sabermetrics devotees. To the average baseball fan however, the RBI is not meaningless. It provides a quick, easily understandable way of conveying – without complex formula or mystic abbreviation involving superscript and subscript – what may be expected from a hitter over a period of time in run producing situations.

A Final (Probably Futile) Note

Let’s use the RBI acronym correctly; pretty please :). We have enough sloppy grammar and bastardized words in use already. RBI is singular and plural; there’s no “s”, with or without an apostrophe.

  • RBI is run batted in and runs batted in because the word made plural is ‘runs’ not ‘in.’
  • Adding an apostrophe would make it possessive not plural.
  • Adding an s to turn RBI into RBIs would literally be run batted ins.

Try to think of it this way. If I walk at one mile per hour that would be written”1MPH.” If I drive 70 miles per hour that would be ’70mph.’ Both use the acronym mph without the s. It is not 70MPHs and there is no s on RBI ever. Now that I’ve successfully tilted at that windmill I’ll go eliminate misuse of the term ground rule double.

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Tags: RBI Sabermetrics

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