In the age of new metrics for player performance, the RBI is mired in tough times. The snarkier analysts will chuck it out entirely as an unfortunate statistical footnote. It isn’t something you’d go to WAR for, after all, not when the analysis community is busily filling up the statistical toybox like every day was Christmas.
However, while belaboring what it ain’t, it’s important to remember what the RBI actually is: A plain old counting stat, and the legacy of original stathead Ernie Lanigan back from the start of the 20th century. It wasn’t Lanigan’s fault that subsequent generations started using RBIs as a value judgment, and confusing these simple facts with whether or not a hitter is clutch. Any discussion of who is or is not an “RBI Guy” is not about who possesses some ineffable quality of clutchiness, but it can still be about who has delivered a lot of clutch hits. Then again, I've always felt that “clutch” should be best thought of as an adjective, not a skill.
In baseball there’s still a readiness to talk about raw totals of RBIs. After all, Adrian Gonzalez is being hailed as an MVP candidate, largely because of a league-leading RBI tally. Prince Fielder is busily delivering on what Albert Pujols was supposed to in their walk years by leading the National League.
When you look at who wound up with the most RBIs in a season, it isn’t about how well a hitter does with his chances; it’s about the sum total of his opportunities. And one of the simple facts of life is that hitting in the middle of the order is going to give you those opportunities. Bat in the heart of the order, and you’ll get a lot of opportunities. As we’ll see, you don’t even have to be especially good at driving runners in to wind up with a lot of RBIs, as long as the manager keeps putting you in the middle of the order and you’re fortunate enough to have a teammate or three good at getting on base in front of you.
So with that in mind, let’s look at a different kind of leaderboard: Who’s doing the most with his opportunities, and converting the most runners into runs? Using a Baseball Prospectus stat called “Others Batted In,” we can find out who gets to bat with the most runners on base and who’s bringing them home. By way of explaining the table, PA w/ROB is Plate Appearances with Runners On Base, ROB is Runners On Base, OBI is Others Batted In, and OBI% is the percentage of men on base a guy has plated. I’m ranking by OBI% using 200 plate appearances as the cutoff.
Now, that’s a fun leaderboard. Justin Turner? Well, I guess it's another example of funny, in-season phenomena. While you might not bet on it continuing, facts is facts, ma’am, and the guy deserves his props. If Turner seems like an unlikely leader, though, keep in mind that among big-league regulars (using 500 PAs as a cutoff), David DeJesus was the best RBI guy of 2008, plating 21.5 percent of his runners. In 2009, it was Bobby Abreu with 19.8 percent. The all-time single-season leader via Retrosheet history was George Brett in 1980, when he drove in 26.9 percent of his runners. However you feel about RBI, that’s kind of cool, and not just because that goes back to a time I was a young A’s fan who dreaded every Brett at-bat.
A few guys who have long since earned and carry the “professional hitter” rep are on the leaderboard: Young and Martinez, of course. And it’s nice to have another reason to give Pence his due. Seeing an aging Chipper Jones still wreaking havoc helps make it clear that he really isn’t done yet. And Gonzalez is here, which is a nice reflection of the fact that he’s not just a product of his liberation from Petco or his presence in a lineup stacked with OBP threats. He’s just scary-good, and this is another way of seeing it.
Finding two NL Central tandems here is fascinating, but with Berkman and Holliday converting their opportunities, you can see how teammates have picked up Pujols, who was at a mediocre 14.1 OBI% before he hit the DL. Finding Fielder and Braun on the list is a reminder that not only does Fielder get the benefit of batting behind Braun, but that they’re both getting plenty of chances to bat with men on, thanks to a front-loaded Brewers lineup with Rickie Weeks and Nyjer Morgan batting in front of them. The guy with the second-most opportunities on the team is Casey McGehee, but his OBI clip of 12.4 percent is another symptom of a bad year, and he’ll get fewer chances now that he’s no longer batting fifth.
But Fielder’s presence also illustrates how players aren’t necessarily consistent in their OBI% from year to year. In 2010, Fielder drove in just 10.8 percent of his runners (or 51 of 474), a clip that only Alcides Escobar worsted among Brewers regulars. Again, this doesn’t make Fielder a bad person -- he just didn’t execute within Milwaukee’s offense in 2010. Since he’s been great this year and was at 18.7 percent in 2009, you can take this as another reason why you ought to just let the numbers speak for themselves.
Since I’ve bolded the leaders in the columns, if you’re wondering which batter has walked to the plate with the most runners on board this season, it’s Ryan Howard of the Phillies with 263. That’s despite the Phillies’ much-discussed offensive issues. So if you consider their ability to set up a big bopper, give credit where it’s due. Whatever their other problems, the Phillies have created a ton of opportunities for Howard, almost as many as the Red Sox have created for Gonzalez. That Howard has driven in “just” 48 runners, or 17.9 percent, is far from an indictment of his abilities as a play-maker -- it’s still a very good clip.
If opportunities essentially define the possibility for results when it comes to raw RBI tallies, thanks to the good folks at Retrosheet, let’s play a little game: Who holds the single-season record for runners on board when he steps to the plate? I’ll give you a hint -- it wasn’t from the PED Period. And it wasn’t a Yankee. And it wasn’t Ted Williams. That’s another hint, because it was Jackie Jensen in 1955 -- the guy who batted behind Ted Williams. Jensen batted with a record 576 runners aboard and drove in 90 for a decent 15.6 OBI%, but the voters wisely left Jensen behind Williams in another category -- MVP voting. Jensen wound up 10th and Teddy Ballgame finished fourth in a partial season.
To look at it in yet another way, in 2008 Justin Morneau set a record when he had the good fortune to get 400 plate appearances with runners on base; like Jensen, he was lucky enough to bat behind an even better player, Joe Mauer. By plating a fine 19.2 percent of those non-average joes on base, Morneau nearly won his second MVP award. Some folks might overrate him, and maybe Morneau has the heart of a lion or whatever, but on a more basic level this means he was good at executing within an offense lined up to give him his chances.
On some level we all get it. Maybe there’s an intuitive leap to make here. In talking about quarterbacks, do we talk about their completions or their completion percentage? Almost always the latter, but it’s sensible to talk about both. Somehow, in baseball, talking about opportunities in the context of driving in runners has never been fashionable. That could be attributed equally to the anti-stats crowd that sticks to the old-school info on the back of baseball cards and the statheads who grew up thinking RBIs were almost as icky as saves when it comes to statistical purity.
I’m among those who, perhaps like Lanigan back in the day, just thinks this sort of stuff is interesting to know. In the cases of Gonzalez or the Braun/Fielder combo, it’s a great way of revealing offensive machines who are punishing opponents again and again, and doing it in a less abstract way than the burgeoning family of sabermetric toys available to us today. Determining the RBI guys isn't particle physics, but you can associate it with something concrete: opportunities and events without value judgments.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.