Adrian Gonzalez builds a case for the RBI

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Adrian Gonzalez is one of the more analytical Los Angeles Dodgers hitters, which makes it interesting -- and maybe even ironic -- that his primary skill puts him at such odds with the analytics community.

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto has publicly voiced his lack of regard for the run batted in statistic, or RBI, that many numerical baseball analysts tend to dismiss out of hand. The RBI, they say, is primarily the product of opportunity and thus generally useless when determining a player’s value. Votto has said he prefers the statistics on-base-plus slugging-plus, or OPS+, and weighted runs created, or wRC+.

Gonzalez, on the other hand, is willing to publicly defend the besieged RBI. He led the major leagues with 116 of them last season, yet finished seventh in National League MVP voting.

“You’ve got to score runs to win. In order to score runs, you’ve got to drive people in,” Gonzalez said. “You can’t win if you don’t have RBIs on a team.”

Perhaps the distinction is a matter of context. RBIs are useless if the object is to isolate a players’ value, to treat the rest of the game as background noise. In the context of strategy and game situations, it seems to retain some measure of value, which is why most players and most managers won’t give up on the RBI without a fight.

“We get going back and forth on it,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “There are guys who understand how to drive in a run. Granted, you have to have chances. Part of it is having a lot of guys out there.”

With Dee Gordon and Yasiel Puig setting the table for him last season, Gonzalez certainly had his chances. He had 186 at-bats with runners in scoring position, most in the majors. He had 290 at-bats with runners on base, fifth in the majors. But to Mattingly’s point, Gonzalez has a knack for producing when it counts. He typically is at or near the top of the league leaders in batting with runners in scoring position. Last year, he hit .333 with runners in scoring position and .243 when there was no runner on second or third base.

“My thing is, if teams are going to look at just analytics, Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Cabrera should be hitting first because they’re going to get on base the most,” Gonzalez said. “But teams want them to drive in runs. That’s why those guys hit third or fourth.”

Gonzalez finished 34th in the majors in wRC+ last season, which is certainly not bad, but the Dodgers would argue it isn’t an adequate representation of his value to their lineup. One reason Gonzalez isn’t a darling of the SABR community is that his walk totals have declined since peaking at 119 in 2009. Last season, he walked 56 times and had a .335 on-base percentage. Good, but not great.

Like the debate over RBIs, on-base percentage also can be about context, Gonzalez argues. Votto tends to lead the league in walks every year. He had 135 in 2013.

“I’ve always been an aggressive hitter, but when I was in San Diego and teams weren’t going to pitch to me, I can’t just swing at pitches that weren’t even close. So, I walked over 100 times in San Diego the years that teams weren’t going to pitch to me,” Gonzalez said.

“Then, I went to Boston and they’re going to pitch to me, and I went here and they’re going to pitch to me. I’m not just going to stand up there and take strike one, strike two because I want to walk.”

Gonzalez might be even better at driving in runs than people think. An RBI groundout, for example, reduces a hitter’s average with runners in scoring position. Advancing a runner similarly hurts a player’s numbers, but wins the gratitude of his teammates and coaches.

“If I get up to the plate with a runner on second no outs, I’m going to hit the ball to the right side, even if it’s an out. That’s just baseball. If there’s a runner at third, you drive him in,” Gonzalez said. “Let’s just say runner at third, one out. I’m not going to go up there and be picky, because they’re trying to walk me so they can set up the double play and get out of the inning.”

The Dodgers have one of the more analytics-friendly front offices in baseball now, and it’s probably fair to say that RBIs probably aren’t the first column general manager Farhan Zaidi clicks on when he’s searching for hitters. Gonzalez, who happened to be in the building working out, attended Andrew Friedman’s introductory news conference and jokingly asked him if he was looking for a younger, stronger, faster first baseman. Friedman quickly said, “No.” After all, it’s not as if Gonzalez grades poorly in advanced metrics. He just rates a little bit higher in one unadvanced statistic. The RBI came into existence in the 1920s.

“Baseball players play baseball, the front office looks at what they’re going to look at and I think it all blends well,” Gonzalez said.