As most people spending time in this space know already, RBIs are a very poor measure of a hitter’s actual offensive production. So what are the worst seasons ever turned in by players who topped 100 RBIs? The Baseball Reference blog did a list a little like that a while ago using WAR, but WAR includes defense and a positional adjustment; what I’m interested in is a list of guys who got RBIs but were in fact poor offensive players. So I’ve used only the batting component of Baseball Reference’s WAR (rbat), the number of runs above or below average the player’s bat was worth. Here’s the actual list. I’m making a few subjective adjustments to the order of the top 10 below:
10. Jeff Francoeur, 2006 Braves: .260/.293/.449 (-16 rbat), 103 RBIs
This was Francoeur’s first full season, when, at age 22, we could still dream about what might happen if he learned to take a pitch every now and then. He generally hit fifth or sixth in a solid lineup, so he had plenty of runners on base.
9. Ray Pepper, 1934 Browns: .298/.333/.399 (-18 rbat), 101 RBIs
The Browns had one above-average hitter get more than 31 PA. As a team, they had a 77 OPS+, last in the AL, so Pepper’s 83 was right in line. But it was a hitters’ park in a hitter’s time, so Pepper knocked in 101 just by banging out a bunch of singles in a bad lineup, topping 100 RBIs with just six homers. This was Pepper’s only full season; I guess people just didn’t value a proven run producer in those days.
8. Tony Armas, 1983 Red Sox: .218/.254/.453 (-16 rbat), 107 RBI
Armas hit 36 homers in ‘83, then led the league in homers (43), RBIs (123) and strikeouts (156) in ‘84. But he was never able to hit for average or draw walks, and in ‘83, all the non-home-run-hitting aspects of his game were at their very worst.
7. Lou Bierbauer, 1894 Pirates: .303/.337/.407 (-18 rbat), 109 RBI
Bierbauer’s raw numbers don’t look nearly as bad as they were; the entire Pirates team hit .312/.379/.443, and the league averaged more than seven runs per game. Four Pirates starters had an OBP better than .400 and a ton of batters reached on errors, so Bierbauer had plenty of opportunities despite only three homers.
6. Moose Solters, 1936 Browns: .291/.336/.467 (-15 rbat), 134 RBI
These Browns were better hitters than the ones from two seasons prior, and the park and era helped just as much. Solters’ line is no worse than the four others above, but he was that bad and had 134 RBIs! Solters actually surrounded this one with two legitimately good years in 1935 and ‘37, but here he was just in the right place at the right time.
5. Ruben Sierra, 1993 Athletics: .238/.288/.390 (-18 rbat), 101 RBI
As I wrote a few weeks ago, in 1994, Bill James thought Sierra was headed to the Hall. That was written just after this atrocious season. With little patience and just OK power, Sierra depended on maintaining a high batting average to be productive. That aspect of his game fell apart in ‘93. Sierra was never quite this bad again, but also never really recovered, and never drove in 100 again.
4. Lave Cross, 1895 Phillies: .271/.319/.364 (-21 rbat), 101 RBI
See No. 7 above. Cross was one of four Phillies to top 90 RBIs (in just 131 team games). A year before, Cross had played like a star: .387/.424/.528, 132 RBIs. In ‘95, everything about his game dropped through the floor, and he hit just two home runs, but he still reached 100 ribbies. Safe to say that Hall of Fame teammates Billy Hamilton (.490 OBP) and Ed Delahanty (.500) helped.
3. Vinny Castilla, 1999 Rockies: .275/.331/.478 (-20 rbat), 102 RBI
Through his prime, Castilla was a pretty decent hitter who Coors Field made look like a star; this was past that, and he was a very poor hitter who Coors made to look pretty decent. Surprising that Castilla’s partner in crime against unadjusted slash lines, Dante Bichette, doesn’t make this list, but much of Bichette’s negative value came from defense, while Castilla was a solid glove man.
2. Tony Batista, 2004 Expos: .241/.272/.455 (-22 rbat), 110 RBI
If Castilla had never set foot in Coors and had an insane stance, he’d be Batista, whose previous season with Baltimore was one RBI short of No. 1: .235/.270/.393 (-29 rbat), 99 RBI.
1. Joe Carter, 1997 Blue Jays: .234/.284/.399 (-25 rbat), 102 RBI
For Carter, 1997 was his last full season and his worst, but in addition to No. 1, he also occupies spots 11, 15, 47, 105, 129 and 139 on the list. Carter was a more athletic and longer-lasting version of Armas. The Jays plugged Carter into either the number three or four spot in 157 of their 162 games in ‘97, where he cost them significantly in runs and wins on both sides of the ball despite the RBI.
Each of these 10 guys cost his team runs with his bat, while apparently excelling in the category most people seem to associate with “run production” -- RBI are kind of a fun little thing to look at, but it would be nice if we stopped pretending they mean anything.