Miguel Cabrera and the dying art of the RBI

Sabermetricians might frown on the old-fashioned run batted in, preferring newfangled numbers. But there's a slugger in Detroit who believes some stats should never go out of style. Jason Miller/Getty Images

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Miguel Cabrera doesn't care if you think the good old-fashioned RBI is the most washed-up, irrelevant stat since six balls equaled a walk. In fact, if you think that stat is so irrelevant, the Detroit Tigers' favorite RBI machine has a question for you.

"How are you gonna score," Miggy asks, "if somebody doesn't drive in the runs?"

The sabermetric answer to that question is that the RBI is random, that it's purely a function of which hitters are lucky enough to arrive in the batter's box with the most runners on base. And all sorts of data proves that's true -- for many people. But within the game, even folks who build teams around that data know it isn't true for all people.

And the counterargument can be summed up in four words:

Watch Miguel Cabrera hit.

So what's the case that RBIs are not overrated when it comes to this particular run-production savant, a man who has driven in more runs since the day he debuted in the big leagues than any other current player? Let's let the numbers, the people who watch him daily and, especially, Cabrera himself, explain it:

Playing the percentages

What statistic best makes the case that the numbers you find in Cabrera's RBI column are more than just a byproduct of how many runners are on base when he hits? That would be OBI percentage -- others batted in percentage. That's a Baseball Prospectus stat that tracks the percentage of all runners on base a batter drives in. So can it possibly be a coincidence that Miggy has led the entire sport twice, and ranked in the top 12 in eight of the past 11 seasons?

"That means a lot," Cabrera says, when he hears this fact, "because I can say this is one of my goals. This is what I want."

"I focus on what I can do in this game," he says. "I don't have speed. I'm not a guy who can have a stolen base. I wish I could, but I can't. So I have to worry about, if I get a chance to drive in runs and give a guy a chance to score, he [has to] score."

Miggy loves company

It isn't unusual for the best hitters in the game to have better numbers with runners on base than they do with the bases empty. But as ESPN Stats & Information's Paul Hembekides reports, Cabrera has a significantly bigger gap with men on, over the course of his career, than even most historically great run producers:

But these numbers come as no shock to Cabrera. They're a product, he says, of an aggressive approach to those situations. He's not interested in taking a walk if he doesn't get that perfect pitch. He's looking for ways to get those runners home, whatever it takes.

"If you want to walk me, walk me," he said. "But if I see something close to home plate, I want to swing. I'm the kind of guy who, if I look inside and they throw me a fastball outside and it's a strike, I'm going to swing. Everything in the strike zone, I'm going to swing. Doesn't matter if it's a fastball, changeup, breaking ball. If it's in the strike zone and it's something you like, you've got to swing."

That approach, he says, dates back to 2004, his first full season in the big leagues. He decided to pick the brains of the two best hitters of that time, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols.

"In 2004, Barry Bonds told me something that I'm never going to forget," Cabrera says. "And Albert Pujols told me, too: 'Why are you going to take a pitch when you've got men in scoring position? You've got to be aggressive every time.'"

But what makes that approach work is that it's controlled aggression. Cabrera says he takes pride in sizing up every situation. So if he doesn't need to get a hit to drive in a run, he couldn't care less about how it affects his batting average. He'll just slap one to the right side.

"Some guys don't think like that," he says. "Some guys, they want to get a hit. Man in scoring position, man on third base, they want to get a hit. Me, I mean, if I pull a ball in the hole and drive in that run, to me that's special. I do my job."

Little big man

Jim Leyland managed Cabrera for six years (2008-13) in Detroit. From the best seat in Comerica Park, Leyland gained a unique perspective on what makes Cabrera special.

"If you watch Miguel Cabrera," Leyland says, "he swings like a little guy and hits like a big guy. Most guys swing like a big guy and hit like a little guy. He's got a nice smooth swing. You don't ever, or very rarely, see him overswing or muscle a ball up."

So how does that style come into play with runners on base? Cabrera says his only focus is to find a way to get those runners in. He's so uninterested in hitting the long ball in those spots that his home run ratio actually goes down with runners in scoring position (one every 23.9 plate appearances) compared to when there's no one on (one every 19.6 PA). And that, he says, is the plan.

"It depends what you want," he says. "You've got to always think: RBIs are RBIs. You've got to think, well, a ground ball is going to be an RBI with less than two outs. If I've got a man on third base and they play me back, why am I gonna swing hard? I want to do my same swing. I want to make sure I put the ball in play. ... If you get too big, there's no sense in swinging like that. If you want to hit a double, home run, there's no chance you're going to hit that guy, because they're going to bring the best stuff they have."

The control freak

A.J. Hinch is the manager of one of the most data-driven teams in baseball, the Houston Astros. He has heard a million computer-generated reasons that RBIs are practically a meaningless stat. He also has had to face Miguel Cabrera -- as a manager and as a catcher -- for the past decade. So it tells us something when Hinch testifies that "it's one of the worst feelings you can have," as a guy on the other team, "when he's on deck and looming."

"When you face hitters," Hinch says, "and I can speak as an ex-catcher or as a manager, a lot of times you're trying to dictate what's going to happen in the at-bat, by how you pitch them, where you pitch them, disrupting timing. But there's a feeling when Miggy's up to bat that he's in complete control of the at-bat and you're just along for the ride."

The baseball odds say the pressure in those situations is supposed to be on the hitter. But not in Cabrera's mind, it isn't. He approaches every one of those at-bats believing the pressure is on the pitcher.

"Always. Always," he says. "They have to throw strikes. They have to throw you a better pitch to get you out. They have to throw you a ball to see how you react. So always the pressure is on the pitcher."

It ain't guessing

Only Ty Cobb has driven in more runs for the Detroit Tigers than Al Kaline. So when Kaline watches his man Miggy wriggle into the box with men on base, he isn't just watching. He's studying. What he sees, Kaline says, is a hitter who reminds him of Ted Williams.

"He's a very smart baseball player," Kaline says of Cabrera. "That's what people don't realize. They think it's natural ability. And it is natural ability. But he's also a very smart baseball player. He knows what the pitcher's best pitch is. He knows how they're going to try to pitch him in a lot of cases. And hitting is anticipating. I always remember talking to Ted Williams and I said, 'Ted, do you ever guess?' And he said, 'Al, I never guess. I anticipate.'"

"Your average, it can go down or up in a season. You can't control that. And home runs? I mean, I always played in big ballparks. So I don't worry too much about home runs. But RBIs? I feel a little more proud of that because if you produce and produce, I can tell you, then somebody is going to look for you to have a job." Miguel Cabrera

Listen to Cabrera talk about how he attempts to control those critical moments and "anticipation" feels like the perfect word. Cabrera admits that he often plays mind games by moving around in the box -- sometimes closer to the plate, sometimes farther away. He knows the pitcher and catcher are watching him. So he'll try to coax them into falling into his trap by making them think he's looking for, say, a ball inside when he's actually looking away.

"Sometimes they see you do that," he says, "and they say, OK, they're going to shift [their game plan] and go away. But you know, that's my pitch. I want you to pitch me away."

They think, he says confidently, that they're reading him -- but really, he's the one reading them. So "it's not like trying to guess," Cabrera says. "It's like having a plan."

The meaning of the numbers

Some people will never be convinced. Some people will never concede that even if RBIs don't mean what they meant in, say, 1958, they still have a place on the stat sheet. But take it from a manager who is often immersed in the data that floods his inbox every game day.

"I can see the RBI argument from both sides," Hinch says. "But I think you have to have run-producers. And if you want to speak to the new-age style of win expectancy, or win probability, or run differential, those come from the very hits and the very numbers that Miguel Cabrera has put up for 10 years."

So of all of Cabrera's Hall of Fame numbers, does it surprise anyone that the number he cherishes most is the one he finds in his RBI column?

"Your average, it can go down or up in a season," he says. "You can't control that. And home runs? I mean, I always played in big ballparks. So I don't worry too much about home runs. But RBIs? I feel a little more proud of that because if you produce and produce, I can tell you, then somebody is going to look for you to have a job."

He's the last man in baseball you would expect to be worrying about keeping his job. But he watched Mark Trumbo and Chris Carter spend months searching for a team after hitting more than 40 home runs last season, and it taught him something.

"Baseball is changing right now," he says.

Oh, it's changing, all right. But one thing can't ever change. The team that scores more runs will go undefeated for the rest of time. And it takes more than on-base percentage to make that happen, says the RBI king. It takes a stat he'll never view as irrelevant.

"It's always very important to get on base," Cabrera says. "That's how you score. But how can you score runs if somebody is not going to drive you in?"