Disclaimer: This will be the first of a series of posts in which I try to educate the masses on the perils of evaluating baseball players on statistics that really aren't that good at describing the impact a player has. If you have no interest in stats, move on. But if you are in the least bit curious of another world of baseball analysis, take the red pill and see how far the rabbit hole goes.
So I figured that if I was going to try to tackle something as large as the traditional way people have been evaluating baseball players for about 100 years, I might as well start with one of the ones that people are the most tantalized with. Now, I am not even close to the first person to think this way, nor will I be the last, and there are much better writers than I who have already written on the subject. I feel however, that in order to truly change the the paradigm of what makes a good (or a bad) baseball player, we need all hands on deck. The more people reaching out to those sports crazed, fantasy baseball playing, ESPN watching people across the country, the bigger impact we will have.
So like I said above, I'm gonna try to knock down the Goliath of stats: The RBI. Ah yes, the one hitting stat to rule them all. It's the stat that people look at at the end of the year and say, man, look at all those runs he batted in, what a great year he had. And yet, it is an incredibly misleading statistic that is heavily reliant on context. Most people don't realize this, so they judge players based on the amount of players they batted in. So in order to help people realize this, lets look at a formula to help us get the most RBI's possible in a season.
So first what we need is a guy with tons of power. Does he have to hit homeruns? Nope. He can be a gap hitter too. But he needs to hit the ball far, and he needs to do it consistently. Ok now that we have a guy who can hit the ball incredibly far, are we done? Nope. Because now we have to position him in the lineup that is conducive to batting runners in. Let's put our batter, oh say, in the fourth spot. Are we done? You'd think so, but you'd also be wrong. The last part of our equation has nothing to do with our hitter. We have to make sure that the people that hit before him can actually get on base in the first place. So I'm going to put the guy who has the highest On Base Percentage (OBP) in the first two spots, and another very good hitter third. Congratulations, we just made an RBI hitting machine!
So we have a guy who can hit the ball far, is in the right part of the order to bat runners over, and he has players hitting ahead of him that get on base a lot. So my question is. Why do we value the RBI over almost everything else? It's not like our hitter has a special skill that allows him to hit with runners on base. Let me restate that point, with emphasis. COMING TO BAT WITH RUNNERS ON BASE IS NOT A SKILL. If you put our same power hitting player 8th in the lineup, or put him at leadoff, the result is that his RBI total will plummet, because he isn't in a position to maximize his at bats with runners in scoring position.
And please don't come at me with this whole, "but the player who hits runners in is clutch, that's why he gets a lot of RBI's" act. Jayson Werth is not going to get as many RBI's this year as last year, and it's not because he's worse, or less clutch, or anything like that. It's because he's on the Washington Nationals. And Ryan Howard will get over 100 RBI's again, because he's on the Phillies. Ryan Howard will have many, many more opportunities to hit runners in, and because of this, he will get more RBI's. It has nothing to do with his clutchness, or lack of clutchness, or any other intangible characteristic.
There are much better ways of evaluating players. Can we please put an end to the incredibly misguided perception of the importance of the RBI?