Why Hack Wilson's RBI Record Is Impossible to Break in Today's MLB

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Why Hack Wilson's RBI Record Is Impossible to Break in Today's MLB

Reigning American League MVP Miguel Cabrera is at it again.

Through 42 games, the Detroit Tigers third baseman is hitting .387 with 11 homers and 47 RBI, numbers that put him in fine shape for a run at a second straight Triple Crown. And even an RBI-hating nerd like myself has to admit that Cabrera's RBI total is particularly impressive, as 47 ribbies through 42 games puts him on pace for roughly 180.

In times like these, it's hard not to name-drop Hack Wilson, he of the single-season record for RBI. Wilson racked up 191 RBI back in 1930, a mark not too far off from Cabrera's pace.

Could Cabrera make a run at it? Sure. 

But break it? No freakin' way.

Cabrera's awfully good, but he's not good enough to overrule the fact that he plays in an era that's not conducive to monstrous RBI totals. Until things change, neither he nor any of his contemporaries are going to be able to make a spirited run at Wilson's RBI record.

We'll discuss more about the present in a moment, but first we need to talk about the past. What must be understood is that the 1930 season in which Wilson set the single-season RBI record was no ordinary season.

It was, in fact, quite extraordinary.

Wilson led the way with 191 RBI in 1930, but he wasn't the only one racking up RBI at an eyebrow-raising rate that year. There were six players—SIX!—who racked up at least 150 RBI. Throughout baseball history, there's never been another season that featured more than four 150-RBI guys.

It was a sign of the times. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the league OBP in 1930 was .356. That's a record for the AL/NL era, which began in 1901. In addition, the league's slugging percentage was .434, tied for third-highest in baseball history.

Now if we compare 1930 to 2013...

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Reds first baseman Joey Votto is leading MLB in OBP this year, because of course he is.

Entering Monday's action, the league OBP this year is .319, exactly where it was last year. The league's slugging percentage, meanwhile, is .403. Once again, that's right about where it was last year, and slugging in general has been down since 2010. Anybody who can slug .600 in this day and age qualifies as superhuman.

And now for some perspective.

Wilson slugged .723 in 1930, which is the 22nd-highest single-season mark in MLB history. However, he actually ranked second in slugging that year to the great Babe Ruth and was one of four players who posted slugging percentages over .700. That's another record.

Wilson's slugging percentage is a big reason why he was able to rack up so many RBI. Just as important, however, is the fact that he had Woody English and Kiki Cuyler batting in front of him in the Chicago Cubs lineup. English had a .430 OBP, and Cuyler had a .428 OBP, meaning they were on base pretty much all the time in front of Wilson.

OBPs over .420 have become rare. No qualified batter had an OBP over .420 in 2012, and only two batters got that high in both 2010 and 2011 (Cabrera did it both years). The last pair of teammates to post OBPs over .420 in a season were Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez in 2007.

In Cabrera's case, he shouldn't count on either Austin Jackson or Torii Hunter posting an OBP over .420 by season's end. They're both in the mid-.300s, and that's where they can both be expected to stay given their track records.

Here's Miggy being Miggy; video courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Cabrera's best hope at breaking Wilson's RBI record involves the Tigers pulling off a trade for Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto, both of whom boast OBPs over .450. But since I'm guessing the Cincinnati Reds would rather hold on to them, it's up to Cabrera's next-best hope: his batting average with runners in scoring position.

If you haven't seen it, it's huge. Cabrera has a downright stupid .509 batting average with runners in scoring position. He's come to the plate in 67 such situations so far and racked up 40 RBI.

But there's the rub.

Curious about who's been able to maintain a batting average with runners in scoring position over .500 for the longest?

You're looking at him. It's Miguel Cabrera in 2013

Gray Mortimore/Getty Images
George Brett hit a record .469 with runners in scoring position in 1980.

Assuming Cabrera gets 150 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, history says that the absolute best he can hope for is a batting average in the mid-.400s. While that would certainly be a remarkable feat in and of itself, it would take him off the pace to catch Wilson.

Simple logic says so, anyway. If Cabrera's not quite on pace to catch Wilson with a .500 batting average with runners in scoring position, he's certainly not going to catch him with anything less than that. That goes for him and for every hitter who might find himself in Cabrera's shoes.

Elsewhere in today's MLB, there's the reality that guys like Cabrera have to put up with being robbed of RBI opportunities by intentional walks. We'd all be better off if the intentional walk was outlawed, but managers are going to keep going to the well until it is. 

Especially when top RBI men are at the plate. For example, four of the five top RBI guys in 2012 were given four wide ones at least a dozen times, with Cabrera leading the way with 17. Teams were so afraid of him that they were willing to take their chances with Prince Fielder, which is saying something.

There is also the reality that it's becoming harder for hitters to get runners home without hits. Sometimes all it takes in an RBI situation is contact, and pitchers are making it harder for hitters to do that thanks to their primary weapon in such situations: the strikeout.

It's not much of a secret anymore that the league's strikeout rate is climbing higher and higher every year. Per FanGraphs, the league's strikeout rate has been climbing every year since 2005, and the trend still exists when you filter things to only look at RISP situations:

A huge factor? That's a stretch, but this is certainly a trend that makes it harder to put a runner on third base with less than two outs—not to mention a trend that could rob even a brilliant hitter like Cabrera of a few RBI throughout the course of the year.

For a hitter to have a fair shot at Wilson, things would basically have to go back to the way they were in 1930, when hitters ruled the baseball world like never before. If the league ever returns to a state where the hitters have all the power, we might see someone make a run at Wilson.

What do you make of Hack Wilson's single-season RBI record?

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The league came pretty close during the steroid era, and you may recall that we did see two spirited runs at Wilson's record: one by Juan Gonzalez in 1998 and another by Manny Ramirez in 1999. 

Gonzalez had 101 RBI at the All-Star break in '98, putting him on pace for roughly 190. He only got to 157.

Ramirez had 96 RBI at the break in '99 and was on pace for about 200. He finished with 165. An insanely high total, to be sure, but still 26 off Wilson's pace.

If Gonzalez and Ramirez couldn't get it done when offense was out of control in Major League Baseball, then neither Cabrera nor anybody else is going to get it done now, when offense is very much in control.

So if you're looking for a rooting interest where Cabrera is concerned this year, don't make it Catch-a-Hack. Rooting for him to earn a second straight Triple Crown is much more practical.

And yes, it really is ridiculous how not ridiculous that sentiment is. 

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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