Why the RBI Is Obsolete and How We Can Do Better

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 19, 2012

"The RBI is obsolete? Since when?" —Josh Hamilton. Probably.
"The RBI is obsolete? Since when?" —Josh Hamilton. Probably.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The story goes that the RBI wasn't recognized by Major League Baseball as an official statistic until the 1920s.

Because implementing the RBI was obviously a good idea at the time, I assume that nobody sat back and said, "Hey guys, what if people come to hate each other over this stat some day?"

But sure enough, this is what's come to pass. No baseball stat is more divisive these days than the RBI. Baseball fans talking about RBI are like regular people talking about politics, religion or the everlasting war between Star Wars and Star Trek.

People fall on two sides of the fence where the RBI is concerned. You either think the RBI is the king of offensive baseball stats, or you think that the RBI is a decidedly overrated stat that needs to be taken out back behind the barn and done away with for good.

Thus, arguments! The big one this year was over Miguel Cabrera's candidacy for the American League MVP award, in which his RBI count played a major role. His supporters touted his RBI count and his detractors tried to shoot it out of the sky. 

I'm not going to get into the whole Cabrera vs. Trout debate again. What I do want to get into is how the debate itself made it clear that traditional baseball fans are still in the dark as to why the RBI is such an evil thing in the eyes of the nerds. Many baseball fans just don't get the hate for the RBI.

Let the record show that I'm not here to scold anyone either. All I want to do is shed some light on the matter. If you keep an open mind, you might find the following discussion to be quite useful.

The Perception of the RBI

When we were kids, we all learned (directly or indirectly) that players who drive in runs are simply more valuable than players who don't drive in runs.

The idea was, and still is, quite simple. Baseball is all about scoring runs. Scoring runs is hard. Some guys are better at scoring runs for their teams than others. Therefore, they're the great ones.

We know this to be true in part because of all the accolades that have been heaped on great RBI men throughout the years. The MVP award has tended to go to RBI men, and many of the players on baseball's all-time RBI list have been elected to the Hall of Fame, including 12 of the top 15 players on the list. The three exceptions are Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., who aren't eligible for induction yet (Bonds is still a couple months away).

To boot, RBI men tend to get paid the most. If you punch up the highest-paid players in baseball today on Cot's Baseball Contracts, the list reads like a who's who of the league's best run producers. You don't see any slap hitters on that list.

Between the accolades and the money, there's clearly something to the notion that the RBI is king. Players who accumulate RBI are clearly valuable, which would seem to lend credence to the notion that the RBI is the ultimate measure of individual value as far as hitters go.

In fact, why should anyone think differently?

Glad you asked.

The Reality of the RBI

Traditionalists view the RBI as a sign of individual prowess, but these days we know a lot better. The RBI has long since been recognized for what it really is: A stat that has less to do with a hitter's bat and more to do with the lineup around him.

The RBI is, in essence, a team-oriented stat. To gather a lot of RBI, a hitter has to come to the plate with runners on base consistently, and that's something that's dependent on a) his spot in the lineup and b) the hitters who hit ahead of him.

This isn't an idea that was thought up in a lab somewhere or conjured on some kind of supercomputer. This is a practical fact.

Generally speaking, the best RBI men tend to be power hitters whose job is to drive in great on-base guys and/or guys with speed who can make things happen on the basepaths. To do his job, a great RBI man therefore needs his teammates to do their jobs.

Take Hack Wilson, for example. He set a single-season record by driving in 191 runs in 1930, a mark that's not likely to be broken. And the reason it's not likely to be broken actually has little to do with Wilson and everything to do with the table-setters he had that year.

Every baseball fan knows Wilson's name, but few will know the names Woody English and Kiki Cuyler when they hear them. These are the guys who played a huge role in making Wilson's 191-RBI season possible, as English posted a .430 OBP while primarily hitting second in the Chicago Cubs' lineup and Cuyler posted a .428 OBP while primarily hitting third.

In 2012, no qualified player posted an OBP over .420. It's uncommon enough for two players to post OBPs that high in a single season, let alone two players on a single team who happen to hit back-to-back.

The point: These two guys were on base in front of Wilson pretty much all the time. And since he hit .356 with an absurd .723 slugging percentage that year, it's no wonder he drove in so many runs.

Wilson certainly had a great year in 1930, but it wasn't totally original if you restrict your sights to his batting average and slugging percentage while disregarding his RBI total. Throughout baseball history, there have been 27 other incidents in which a player hit .350 with a .700 slugging percentage in a season. Conceivably, any of the players who managed to do so could have driven in 191 runs had they been in Wilson's place in 1930.

Therein lies the fundamental problem with judging players by their RBI counts. A player with a .300/.400/.500 triple-slash line and 110 RBI is not a better hitter than a player with a .300/.400/.500 triple-slash line and 100 RBI. Player A just had a better lineup around him than Player B. In all likelihood, Player B played on a bad team while Player A played on a good team.

To boot, a great triple-slash line isn't necessarily a prerequisite for having a high RBI count. There have been plenty of cases in which players have managed to drive in 100 runs despite having subpar years at the plate.

A couple years ago, Baseball-Reference.com put together a list of the worst-ever 100-RBI seasons. They organized it by WAR, but you get the same effect if you organize it by OPS instead. All but six of the 22 players on the list posted an OPS under .800. Four of the players on the list posted an OPS under .700, which is generally the mark of a below-average hitter.

If you're looking for a very recent example of how a high RBI count can obscure what was otherwise a subpar season, look no further than Ryan Howard's 2008 season. He hit just .251/.339/.543 and saw his OPS drop nearly 100 points from where it was in 2007. 

Yet he led the National League with 146 RBI, which earned him a second-place finish in the National League MVP voting. For that, he should have thanked Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Chase Utley for giving him so many chances to hit with runners on base.

This year's RBI king also has some thank yous to dish out. Per Baseball Prospectus, Miguel Cabrera hit with men on base more often than all but three other players in Major League Baseball in 2012. He ended up with a league-high 139 RBI in large part because he was given so many RBI opportunities, and a big reason why he won the RBI crown so easily was because runner-up Josh Hamilton hit with men on base 40 fewer times than Cabrera did.

This is about as far into 2012 AL MVP debate territory that I want to stray, but you no doubt see the point by now. In front of every great RBI man is a solid collection of table-setters. To drive them in on a consistent basis, one doesn't necessarily have to be having a great season at the plate.

Because we know all this to be true, it's silly for anyone to look at a high RBI count and conclude that the player attached to it had a great season. That would have been an acceptable train of thought decades ago and as recently as the early 2000s, but not in the year 2012. We know too much about baseball to continue to think like the cavemen who discovered the RBI monolith to the tune of some classical score (yes, that's a Stanley Kubrick joke).

If so, the question naturally becomes how we should change our thinking. And once again, I'm glad you asked.

Better Alternatives

If you think about it, anointing the man with the highest RBI count as the best run producer in the business is kinda like anointing the man with the highest hit count as the best hitter in the business.

That's not always true. Case in point: Derek Jeter led MLB in hits this year, and he didn't lead the league in either batting average or on-base percentage. Nobody is silly enough to say that he was the best hitter in baseball in 2012 because we know that such things are determined by efficiency rather than quantity.

Why shouldn't we think the same way about RBI?

Determining the best RBI man in the business should not be a simple matter of looking at who drove in the most runs. It should be a matter of determining who capitalized on RBI opportunities with greater efficiency than most.

Perhaps the simplest way to do this is to just look at each player's "Others Batted In" percentage, which you can find on Baseball Prospectus. Simply defined, it's a stat that keeps track of the "percentage of all runners on base batted in." Think of it as an RBI batting average.

Among players with at least 500 plate appearances in 2012, Josh Hamilton led the league in OBI percentage at 22.2 percent. Up next, not surprisingly, was Miguel Cabrera at 21.4 percent.

After those two is when the list gets surprising. Adrian Gonzalez finished third in the league in OBI% and Torii Hunter finished fourth. Gonzalez racked up only 108 RBI, and Hunter racked up only 92. They ended up with great OBI percentages largely because they were both excellent with runners in scoring position, as Gonzalez hit .392 with RISP and Hunter hit .344 with RISP.

However, my issue with judging players solely on their OBI% is that there's a limit to how much it can measure a player's clutchness. A three-run homer with men on first and second is better than an RBI single or an RBI double, and a GIDP in that situation hurts a lot more than a harmless fly ball to the outfield or a strikeout.

To this end, one of my favorite stats to turn to is a little number called RE24. As defined by FanGraphs:

RE24 is the difference in run expectancy (RE) between the start of the play and the end of the play. That difference is then credited/debited to the batter and the pitcher. Over the course of the season, each players’ RE24 for individual plays is added up to get his season total RE24.

The fact that RE24 is a stat that takes context into consideration is the beauty of it. Whereas most sabermetric stats are context-neutral, RE24 considers the runners on base and how many outs there are. It also works both ways, as hitters who do well are rewarded and hitters who don't do well are punished.

Let's say a hitter comes to the plate with a runner on first and nobody out. That situation will have a probability of a run being scored attached to it. If the hitter at the plate hits a home run, he will have done more than he was expected to do and his RE24 will go up accordingly. If the hitter grounds into a double play, he will have done less than he was expected to do and his RE24 will take a beating as a result.

In 2012, the man with the highest RE24 was Edwin Encarnacion. He may have only finished with 110 RBI, but he grounded into only six double plays all season and he hit 23 of his 42 homers with men on base. He also hit 15 home runs with two outs—situations that come with low run-scoring probabilities.

In case you're wondering, Encarnacion came to the plate with men on base only 280 times in 2012. That amount was barely good enough to crack the top 50 in MLB.

So if you want to talk about a truly great run producer from this past season, you should be quick to note Encarnacion. Relative to the amount of chances he got to drive in runs, he did a ton of damage.

If we're going to start judging the league's top run producers by efficiency rather than quantity, RE24 would be my pick for the go-to stat. Sadly, this is a situation where there really is no go-to stat because the general attitude of sabermetricians is that any stat that measures run-producing prowess is always going to hinge too greatly on context.

When it comes to determining individual offensive value, context should be eliminated to make sure all players are being judged evenly. In other words, the question is not how many runs a player is worth with his teammates also included in the equation. It's how many runs a player is worth, period.

This is why we have all the various "Runs Created" statistics, which are designed to quantify individual offensive value in terms of runs. The formula has gotten plenty of tweaks since Bill James came up with it, and the variations that exist now include Weighted Runs Created (wRC) and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+).

Both of these stats can be found on FanGraphs, but wRC+ is the more widely used of the two on the site. It's a version of wRC that takes the rest of the league into account, measuring each player's run value as compared to the league average. It's designed to tell you who the best of the best truly are.

A wRC+ of 100 is average, with every point above 100 being a point above the league average. In 2012, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout led the way in wRC+ at 166 each, with Buster Posey and Ryan Braun coming in directly behind them at 162 each.

The fact that this is a pretty diverse mix tells you that wRC+ doesn't favor a particular kind of hitter, as the RBI does. Cabrera is an elite slugger who also gets on base at an elite rate. Trout was a good on-base man with power who generated extra runs with his legs. Posey had the highest average and one of the highest OBPs in the league. Braun finished second in baseball in slugging and also added some runs with his work on the basepaths.

Regardless of how players prefer to do their things, wRC+ is useful because it simply asks what they can do. It measures skill with no regard to context, and it of course also looks at players as individuals rather than as parts of a whole.

That, obviously, is something that RBI doesn't do.

Final Thoughts

Did you keep an open mind while reading all that?

I hope so. If you did, you should at least be able to admit that using the RBI as a measure of individual worth is problematic. No matter how you feel about the sabermetrics mumbo jumbo, it should be pretty clear that the RBI has long since passed its expiration date as a tell-all offensive stat.

It's not the game that's changed, mind you. Hitters still value the RBI in the same way that pitchers still value wins. Pitchers want to win games, and hitters want to collect RBI. That's not likely to change.

What's changed is the analysis of the game. We know a lot more about the game than the people who sat down one day and conjured the RBI statistic. For them, the game was simple and in need of a simple stat.

We now know that baseball is a very, very complicated game, and that run production happens to be one of the most complicated aspects of it. Trusting this aspect of the game to such a simple go-to stat just because we always have makes little sense. 

We're better than that.

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

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