Question from Brilliant Reader Ross is about Hack Wilson’s record of 191 RBIs: How did Hack do it? And what would it take to break the record?
It just so happens I worked up a post on this not too long ago and never got around to putting it up. I don’t really care about RBIs -- it's such a context driven statistic - - but there is something fascinating about Hack Wilson's record. He set it in 1930, when offense went bananas, and nobody has approached it since the end of World War II.
Top RBI totals since 1946:
- 1. Manny Ramirez, 1999, 165
2. Sammy Sosa, 2001, 160
3. Ted Williams, 1949, 159
(tie) Vern Stephens, 1949, 159
5. Sammy Sosa, 1998, 158
I wondered: How did Hack Wilson do it?
Answer: Meet Woody English.
Before we get to Woody: People, it seems to me, still miss the point of just how context driven RBIs are. My old pal Marty Brennaman, who I absolutely love listening to on the radio, went off a bit on Joey Votto’s relative lack of RBIs this year (37), which to me is like going off on In ’N Out Burgers because you felt like eating pasta. Votto is a ridiculously good hitter having a ridiculously good season -- his relatively low RBI total comes mostly because nine of his 13 home runs were solo shots and because pitchers tend to pitch around him when there are RBIs to be had (he leads the league with 10 intentional walks). Even if you count those intentional walks, he has come to the plate with fewer runners in scoring position than teammates Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, which speaks to some fairly unimaginative lineup crafting.
Anyway, your RBI leaders tend to be the guys who hit home runs and come up with the most runners on base. It’s really that simple. Yes, there is some variation there, but not as much as you might think.
Last year, Chase Headley came up with 237 runners in scoring position, most in the league. He led the NL in RBIs.
Last year, Miguel Cabrera came up with 232 runners in scoring position, most in the league*. He led the AL in RBIs.
*Well, he was tied with Josh Willingham -- who had 110 RBIs.
It’s often like that. I put together a little chart showing the good things that have happened to the players who have led their league in scoring position base runners the last few years -- remember this chart is only refers to how many times they came up with runners in scoring position:
2011 (AL): Michael Young. 106 RBIs, 8th in the MVP voting
2011 (NL): Ryan Howard, 116 RBIs, getting ready to start $125 million deal.
2010 (AL): Evan Longoria, 104 RBIs, 6th in MVP voting.
2010 (NL): Dan Uggla, 105 RBIs, 17th in MVP voting.
2009 (AL) Evan Longoria, 113 RBIs, 19th in MVP voting
2009 (NL): Andre Ethier, 106 RBIs, 6th in MVP voting.
2008 (AL): Justin Morneau, 129 RBIs, 2nd in MVP voting
2008 (NL) David Wright, 124 RBIs, 7th in MVP voting
2007 (AL) Mike Lowell, 120 RBIs, 5th in MVP voting
2007 (NL): Ryan Howard, 136 RBis, 5th in MVP voting
2006 (AL): Alex Rodgriuez, 121 RBIs, 13th in MVP voting
2006 (NL): Ryan Zimmerman, 110 RBIs, 2nd in Rookie of Year
2005 (AL): Alex Rodriguez, 130 RBIs, MVP
2005 (NL): Andurw Jones, 128 RBIs, 2nd in MVP voting
2004 (AL): Miguel Tejada, 150 RBIs, 5th in MVP voting
2004 (NL): MIguel Cabrera, 116 RBIS, 5th in MVP voting
2003 (AL): Carlos Delgado, 145 RBIs, 2nd in MVP voting
2003 (NL): Preston Wilson, 141 RBIs, 16th in MVP voting
2002 (AL): Nomar Garciaparra, 120 RBIs, 11th in MVP voting
2002 (NL): Pat Burrell, 116 RBIs, 14th in MVP voting
2001 (AL): Bret Boone, 141 RBIs, 3rd in MVP voting
2001 (NL): Sammy Sosa, 160 RBIs, 2nd in MVP voting
2000 (AL): Mike Sweeney, 144 RBIs, 11th in MVP voting
2000 (NL): Jeff Kent, 125 RBIs, MVP
Yes, you want to come up with a lot of runners in scoring position. It’s the only way to fly.
Which brings us back to Woody English. He was a 24-year-old farm boy and shortstop who grew up in excellently named Licking County, Ohio. He kind of meandered into the Major Leagues. He played some semi-pro baseball around Zanesville, picked up with the Toledo Mudhens, and at some point was impressive enough that the Chicago Cubs bought his contract. For most of his career, he was not much of a hitter, but he always had a good sense of the strike zone and his own limitations. In 1930, in that crazy offensive explosion year, he walked 100 times. He also hit .335. That meant he reached base a preposterous 320 times. To give you an idea -- Ichiro, Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn and, yes, even Pete Rose never reached base that many times in a single season.
Woody English hit in front of Hack Wilson.
Of course, it wasn’t just Woody English. It was also Kiki Cuyler. He hit .355 and on-based .428. He reached base 310 times, still more than Pete Rose’s best season. He also hit in front of Hack Wilson.
They weren’t just getting on base. They were hitting with extra-base power. Cuyler and English each hit 17 triples. They combined for 86 doubles. It’s likely that no player in baseball history -- and certainly no player in the last 70 years -- has come to the plate with as many good RBI opportunities as Hack Wilson in 1930. English scored 152 runs, Cuyler 155.
Wilson had a tremendous year, of course. He hit cleanup every single day and he hit .356 with 35 doubles and 56 home runs. That equaled 191 RBIs. (He did this despite walking a league leading 105 times). it’s simple mathematics. Based on what I can see going day-by-day, I don’t think Wilson hit significantly better with runners in scoring position. He just had a jackpot of runners in scoring position and, being a great player that season, he drove them in.
Could someone drive in 191 runs again? Well, I think it could happen -- but it would take two things. One, it obviously would take a really great power year -- but, in many ways that’s the easy part. When Manny Ramirez drove in 165 in 1999, he hit well enough to drive in 191 runs. Heck, he hit .383 with runners in scoring position and slugged .750. I can’t imagine Wilson was any better than that. Others like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Larry Walker, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Bonds, Johnny Bench, Sammy Sosa, Mike Schmidt, Albert Belle probably, several others have hit well enough to post that kind of crazy RBI total.
The second part, the hard part, is having enough runners on base. You really need A LOT of runners on base. Ramirez played on a great offensive team in 1999. A near legendary offensive team. He had Robbie Alomar, Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton all getting on base ahead of him. Ramirez came up with 304 runners in scoring position, a HUGE number, the fourth-highest goal since 1950.* And even that was not nearly enough for him to challenge the record much less break it.
*In 1996, Derek Bell drove in 113 RBIs, which may have led some people to think he had a productive year. He did not. He had THREE HUNDRED SIXTEEN runners in scoring position when he came to the plate. That is the most for any player since 1950 -- essentially, Bell drove in just about as few runners as possible considering his circumstances.
Here, for fun, are the batters with most runners in scoring position since 1950:
1. Derek Bell, 1999: 316 runners, 113 RBIs.
2. Johnny Bench, 1974: 311 runners, league leading 129 RBIs.
3. Johnny Bench, 1972: 305 runners, league leading 125 RBIs.
4. Manny Ramirez, 1999: 304 runners, league leading 165 RBIs.
5. Tony Perez, 1975: 303 runners, 109 RBIs.
6. Vern Stephens, 1950: 300 runners, league leading 144 RBIs.
7. Jackie Jensen, 1955: 297 runners, league-leading 116 RBIs.
(tie) Don Baylor, 1979: 297 runners, league-leading 139 RBIs.
(tie) Jeff Kent, 1997: 297 runners, 121 RBIs
(tie) Miguel Tejada, 2004: 297 runners, league-leading 150 RBIs.
For someone to actually break Hack Wilson’s record, I would bet they would need to hit in the .330s or so with 50-plus homers and come up to the plate with 325 to 350 runners in scoring position. Could it happen? I suppose. But the odds are very much against it.
A bonus basketball thought: Charles Barkley says his all-time Top 5 is Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell.
He says he second five are: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Jerry West.
That would be a fascinating game, wouldn’t it? The second five would have absolutely no answer for Wilt or Kareem inside and they would never get a single rebound. On the other hand, the first five would never been able to match up, and would give up wide open shots all over the floor.
If I had to pick, I’d pick that second five to win because of their versatility. And the first five might have some trouble sharing the basketball (though Wilt, who once led the league in assists, could play point).
I wrote this Manu Ginobili piece before his impossibly dreadful Games 6 and ambiguous Game 7. But the point remains.