Judging the Royals

Are RBIs a worthless statistic? Ask Rusty Kuntz

Jarrod Dyson and first base coach Rusty Kuntz back in May
Jarrod Dyson and first base coach Rusty Kuntz back in May The Kansas City Star

Recently I did a piece about Kendrys Morales and went back to see what people were saying at the time the Royals signed him. I looked at several websites and while doing so, I learned two things:

1.) Generally speaking, people did not like the Morales signing.

2.) Reading 700 internet comments will give you a dim view of humanity.

For a while people stayed on topic, but then things would veer out of control: Insults were hurled, people left comments that made no sense whatsoever, guys who thought Ned Yost is a dummy said so with misspelled words, personal long-standing feuds were conducted, one guy called Dayton Moore a “retard” and then there was a long debate about whether that was OK (it’s not), obscure stats were defended or attacked with obscure arguments, and one guy said RBIs were a worthless statistic because all they did was measure the ability of the people in front of you to get on base.

When I read that comment I thought: “Now there’s a guy who hasn’t played much baseball.”

After reading that comment I decided to ask guys who have played a bunch of baseball what they thought of RBIs: Did it take any special talent to drive in runs? Were some guys better at it than others?

The first two guys I ran into that day were Rusty Kuntz and Rusty Kuntz Jr. — Mitch Maier. (Hey, if Rusty’s going back to the minors next season I’m either going with him or learning everything I can from him before he goes. I don’t want to go to the minors, so I’m sticking with Plan B.) So what about it, Rusty —are RBIs a worthless statistic?

At that point Rusty looked me in the eye and shared his words of wisdom: he told me to get off the grass.

Reporters are allowed to stand on the dirt warning track, but the grass is for players and coaches only. It’s how they get away from reporters like me; they go stand on the grass and if they stand far enough away from the dirt, you can’t talk to them. But lucky for me, if you ask Rusty Kuntz a baseball question, he can’t help himself; he’ll talk to a lamp post, a fire hydrant or a reporter standing on the grass.

Rusty asked that if a guy has 100 RBIs, how many home runs did he hit? Rusty said if a guy has 100 RBIs, he probably hit at least 20 home runs. So I went back and looked at the 2014 season. Here are the American League players who had at least 100 RBIs, followed by their RBIs and home run totals:

Mike Trout: 111/36

Miguel Cabrera: 109/25

Nelson Cruz: 108/40

Jose Abreu: 107/36

Albert Pujols: 105/28

David Ortiz: 104/35

Victor Martinez: 103/32

Jose Bautista: 103/35

Yoenis Cespedes: 100/22

(See? This is why I walk out onto the grass even though I’m not supposed to and ask Rusty Kuntz questions. The dude knows a thing or three about baseball.) So if it takes skill to hit a home run and home runs make up a pretty good percentage of high RBI totals doesn’t it take skill to rack up RBIs?

Rusty then asked me what was the toughest run to drive in and then told me it was a runner on second with two outs. At that point Mitch Maier — Rusty’s future replacement — walked over and Rusty asked Mitch if Mitch got pitched to differently with a runner on first base than he did when there was a runner on second.

“Totally.”

With a runner on first base the run is still two singles away from scoring and pitchers will be much more aggressive, throwing more fastballs in the zone because a ball in play turns into an out most of the time.

With a runner on second base — especially with first open — the hitter will see more off-speed stuff out of the zone. The pitcher is counting on the hitter being more aggressive; he’s got an RBI in scoring position, and lots of hitters will expand their zone and chase those off-speed pitches. Guys who are good at driving in runs will refuse to chase bad pitches and either take their walk or wait for a good pitch to hit and smoke it once they get it.

Once again, this sounds like it takes skill.

I then asked if good RBI guys were also good “situational hitters” — guys who understand what pitch it will take to get the job done. Scoring a runner on third with less than two outs might require a ball in the air to the outfield; the hitter needs to get a pitch up in the zone. Same thing if there’s one down and runners at first and third: a groundball might be an inning-ending double play. But with a runner on third, less than two outs and the infield back, a groundball up the middle will do the trick. Knowing what will get the job done and waiting for the right pitch once again sounds like a skill.

Mitch said some guys have it and other guys don’t; he asked how many times do we see bases loaded, nobody out and a run still doesn’t score? That’s probably because a couple guys who aren’t good at driving in runs came to the plate.

So guys who have played the game at a high level think driving in runs takes some skill; at least one guy who leaves comments on the internet doesn’t. I think I’m going with the opinion of the guys who have played the game — even if I have to walk out on the grass to hear it.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.

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