(Note: The bulk of the following piece was originally published to kansascity.com last year. It has been updated with more current statistics and re-published.)
One of the more popular canards of the metrics community is that driving in runs is not a skill — and I say that without a complete understanding of the word canard. It’s either a “groundless rumor or belief” or a duck.
I’ve heard some people say RBIs are a worthless statistic because all RBIs measure is the ability of the people in front of you to get on base. Now here’s a quote from the sabermetrics bible, “Moneyball:”
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To knock runners in, runners need to be on base when you come to bat. There was a huge element of luck in even having the opportunity, and what wasn’t luck was, partly, the achievement of others.”
So one day last season I decided to ask people who have played the game what they think about RBIs: did they think it took talent to drive in runs? Are some people better at it than others?
The first two guys I ran into that day were Rusty Kuntz and Mitch Maier. 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 away enough from the dirt, reporters 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.
After I asked my question, Rusty asked one in return: if a guy has 100 RBIs in a season, how many home runs did he hit? Rusty said if a guy has 100 RBIs, he probably hit at least 20 home runs. So when I first wrote about this subject I went back and looked at the 2014 season. Here are the American League players who had at least 100 RBIs, followed by their RBI and home run totals:
Mike Trout: 111 RBIs/36 home runs
Miguel Cabrera: 109 RBIs/25 home runs
Nelson Cruz: 108 RBIs/40 home runs
Jose Abreu: 107 RBIs/36 home runs
Albert Pujols: 105 RBIs/28 home runs
David Ortiz: 104 RBIs/35 home runs
Victor Martinez: 103 RBIs/32 home runs
Jose Bautista: 103 RBIs/35 home runs
Yoenis Cespedes: 100 RBIs/22 home runs
Then I did it again right before posting this. I looked up the numbers for 2015 and here are the AL players with at least 100 RBIs and their home run totals:
Josh Donaldson: 123 RBIs/41 home runs
Chris Davis: 117 RBIs/47 home runs
Jose Bautista: 114 RBIs/40 home runs
Edwin Encarnacion: 111 RBIs/39 home runs
David Ortiz: 108 RBIs/37 home runs
Kendrys Morales: 106 RBIs/22 home runs
J.D. Martinez: 102 RBIs/38 home runs
Jose Abreu: 101 RBIs/30 home runs
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 some skill to rack up a lot of RBIs?
Rusty then said the toughest run to drive in is a runner on second base with two outs. At that point Rusty asked Mitch if he got pitched differently with a runner on first base than he did with a runner on second.
Mitch said, “Totally.”
With a runner on first base, the run is still two singles away from scoring, and pitchers will be much more aggressive; they throw more fastballs in the zone because a ball in play turns into an out most of the time. But with a runner on second base — especially with first base open — the hitter will see more off-speed stuff thrown out of the zone.
The pitcher is counting on the hitter being more aggressive; the hitter’s got a runner in scoring position and lots of hitters will expand their zone and chase those off-speed pitches because they want that RBI. Guys who are good at driving in runs will refuse to chase bad pitches and either wait for a good pitch to hit or take their walk. Once again, this sounds like it takes some skill.
I then asked if good RBI guys are 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, so the hitter needs to get a pitch up in the zone. If there’s one down and runners at first and third: a ground ball might be an inning-ending double play. But with a runner on third, nobody on first, less than two outs and the infield back, a ground ball 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 often we see bases loaded, nobody out and a run still doesn’t score. That’s probably because a couple guys who aren’t very 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 and I think I’ll go along with their opinion — even if I have to walk out on the grass to hear it.