RBI: Really Bad Information

Keith Law on WEEI yesterday:

Do you really think that RBIs are useless, rather than just overvalued?

Totally useless. In terms of measuring the value of a player’s performance, I find them absolutely useless because 1) it’s determined by how many opportunities you get — the guys who hit in front of you in the lineup, how often did they get on base; and 2) there’s no particular skill to driving runs in. There’s no such thing as a hitter who is significantly better in RBI opportunities. Guys might do that over a year or two over the course of their careers, but you are not seeing guys who are just substantially better than the norm with runners in scoring position. Obviously all hitters hit a little bit better with men on base and pitchers working out of the stretch, maybe he doesn’t generate the same velocity. But in general, a hitter’s a hitter, whether there’s nobody on base or there are guys on second and third. …

There’s not really a guy out there who’s better in RBI situations. If you’re in an RBI situation, if you’re in a clutch situation, the guy you want at the plate is just your best hitter, period – the guy who’s going to produce the most offensively or give you the least chance of making an out, because obviously in a clutch situation, in an RBI situation, the last thing you want is an out. So get me the guy up there who’s the least likely to make an out or who’s most likely to get that extra-base hit, regardless of what the situation is, because I think if you really look deep down into it, over the course of multiple seasons, you won’t find that those guys who you’re talking about who step up in big situations really exist.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as Law and say that clutch hitters simply don't exist. David Ortiz from 2003-07 was just too good in those situations for me to dismiss the idea of the clutch hitter. But Law brings back up that old bugaboo: Do RBI have any value? He says no, and it's hard for me to find an argument against that.

Do the best hitters generally have more RBI? Yes — because they are in the middle of the lineup and get the most playing time and therefore have more opportunities. Doesn't baseball rely on driving runners in? Yes — but driving the runner in is an incidental occurrence to more basic skills: a hitter not making an out, the hitter after him not making an out, and the hitter who gets the RBI not making an out. If outs are not made, runs are guaranteed to score. 

And there's the unreliability of the statistic itself. Having more RBI than another player in no way guarantees you are better than that player unless the difference is so wide that your superiority will be apparent in nearly every other statistic. (Was Aaron Hill, with 108 RBI last season [and an .829 OPS], better than Ben Zobrist, with 91 and a .948? J.D Drew with 68 and a .914?)

RBI are probably here to stay, but it's also worth noting that when the statistic was first devised, it was rejected by the game's 19th-century stat-keepers. The reason? They depended too heavily on context and not the talent of the person to whom they were credited.

h/t: BBTF, where there is a very interesting thread worth reading on this topic.

15 comments… add one

  • What a bunch of malarkey. Not you Paul, just that RBI’s are not a valuable stat nor can they tell you how clutch a player is. As a hitter your entire approach should change with runners in scoring position. The good hitters excel in these situations because they know their job and what they need to do to score a run. Right side on the ground, somewhere in the air deep enough to score a run, etc…the players with the best approach are the players that are usually the most successful. Sure, there are players who never change their approach and probably prey on the stretch, pitchers inability to be perfect with runners on, preoccupied by the runner(s), etc…But overall it takes talent in my opinion to be a productive hitter with runners in scoring position.

    John - YF February 19, 2010, 2:05 pm
  • RBIs are not useless for determining the performance of a player. That’s very much a part of their overall production.
    What they are useless for is determining the FUTURE performance of a player.

    AndrewYF February 19, 2010, 2:08 pm
  • So Brett Gardner, batting cleanup, would have as many RBI’s as ARod given the same number of AB’s??? This makes no sense???

    krueg February 19, 2010, 3:30 pm
  • So Brett Gardner, batting cleanup, would have as many RBI’s as ARod given the same number of AB’s??? This makes no sense???
    As far as I would guess, Brett Gardner would drive in fewer runs than A-Rod from the same spot in the lineup or with the same number of at-bats (given the same number of RBI opportunities) because he is a lesser player than A-Rod. But the RBI totals aren’t what measure him as a lesser player, it is all the other things – the RBIs are just from circumstance.
    In other words: more RBIs is not an indication of more skill. Many other measuring stats are. I think Law has something here, though it might not be useful to be so absolutist about it.

    SF February 19, 2010, 4:07 pm
  • K, the argument would be that Rodriguez would have more RBI because he’s a much better hitter, but that RBI aren’t the reason you would tell that.
    In other words, A-Rod isn’t the better hitter because he has more RBI; he’s a better hitter because he reaches base more often and hits for more power, and therefore drives more runners in.
    The problem is that RBI are often used in the reverse: If a player has 100 RBI, then he must be good. The chances are, if Gardner hit cleanup in the Yankees’ lineup, particularly with Damon/Jeter/Teixiera ahead of him, he very well likely would have impressive RBI totals. Joe Carter and Tony Armas are poster boys for having great RBI totals while actually being below average hitters. You can be below average and have great RBI totals if you get some good luck or have a lot of runners on base when you come to bat. Conversely, you can have poor RBI totals and be a great hitter if you get some bad luck or bat lower in the lineup or have bad on-base guys in front of you. So, as Andrew says, RBI cannot determine the future performance of a player.
    They are a part of a player’s production, but such a small part that it’s hard to tell why we should use them. If you’re an 85 OPS+ player and you have 115 RBI, the RBI are not proof that you are actually very good. You did drive those runners in, and that has value, but the OPS+ indicates that a league-average hitter would have driven even more runners in. In other words, the runners driven in have value, but that value is not necessarily ascribable to the player driving them in because it’s more a credit to the situation in which he came to bat.

    Paul SF February 19, 2010, 4:11 pm
  • If you’re an 85 OPS+ player and you have 115 RBI, the RBI are not proof that you are actually very good. You did drive those runners in, and that has value, but the OPS+ indicates that a league-average hitter would have driven even more runners in.
    This is pretty much everything in a nutshell. Perfect summation, at least to me, of the concept.

    SF February 19, 2010, 5:15 pm
  • “there’s no particular skill to driving runs in. There’s no such thing as a hitter who is significantly better in RBI opportunities.”
    That’s the point that I cannot agree with. There is a skill to driving runs. Certain players can be better at driving runs in than others, that’s part of what makes them the better hitter. I agree that RBI’s and Runs for that matter are certainly to some degree a product of the team you play for, but to call them useless just seems off base.
    (I understand that no one is arguing this point, I am just disagreeing with Mr. Law.)

    John - YF February 19, 2010, 9:00 pm
  • I need to study the statistical stuff for this season if I’m going to keep up with you guys this year I think…OPS+, WAR, UZI, etc. I need to bring the funk in 2010!
    Thanks for the explanation though Paul and SF, I guess I see the point. RBI’s aren’t everything but they certainly are something.

    krueg February 20, 2010, 10:09 am
  • can’t believe we’re having this discussion again…no surprise, i agree with john…and paul, you may actually have grudgingly made the argument that rbi do have [some] value in your 4:11 pm comment…to me the logical way to look at this is that few stats, in isolation, mean much…which is also why the jd drew debate rages on…additional stats need to be examined to provide context…as a stat rbi alone don’t tell the whole story, but they are a pretty good indicator of how a batter performs with men on base…the other stats round out the rest of the story…generally, pretty good hitters in the middle of a lineup will drive in runs…the proclamation that rbi are “totally useless” is absurd…next he’ll be trying to convince us that scoring runs doesn’t matter either…those are about circumstance too, unless you drive yourself in…

    dc February 21, 2010, 7:34 am
  • generally, pretty good hitters in the middle of a lineup will drive in runs
    Yes, but that isn’t the point. The point is that any hitter, given the right opportunities, no matter what skill level, will drive in runs.
    They aren’t good hitters because they drive in runs, they drive in runs because they are good hitters. Hence RBIs as a less useful statistic (if useful at all for some people) for measuring the quality of a hitter.

    SF February 21, 2010, 7:56 am
  • at least i’m getting a “less useful” out of you guys instead of theo’s “irrelevant” or law’s “totally useless”…you also need to define “quality of a hitter”…if a hitter’s job is to provide power in the middle of a lineup, circumstances be damned, and he performs with men on base, the result is usually some rbi…we get the point that if he doesn’t perform positively he won’t get any rbi…so in that sense it is an indicator that he performs well in those key, men on base situations…each position in the lineup is supposed to me manned by a guy who has a particular skill set…that’s why we have things like leadoff hitter and cleanup hitter…otherwise it wouldn’t matter what order you put them in…for example, why isn’t drew the sox cleanup hitter, or leadoff hitter?…the stats say he is their best hitter…

    dc February 21, 2010, 8:22 am
  • otherwise it wouldn’t matter what order you put them in
    Talk to Bill James.

    SF February 21, 2010, 9:03 am
  • “Talk to Bill James”
    you mean he knows why drew doesn’t bat cleanup or lead off?
    ;)

    dc February 21, 2010, 12:44 pm
  • I agree with Theo that RBI are irrelevant for determining the value of a player, and I mostly agree with Law that they are a useless statistic. I think their greatest value is in the day-to-day, box score context: a player with 6 RBI in one game had a very good game.
    the logical way to look at this is that few stats, in isolation, mean much
    This is true, but there are stats that, in isolation, tell you much more about the quality of a player’s season than RBI. They include OBP. SLG, OPS, OPS+, WAR, wOBA, HR, runs scored, hits — heck, even batting average tells you more than RBI, and it’s a junky stat, too (where plate appearances aren’t counted depending on whether there was a runner on third or whether the hitter does something positive like drawing a walk). RBI do not — I repeat, do not, tell you anything useful about whether a player had a good season, and certainly not anything about whether he is actually a good player. Otherwise, we should all be praising what a great player Julio Lugo was because of his 73 RBI in 2007.

    Paul SF February 21, 2010, 7:29 pm
  • So if RBIs are heavily dependent on the opportunities a batter sees, who has been most efficient in capitalizing on those opportunities?
    % of baserunners driven in, 2007-2009 (1000+ PAs):
    1. Ryan Howard 19.1%
    2. Victor Martinez 19.0%
    3. Aramis Ramirez 18.9%
    4. Matt Holiday 18.8%
    5. Joe Mauer 18.4%

    schmenkman February 22, 2010, 7:20 am

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