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.