I’ve been a member of the Society for American Baseball Research for about two years now, a baseball blogger for about three, and among the many things I’ve learned, certain topics raise the ire of fellow baseball researchers. Jack Morris’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Over-reliance on traditional counting stats like wins or batting average. Runs batted in.
I don’t know when the first attacks began on the RBI, a counting stat that dates to the late 19th century, though I get where some of the criticisms come from. It’s easier to drive in runs on teams that score a lot of them in good offensive eras. It’s one reason Hank Aaron had 86 RBIs and a 153 OPS+ on the 1968 Braves while Dante Bichette had 133 RBIs and a 102 OPS+ on the 1999 Rockies. By no advanced measure did Bichette have the superior season, he just was in the right place at the right time. The stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com suggests that if Aaron had played on the ’99 Rockies, he’d have had 43 home runs, 157 RBIs, and a .370 batting average.
But, as it is with Morris or sub-replacement level WAR players who manage to hit .320 (George Sisler in 1929 and Bob Dillinger in 1949, by the way), I think some of the criticisms with RBIs are unfounded. It may not be as important a stat as its proponents suggest, but it’s also not altogether meaningless or a complete fluke to drive in a run.
I quit Little League after sixth grade, though a couple years ago, I got the opportunity to play on a rec softball team. We weren’t very good, but in our year-end tournament, I came to bat with the bases loaded and our team down four runs. I’d struggled much of the year to grasp that in softball, the strike zone is measured by if a pitch hits an area around the plate, though by the time I came up in that final game, I’d righted course. Watching carefully, I smacked a triple and got us within one run. Granted, it was only a rec softball game, and we wound up losing shortly thereafter, but it felt good to come through in the clutch.
Clutch. I know at least one of my fellow bloggers despises the term, but I assume clutch situations exist in baseball. I assume players have to overcome their nerves under pressure, that their human insecurities don’t dissipate entirely with their first seven-figure contract. I assume it’s not a given that when a player comes up with the bases loaded for his offensive juggernaut of a team against some hurler fresh out of the Can-Am League, he’ll get an RBI or two. There are few, if any givens in baseball, same as life. It takes hard work and a certain degree of luck to succeed in any stressful situation. To do it consistently is one measure of success.
There is of course more than can be said in a short blog post. A more detailed study on the validity of the RBI stat might look at what percentage of base runners hitters drove in over the course of their careers, checking how well they did relative to their teams and seasons. I don’t know how to check this, short of pouring through Retrosheet.org box scores, and if such a study already exists, I’d like to see it.
For now, I’ll close by saying that Bill Buckner drove in 100 runs and had sub-replacement level WAR in his infamous 1986 season. Bichette did likewise in 1999, Ernie Banks in 1969 , along with thirteen other players in MLB history. In total, this feat has been accomplished the following 17 times:
I’d suggest that all of these men offered at least some positive value for their teams.