Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Defense of: RBIs

If there is one statistic that saber fans hate, it is the RBI.  To them, the RBI epitomizes the antiquated methods of baseball analysis that they hold in such disdain. 

Any time a writer or announcer touts a player's performance by mentioning his RBI total, you can rest assured that the sabermetric blogosphere will erupt in outrage over the media continuing to spread such ignorance.

The main criticism of RBIs is that they are too dependent on both the situation and the hitter's teammates.

For example, if a player singles with a runner on third base, he will most likely earn an RBI.  If he singles with the bases empty, he will not.  Since the hitter couldn't control whether or not a runner was on base, why should we give him more credit for the first hit?

Saber fans will tell you that instead of tracking RBIs, we should instead emphasize statistics that are more within a hitter's control such as on-base percentage or slugging percentage.  Even better, we can utilize advanced statistics that combine these elements such as wOBA or OPS.

The theory is that a player with a high on-base percentage or slugging percentage will contribute towards the scoring of runs.  The problem is, baseball is not played theoretically.  The hitter with a high OPS might have contributed to runs being scored, but there is no way of knowing if he actually did.

Consider that actions must be performed in a certain order for a run to score.  If a batter walks, and then the next batter hits a triple, a run scores.  While if a batter hits a triple, and the next batter walks, a run does not score.

Is it fair to give more credit to the hitter who tripled while a runner was already on base?  Given a different situation, the hitter who tripled with the bases empty might have caused a run to score. But baseball doesn't measure "might haves." Either a run scored or it did not.

I liken it to a bakery.  There are several important tasks that need to be performed in order to bake a cake: Add the ingerdients, stir the bowl, and put the mix in the oven.  While you may have done all of these steps, if they haven't been done in the proper sequence, you're not going to get a cake.

Sure, if you perform the steps enough times, you'll get some cakes. But isn't it also worthwhile to measure how many times a baker actually got a completed cake into the oven?

All that matters is how many cakes were baked

I understand that by favoring individual statistics over RBIs, sabermetrics is attempting to isolate a hitter's performance  But is that really the only measure we should take of a hitter?

A hitter doesn't perform in a vacuum.  Baseball is a team game, and teammates usually have to work together in order to score runs.  Therefore, there is some worth in measuring how well a player is contributing towards the scoring of runs within the context of a lineup.

You can tell me how many theoretical runs a hitter is creating which is very useful.  But I think it can also be useful to measure how many actual runs a hitter is generating as well.  Which is why the RBI does indeed have value as a statistic.