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.


  1. I highly applaud the goals of your one-man revolution here. I understand why teams are using saber to evaluate players, and I sometimes apply them in my fantasy leagues, but it has gotten OUT OF CONTROL. Do any of these analysts even watch games or do they just crunch spreadsheets all day?

    What is awesome about baseball is a guy roping a double. I don't give a crap what the pitchers xFIP was at the time. If the Sabermetricians have their way then one day only robots will be playing baseball.

  2. Wrong.
    You can't use RBI to compare players. It creates a massive inaccuracy that doesn't belong. Was Ruben Sierra better than Barry Bonds? RBI suggest he was.

    If a guy has someone getting on in front of him, I would expect more RBI. It's not the other persons fault that his teammates don't get on base .

    We need to look at what THEY did, not what their teammates did. OPS did actually happen. It's not theoretical. It just takes out the unnecessary and unfair parts.

    Sabermetrics aren't ruining the game. If you want to look at fallacies and live in an unjust world, then fine. But don't act as tho those of us who want and have more information are destroying the game. We are making it more accurate, and have a better, less ignorant understanding of it.

    1. well, if I want to know what player is better I won't only look at RBI, like many sabermetrics do with WAR. I, like the guy who wrote this, think RBI have some value but it's not the only stat worth looking at

  3. The geeks don't get that if you aren't hitting well enough to be put in the heart of the order you won't be in such a position to get more RBI's so it's a moot point. They just bitch because they were the geeks who got picked last all the time in gym class. This is the same mentality as the hardass on the beer league team that thinks that if his coach didn't hate him, he'd be a star with the Yankees right now.

    You EARN the spot in the order that you get which puts you in a better position to EARN RBI's. Simple as that.

    1. Brandon Phillips was a league average hitter, last year. Zack Cozart was a horrible hitter who was in the #2 spot because Dusty Baker was a terrible manager.

      You don't need to "earn" a spot if your manager is incompetent (as many are).

    2. Or they were the best players he had available or maybe they were just swinging the bat better in batting practice. (Or more likely, working harder than someone who was slacking.) Of course managers are incompetent right? They ALWAYS are right? Nobody but guys approved by Billy Beane are competent managers right? If good looks and schmoozing where all it took to manage in the major leagues Brad Pitt would be running the A's and not playing the guy who did in a movie.

  4. That's a good point about opportunities. Despite what many saberfans may think, most baseball managers aren't stupid. The reason the high RBI guys get so many opportunities is because they often succeed there.

    For instance, Ryan Howard's high RBI totals may be partially due to having runners on base, but it's also due to him having a high rate of success at driving those runners in.

    1. Exactly and that spot in the lineup is earned, not just nepotism. There is a reason pitchers usually to almost always bat 9th in the NL. Because they just aren't good hitters, they're paid to pitch.

    2. I understand that RBI are team-dependent, and that a player must get opportunities in order to drive in runs.

      That said, I don't think the stat is worthless as a lot of sabers claim. Nor are wins.

      As much as they want to think so, sabermetrics did not suddenly introduce the concept of context to baseball. Pitchers who did well but didn't get a lot of wins were called "hard-luck" pitchers. Same thing with RBI; did those "flat-earth" sportswriters of the 1950s and 1960s downgrade Mickey Mantle because he didn't knock in 140 runs every season? If they did, I must have missed it.

      Of course RBI are team-dependent. So what? The question is: What did a player do when presented the opportunity? Why render a stat "useless," as sabers do with RBI, just because it doesn't tell the whole story. Would they also say OPS is "useless" because it doesn't tell us everything about a player? Of course not.

      A lot of that kind of thinking, I believe, is "RBI is an old stat which has some hole in it; therefore, it's useless." It's a culture thing.

    3. I concur George.

      The same is true in hockey or basketball where all numbers are opportunity dependent on coaches putting players in the game. Ditto for football. I guess goals, assists and touchdowns are useless if we follow sabrfans' bitching.

      And in this case I truly believe that it is 'geek's revenge' and Billy Beane has even admitted as such in his case in terms of his assessment of RBIs. He was never picked first in gym class and even in his brief MLB career he feels he was constantly shafted. Therefore the stats said players EARNED are considered useless.

      These geeks really need to be stuffed back in the locker because they don't know a damn thing about real baseball or even what end of the bat is up.