Why RBIs are a flawed stat

Adrian Gonzalez lead MLB in RBIs last year
Adrian Gonzalez lead the big leagues in RBIs last year

By Edward Overend

While most traditionalist stats are all but gone from most Major League front offices, the casual fan and the older generations of die-hard fans have stuck with the statistics. Classic and easy to remember, a century of celebrating records has some people holding on to these numbers for good. Sometimes classic theories and ideas can still be relevant, but in this case that isn’t true.

I have nothing against people who like these stats. Many of them have spent their entire lives having RBI records, batting average records, win-loss records and other statistical feats drilled into their heads. These were the only options, so people didn’t question them.

One of the arguments that ‘old school’ guys continually trot out against the sabermetric community is that they have no empathy for the game of baseball. Everything is too driven by statistics and the ‘eye test’ ultimately wins out.

Fantasy baseball hasn’t helped either as it rewards players for almost meaningless stats and lot of fans get an unrealistic impression of how valuable a player is just because of how much he has helped their fantasy team.

One of the skills a ‘stats guy’ must have is deciding which stats are useful and which have little to no value.

What is the goal of using statistics for individual players? The answer is simple: to isolate production. Simply, to tell how talented a player is. In theory, the best statistics are affected only minimally by other players, otherwise a statistic can be as much a measure of a team’s ability as the individual player’s.

Even the best statistics, things like WRC+ are imperfect. You can’t take wOBA as a perfect measure of truth or be certain that FIP is a perfect estimate of pitcher performance. In many cases, they may be the best we have, but we acknowledge the limitations. While it’s true that even our favourite metrics have flaws, that doesn’t mean that we should give equal considering to extremely flawed statistics.

There are serious problems associated with some of the more popular traditional metrics.

RBI is one of the more famous baseball statistics and measures the number of runners who score due to your hit, walk, sacrifice, or fielder’s choice. Generally speaking, a 100 RBI season is considered worthy of admiration and the notion of ‘driving in runs’ or being an ‘RBI guy’ is highly valued.

There are essentially two ways to approach the problem with RBI as a statistic. First, there is very little evidence that timely hitting or clutch hitting is a skill separate from regular hitting. Alex Rodriguez was always regarded as someone who couldn’t do it on the big stage until one great post-season that boosted his stats so they were in-line with his career numbers. Second, even, if those are real skills, RBI is a very crude way to measure that skill and you should use something else.

Before I go any further, we need to decide if we value getting hits with men on base particularly with men in scoring position. Should it matter if a hitter has a .350 wOBA (weighted On Base Average) with most of his hits skewing towards RISP (Runners in Scoring Position) situations or a .350 wOBA with most of his hits skewing towards bases empty situations. Is one player better than the other?

In order to make the argument that the RISP hitter was better, you would have to argue that he was able to influence the timing of his hits. To date, there is very little evidence that this is a unique skill and there is little to support the idea that certain hitters “know how to drive in runs.”

Clutch numbers and offensive metrics with men on base or men in scoring position correlate very poorly from year to year and you are better off judging a player based on how he performs in general rather than how he performs in “run producing situations.”

However, let’s for these purposes make the assumption that we do care about a hitter’s production when men are on base and it is a run scoring opportunity. Do RBI do a very good job of measuring whether a hitter is a “run producer?”

You get an RBI is your hit/walk/etc sends a runner to the plate, but some RBI are easier than others. With a man on third and no outs, it’s quite easy to drive the runner home, but with a man on first and two outs, it’s much more difficult.

And that’s a problem. If you get to bat with more men on second and third, you’ll have more RBI even if you have identical rate stats across the opportunities that you do have. It’s not right to reward a hitter just because the quantity of his RISP situations is high. You might want to reward a hitter for their performance in each type of situation, but surely not for the number of those situations.

A classic example of this is the Phillies’ Ryan Howard. Whilst nobody, I don’t think, could argue that the first baseman was at all good last season, there he was 4th in the National League RBI producers with 93. A lot of this was down to him hitting in the middle of the order and playing a majority of his team’s games, not because he has the ability to produce runs.

It goes beyond that. Maybe we’re all capable of mentally adjusting for the idea that certain hitters in better lineup spots on better teams will have a higher number of chances and we don’t really mind that Miguel Cabrera has more RBI than someone like Brandon Crawford, but there’s another serious issue that adds more haze to the whole endeavour.

You can contribute to run scoring even without being the hitter who plates the runner. Imagine you’re batting with a man on first base and one out. You rip a clean single to the right centre field and the runner advances to third base. You moved him up two bases. Then the next hitter hits a routine fly to centre field and the runner scores on a sacrifice fly. Who gets the RBI? The guy who hit after you did, even though one could easily suggest you played a bigger role in driving in that run. Not only did you register a hit, but you advanced the runner two bases rather than one. RBI gives you no credit whatsoever.

And this runs counter to the idea of situational hitting. The guy who hit the sac fly “drove him in” but you did more heavy lifting. If he had been standing on second or third base when you came up, your hit would have scored him. Instead, the next hitter claimed the RBI in less impressive fashion. It’s not just about the number of chances it’s about the collective action of run production. Even if you want to evaluate hitters in context, you have to look at every step along the way, not just the one that comes at the end.

So while there isn’t really evidence that hitting with men on base is a skill independent of your regular abilities, the more important reason RBI isn’t a good measure of offensive performance in any way is that it doesn’t even capture the performance it means too. Batters do not have equal opportunities to collect RBI. In fact, in some cases the stars can align and hitters can rack up tons of RBI despite performing quite poorly, simply because they were given very favourable circumstances.

A good example of opportunity providing inflated numbers can be found in basketball. NBA teams average, on the whole, between 90 and 100 points per game. Somebody has to get those points for each team. Nobody would argue that Rudy Gay was an especially good player, in fact he is one of the most inefficient players in the whole league. Yet, there he is 13th in the NBA with 21 points per game.

Generally speaking, RBI is not a useful measure of offensive performance. If one player has 100 RBI and another 75 it tells you almost nothing about the seasons they had. RBI is as much of a team statistic as it is an individual one, influenced as much by what the players do in front of a batter as what that batter does himself.

You can find Ed on twitter @EdwardOveren or join in the conversation @CTBPod

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One thought on “Why RBIs are a flawed stat

  1. There is one problem with the “RBI is meaningless” narrative. It largely does not take into account that the person being put in this situations to produce more RBI’S has historically been put there intentionally. They are given more RBI opportunities traditionally because they swing the bigger stick. In other words these additional opportunities are not entirely random. While the idea that the guy moving the runner from 1b to 3rd was more important to the run than the sac fly is sound, but it does not render the RBI, the actually act finalizing the production of the run, as meaningless. The RBI is meaningless concept seems to suggest that it was the random placement of player A in the lineup that helped generate more RBI’S therefore giving him the appearance of being a better run producer than player B as opposed to the reality that the order of the lineup was situated intentionally to give a more proven hitter greater RISP opportunities. Also, many high RBI hitters achieve a fair amount of those RBI’S through the HR which is the only truly independent run producing mechanism in baseball. (although it’s independence maxes at 1 run per occurrence)

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