Should Baseball Stop Valuing the RBI?
As I sat and watched an intriguing Blue Jays-Yankees game, a segment came on where the announcers asked a stumping question: “Which AL players had won a Triple Crown?”, which they asked as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is currently on pace to accomplish this rare feat. When they finally answered the question with the players who did so (Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, etc.), they went on to comment on how the third leg of this crown, RBIs (Runs Batted In), was more of an opportunity-based stat and not as revered as it once was. As I have been interested in sabermetrics for quite a while, I had known that a player’s RBI count has little to do with how well they are doing on the diamond. So often, great hitters will have a low amount of RBIs and poor hitters will have a high amount. Yet, on almost any baseball game one can watch, announcers will continue to mention the stat with importance and compare other players based on it. With an obvious dilemma between baseball statisticians and the mainstream fan, an important argument persists: Should Baseball stop valuing the RBI?
According to the MLB Glossary, “A batter is credited with an RBI in most cases where the result of his plate appearance is a run being scored.” While some notable exceptions exist, including when a player reaches on an error or a double play, a given hitter will almost always earn this stat if another player happens to score on that same play. But, there begins the problem. The player only earns the stat if another player happens to score. There are so many elements that the batter cannot control, yet earns credit if that very thing happens. To put this into a clearer perspective, let me illustrate an imaginary example. For this scenario, I will be using the Dodgers. Let’s say there are no outs, and the play before, Albert Pujols reached second base on a double. Albert is ranked 2nd-to-last in Sprint Speed out of the entire MLB at 22.4 ft/sec according to Baseball Savant. With Austin Barnes now up to bat, he slams a ball up the middle which will result in a single. Having Pujols on second and his mediocre sprint speed, he only reaches third on that play. But, if instead of Pujols, they had Gavin Lux on second with his 23rd MLB ranked sprint speed (29.1 ft/sec), the entire play would’ve more than likely had a different result. It is more than likely that Lux would’ve scored, where Pujols did not. Barnes would’ve been credited with an RBI with Lux, but not with Albert. Even though Barnes had no control over who was running on second, he was credited differently even if his performance did not change. While this example provides a great view of one scenario, a situation like this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to varying credit not based on a player’s output.
With so many scenarios out there like the one above, I will simply summarize a couple of others that showcase the flaw mentioned above. Probably the most popular inconsistency known about RBI is the overall team production flaw. For a team, the last example utilized the Dodgers, one of the most offensively productive teams in all of baseball. But more times than not, teams struggle even getting a runner on base in the first place. For this imaginary scenario, let’s take a good batter who plays on a horrible team, like Ke’Bryan Hayes. While Hayes is slashing a .283/.356/.547 with a 147 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus), he only has 7 RBIs through 59 plate appearances, less than his runs scored (9). Players like Hayes do not generally have much support from their teammates, leading to a low RBI count that is not reflective of performance. Next, we examine the batting order flaw. Since baseball started, managers have often put higher power hitters a tad later in a given lineup, opting to put the high average hitters in the one or two spot in the order. With lesser skilled players batting very late in the lineup, the first two hitters often have fewer opportunities to drive someone to the plate compared to a four or five-spot hitter who has the three best batters in front of him. If one were to examine Kyle Tucker (.351 wOBA) and Trea Turner (.352 wOBA), they could assume that they have driven in a similar amount of runs due to their similar wOBA. But with Turner being a leadoff man and Tucker being a later hitter, Tucker has 12 more RBIs. Through these answers, one thing has become fundamentally clear: Runs Batted In does not tell a fan how good a player is doing, which is a necessity for any stat. Rather, it shows how much opportunity one is being given, which is hardly something to care about on a performance evaluation. The amount of oppurtunity given doesn't reveal his true success. Hence, Baseball needs to stop valuing the RBI. A replacement is needed for this stat. So, what should replace RBI?
When I first heard that RBI comment by that announcer mentioned earlier, my second thought focused on wondering if someone had made an advanced stat to more accurately display RBI production. Through researching if this statistic already existed, I was only able to find one article pertaining to the topic. And no, the article was not by Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, MLB, or any other advanced stat organization. Instead, it was on a fan-written blog, Diamond Digest, published in 2019. The author, Mick Callahan, suggested the implementation of a new stat to represent RBIs, Adjusted Runs Batted In +, or aRBI+, for short. While I recommend that the audience read the article which is linked, I will provide a summary of the stat. aRBI+ regards 100 as league average, with anything higher as above-average, and lower as below-average. The statistic would take the RBI/Plate Appearance of a hitter and weigh them based on certain situations in a game, truly showing how effective a player is at driving in runs. As I read the piece, he implemented almost any weighted element I could think of: outs, batting order, scoring, runners on base, etc. It was an amazing mathematical discovery for the sport, yet it has failed to gain its rightful recognition in the baseball world. Any Major Baseball stat site still fails to acknowledge that a calculation like this even exists. Hopefully, this will change in the future.
In the end, even after this article is published, RBI will continue to be a dominant stat for many. aRBI+, or a similar statistic like it, will continue to not be recognized for at least a little while. But, as a reader of this blog, I hope this inspires one to look at the game of baseball differently. To see RBIs, and give it a passing glance as you search for that player’s wRC+ or OPS+. To acknowledge that while we are in the golden age of data and information, not all calculations exist. Through this deeper understanding that baseball as a sport continues to grow, fans will hopefully learn more to better the overall understanding of the game.
TO BE NOTED: After publishing this article, a reader brought to my attention that wRC+ already does a similar job to the stat mentioned, plus it is already widely accepted in the baseball world. The reader is mostly correct in this type of thinking. wRC+ accounts for both the player’s ability to score runs themself as well as driving in others in a collective statistic. With aRBI+, only the player’s skill in driving in others is calculated (or any other particular RBI opportunity). aRBI+ represents a more accurate RBI calculation, while wRC+ represents all around offense much better. Both should be used to understand production.