I really started to get into baseball when I was 11 years old. Not just playing it (I was, objectively, pretty terrible in little league. Try hitting in bifocals when kids are starting to throw breaking balls), but watching it and reading about it. In those formative years of my fandom, one of my favorite books was Jeff Kisseloff’s Who is Baseball’s Greatest Hitter ?It’s a collection of short essays about some of the most notable sluggers throughout history. At the end of each chapter, Kisseloff made an argument for and against each hitter, using stats to back up his points. It’s hardly a must-read, but using data to defend your argument obviously left an imprint on an impressionable young TPOP writer-in-waiting.
One chapter was on Willie Mays, and the best argument against him was he never led the league in RBI. Granted, you ?re going to have to really stretch to find a negative aspect in Mays ? game, but even 11 year old Alex ?s Spidey Sense was going off. Mays had over 1900 RBI in his career. Does it really matter he never led the league?
In the years since that book has been published, the RBI has been de-emphasized. It ?s a ?team stat. ? It only keeps track of a player ?s successes and ignores their failures. Your RBI total will not be negatively impacted if you strike out with the bases juiced. It just won ?t be as high as it possibly could have been had you succeeded.
The shortcomings of the RBI can be seen in 1920, the first year it was an official stat. Babe Ruth ran away with the AL crown, but the NL race ended in a tie. Rogers Hornsby, one of the greatest hitters of all-time, and George ?High Pockets ? Kelly both finished with 94 RBI. Kelly had a 106 wRC+. A lesson should have been learned that first year: great hitters tend to pick up a lot of RBI, but that doesn ?t mean every player with a lot of RBI is necessarily a great hitter. It ?s a square-rectangle relationship.
Fast-forward 99 years. Josh Bell is on pace for one of the greatest offensive seasons in Pirates history. In doing so, he ?s driving in a ton of runs. He ?s playing leapfrog with Cody Bellinger for the RBI lead the past couple weeks. Obviously the distinction as the RBI champ means a lot to the player, and it might be even sweeter for the ?big lump ? Bell. It’s one of the most prestigious stats among players. But how valuable is it? Not just for his stats, but the team?
Let ?s start with wRC+. This will take park factors and how the rest of the league hit at the time into effect, so unlike OPS, it ?s a one-to-one comparison. A player hitting in peak steroids era Coors Field is going to be weighed the same as a player hitting in Forbes Field.
Here is where the RBI leader ranked in wRC+ in his league:
And this is what their wRC+ was:
Of the 209 players who have had at least a tie of the RBI title since 1920, over 20% of them led the league in wRC+. Nearly half finished in the top three. Almost 60% of them had a wRC+ of 150 or higher, which is a good barometer of finding out who the elite hitters that year are.
But that ?s looking at the game over the last 100 years. While wRC+ is weighed the same no matter the era, the game evolves The RBI may not be valued as much in the 21st century mostly because of analytics, but the quality of the winning batters has also been watered down a bit. Since 2000, here is where the RBI champ ranked in wRC+ that year:
The only two batters to lead the league in RBI and wRC+ this millennium are 2007 Alex Rodriguez and 2003 Carlos Delgado. In total, fewer people are finishing in the top 3 in weighted runs created in the 21st century than in the 20th. At the same time, more champs are finishing outside the top 10.
20th century: Top 3: 86/169 (50.9%), Not in Top 10: 16/169 (9.5%)
21st century: Top 3: 17/40 (42.5%), Not in Top 10: 10/40 (25%)
Granted, the sample size for the 1900s is 4x as large as the 2000s one. Small sample size could be in play, but what if this trend continues? There are a couple possibly explanations for why it happened. First, hitters parks like Coors and Chase Field can elevate slightly above average hitters like Preston Wilson and Vinny Castilla to new heights. There ?s also been several steroid scandals this decade.
And there ?s more parity in the game. Not just because there are more teams and players, but because there are better players. A handful of legends ran baseball from the 20s-40s. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were two of the best players for well over a decade not just because they were terrific athletes, but because there was a lot of fodder in the field. For decades, the best hitters would pick up RBI titles because nobody else was capable of challenging them for it. Think of all the different players who could be considered among the three best hitters in baseball just this decade. Just to name a few, there ?s Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto, Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, Jose Altuve, Christian Yelich and Aaron Judge. Parity means there is more overhaul at the top.
So RBI leaders aren ?t near the top of the wRC+ charts as often anymore, but that ?s a context neutral stat. What if we look at some stats with context?
There are two metrics worth examining. The first is RE24. If you aren ?t familiar with run expectancy, here’s a good cheat sheet. This is the evolution of RBI, in my opinion. If there ?s a runner on third, it makes no difference for a player ?s RBI total if he brings him home on a sac fly or a double, but getting a hit is clearly the preferable choice. RE24 will weigh the double more favorably, and also keep track of the failures.
WPA, or Win Probability Added, takes each plate appearance and calculates if it helped or hurt their team ?s chances of winning. Driving in runs is a great way to wrack up WPA, but failing to cash in on prime run scoring chances will hurt, especially late.
With these two stats, we can see how much offense a hitter produced (with an emphasis on RBI opportunities) and how important those runs were to the outcome. FanGraphs tracks RE24 and WPA back to 1974.
Once again, the majority land in first place. This time, however, there are more people outside the top 10. This would indicate A. the player with the most RBI had a lot of good RBI chances, but failed to convert a decent amount, or B. the runs he did bring in didn ?t make as much of an impact for their team.
But something interesting is happening. While the results in the 21st century would point to a slight decline in hitter quality for RBI champs, those runs batted in have had a greater impact on the games. RBI leaders in the 2000s have been more, dare I say it, clutch, ranking closer to the top of the league.
20th Century: Top 3: 25/56 (44.6%) Not in Top 10: 11/56 (19.6%)
21st Century: Top 3: 22/40 (55%), Not in Top 10: 5/40 (12.5%)
20th Century: Top 3: 17/56 (30.4%), Not in Top 10: 19/56 (33.9%)
21st Century: Top 3: 20/40 (50%), Not in Top 10: 7/40 (17.5%)
So how valuable is an RBI title? While its perceived value is far less than before the analytics revolution, it arguably has a bigger impact on that player ?s team now than before. The RBI stat isn ?t ?worthless, ? but it ?s really best used as shorthand. Josh Bell isn ?t a future All-Star or an MVP candidate because he ?s driving in a lot of runs. It ?s because he ?s going Super Saiyan at the dish.
And in case you were wondering how Bell stacks up in these stats:
RBI 48 (2nd), wRC+ 187 (3rd), 23.70 RE24 (4th), 2.58 (2nd)
He ?s doing pretty well, with or without the RBI leader moniker.