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Drive the Right One In (The RBI Flesh Failures)

As today’s Yankees-Jays game rolls on and Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira knocking home more runs, I wanted to amplify what Jay wrote in his last entry about how the Yankees are hitting in the clutch, using Baseball Prospectus’s RBI opportunities page. The Yankees have hit relatively poorly with runners in scoring position, at least in part due to what seems, at least to my way of thinking, to some bad luck that might just change.

RBIs are a function of opportunity: aside from driving oneself in with a home run, a batter cannot plate runners who don’t exist. When looking at who-drove-in-what, there is a very predictable relationship between opportunity and RBI totals. Over the years, the average hitter has plated about 14 percent of his baserunners (400 plate appearances and up). Seasons over 20 percent are relatively rare, and no hitter has gotten to 30 percent—the high for the last 60 years belonged to George Brett, who plated 26.9 percent of his baserunners back in 1980. He had to hit .390 to do it.
This is the 2011 top ten, 100 PAs and up:#

1 Mike Aviles KCA 24.2
2 Danny Espinosa WAS 23.6
3 Chipper Jones ATL 23.5
4 Michael Young TEX 23.0
5 Stephen Drew ARI 22.9
T6 Greg Dobbs FLO 22.6
T6 Matt Wieters BAL 22.6
8 Matt Holliday SLN 21.7
T9 Adrian Gonzalez BOS 21.6
T9 Victor Martinez DET 21.6

Note there ain’t no Yankees up there. In fact, you can’t find a Yankee in the top 50. Here is the Yankees-only ranking in the same category, with eligibility expanded to 50 PAs: #

1 Russell Martin 17.6
2 Robinson Cano 17.0
3 Mark Teixeira 16.8
4 Curtis Granderson 15.8
5 Alex Rodriguez 14.5
6 Nick Swisher 14.1
7 Derek Jeter 12.4
8 Jorge Posada 11.1
9 Brett Gardner 10.8
10 Andruw Jones 4.2

Some of these numbers are a bit deceptive. For example, Brett Gardner is hitting .324 with runners in scoring position, but since he’s a singles hitter he doesn’t move the baserunners up too far even when he does hit. Even given that, he would have a higher percentage of runners driven in if some genius didn’t keep asking him to bunt.

The biggest issue here, however, is not bunting or failing to hit in the clutch, but simply failing to hit. There is nothing magical about hitting with runners on—good hitters drive in runners at a good rate, bad hitters don’t because they’re too busy making outs. Derek Jeter is hitting .176 with runners in scoring position and .194 with men on because he’s just not a very good hitter anymore. Posada is hitting .143 and .167 in those categories (respectively) for the same reason. Nick Swisher has seen more baserunners than any other Yankee, 121, but has done little with them because he’s been in a season-long slump.

Those that say the Yankees are suffering from hitting too many home runs are missing the forest for the aging, decrepit trees. The Yankees have had to rely on the bomb from Granderson and Teixera (and, today only, Andruw Jones) because one-third of their lineup hasn’t shown up. That they have hit as well as they have so far is testament to the other six guys playing extremely well (even if some, like Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez, haven’t quite lived up to their own high standards). If they cool off, look out, because even if Swisher eventually comes around (and Nick has gone through whole seasons where he couldn’t fix whatever was broken—that’s why the Yankees were able to get him so cheaply), Jeter and Posada are extremely unlikely to come around.

As I write these words, the Yankees are up 7-3 on the Blue Jays, having banged around a fairly hapless pitcher in Jo-Jo Reyes. They have hit three home runs in the process of doing so, and some commentators will say this is somehow a problem. It’s not. The problem is who has been hitting them and who hasn’t been hitting at all.