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The Philosophy of the RBI

How can I dislike a metric so much but want my team to care about it so bad?

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the lines between advanced metrics and the more conventional means we used to use to evaluate baseball players. I wrote a lot about Derek Jeter the last two weeks, which certainly spurred the thinking, and in one of those posts, we talked about how Justin Morneau’s 2006 AL MVP is essentially a “Hey that guy had a lot of RBI” kind of season.

RBI are a funny thing. It wasn’t that long ago — within the lifetimes of most readers — that having a high RBI total nearly guaranteed you a spot on the MVP ballot, if not the award outright. Joe Carter received MVP votes eight times, despite averaging an OPS below .800 in those seasons, because he drove in an average of 112 batters a year. And I couldn’t tell you who led the Yankees in 2021, or 2020, or 2019 in the same category without looking it up*.

* Ok I could tell you in 2021 it was Aaron Judge but let’s face it, there were only two hitters who could have come anywhere close to leading the team in an offensive category this year.

A big part of my baseball research, and SABR research in general, is to attempt to isolate what a player is alone responsible for. It’s why FIP is such a good stat, if imperfect; by grading a pitcher on the things they have the most control over, we can better gauge how much they contributed to their team’s overall output.

RBI doesn’t do a great job of that. If DJ LeMahieu singles in the first inning, then Aaron Judge doubles, there’s a good chance that DJ comes home, and Judge is credited with an RBI. If DJ LeMahieu grounds out, then Aaron Judge doubles, even though nothing has changed about Judge’s play, he gets no RBI. If Gary Sánchez is at first base and Aaron Judge doubles...there’s a good chance Gary gets held up at third, so again, nothing has changed about Judge’s output. You’re dependent on your teammates being able to reach base ahead of you, and on their ability to score on non-home runs.

Yet in the course of baseball history, to lead the league in RBI was seen as perhaps the key indicator of a hitter’s overall value. From 1956-1989, if you led the league in the category, you had a 50 percent chance of winning your league’s MVP — a far cry from Bryce Harper and Juan Soto ranking 24th and 10th in the NL this season, respectively.

And yet, even though I don’t really care about RBI, and most analysts of the game don’t base their ideas of “best player in baseball” on them, I want the players on my team to care very much about RBI. Team RBI, obviously, correlates really well to overall offense — the Yankees, a disappointing lineup all 2021, sat 23rd in baseball with a fitting 666 ribeyes while the Jays, Astros and Dodgers all found themselves in the top four.

Even though we discussed above that our Aaron Judge needs a player on base in order to have an RBI opportunity, and that player needs to be able to score should Judge record a hit other than a HR, Judge still has to get that hit. This is why the fallacy that SABR folks think “a walk is just as good as a hit” is just that, a fallacy — Aaron Judge can’t score DJ from first by walking, even if walking is better than making an out.

I’m torn on how much I want players thinking about their own RBI totals. I want a Yankee offense where Judge, and Stanton, and Joey Gallo, and Gleyber Torres all approach 100 RBI, because that means the Yankees are scoring a ton of runs and probably winning a lot of games. At the same time, I worry that a focus solely on the RBI for it’s own sake can lead to bad habits — yes, sometimes, all you “need” to score the run is a ground ball to the right side, but I never, ever want a hitter coming to the plate thinking “boy, let’s hit a medium groundball!”.

So really, maybe the philosophy of the RBI should be applied to the runner, not the hitter. I want Judge and Stanton and DJ and Gleyber and the whole rest of the lineup to be thinking about hitting the ball as hard as possible, off the ground as much as possible, because those are batted balls that result in hits. I want the players, once they reach base, to be athletic and aggressive enough to score when the guy behind them delivers that hard hit batted ball.

Ranking individual players based on their RBI totals is silly, and I think we all know that. It’s fallen out of favor of writers and analysts, as we realize that the two best hitters in the league can each fall short of the once-required 100 RBI threshold. Still, I’m rooting for three, four, five different Yankees to eclipse that 100 RBI mark in 2022, not because they are necessarily good hitters, but because this team needs a good offense.