Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jason Bay and The Problem With RBI's, Part 2

Earlier today, I posted a blog which discussed the uselessness of using RBI as a measure by which we should evaluate Jason Bay. Since then, I've had several people approach me and tell me that my logic is silly. I'll admit, I did not do a very good job of explaining exactly what I was trying to say in the last blog. So let me try and do so here:

Jason Bay has been a fine player throughout his career, but the idea of him being a run-producer is a totally overblown. His value, of which he has plenty, rests in the things he has been able to do well over the years - draw walks, hit for power, etc. - but evaluating his career based on his RBI totals is misleading. In the same token, evaluating his performance in 2010 based primarily on whether or not he as able to do as advertised (i.e. drive in runs) will be a mistake. He is not an "RBI guy" the same way that nobody is. RBI are primarily about opportunities.

Jason Bay, based on the work we've done here in comparing him to other players, is likely to see his skills decline soon and sharply. When that happens, his RBI totals, which will likely remain decent, will be emptier and emptier.

As a side note, I learned tonight that his full name is Jason Raymond Bay. Is there any way we can get people to start calling him Jay Ray Bay? Because I love it. Others seem to have discovered this already (like the excellent Ted Berg) but I haven't heard it catch on yet.

Baseball Reference provides us with a wonderful tool which can help take some of the mystery out of being an RBI guy. For each player, they provide their RBI total in comparison to the RBI total of the average major leaguer in the same number of at-bats. According to his Baseball Reference page, Jason did very well last year:

Bay: 119 RBI
Average major leaguer: 72 RBI

That would seem to confirm that he's a run producer, right? Well, not so fast. In addition to the total number of RBI, they provide us with the number of players that were on base for their at bats. For the average major leaguer, it was 401, but for Jason Bay, it was 445. That does not account for the disparity, but it does narrow the gap. Observe the following:

Bay's RBI Percentage: 10.98%[1]
Average ML RBI Percentage: 6.92%

Obviously, Bay had a great year for driving in runners last season - but it was his best year ever. Here are the percentages, going back in time, for Bay versus the average:

2008: 9.17%
2007: 8.05%
2006: 9.20%

ML average was 6.95%, 7.17%, and 7.30% each of those years.

So Bay has always been consistently slightly better than average at driving in runs. But that is just because he is a better than average hitter. It is not because he has some special skill for driving in runs. He bats in the middle of a lineup behind a speedy leadoff man and a two-hitter who probably bunts the runner to second or third a good percentage of the time. When you bat cleanup, the entire offense is engineered around YOU driving those runs in.

It does not stand to reason from the above numbers that someone could distinguish himself from the rest of the world of good hitters by being particularly good at driving in runs. To demonstrate this, here are the same numbers for some guys who you might not consider to be "run producers":

Carlos Lee, 2008: 11.91%
Jorge Cantu, 2009: 8.65%
Alex Rodriguez, 2004: 9.05% (in his first "super chokey" season in New York)
Bobby Abreu, 2009: 9.26%
Michael Cuddyer, 2009: 8.49%
Nick Markakis, 2009: 8.51%
Ryan Garko, 2008: 9.25%

The above list includes a lot of guys from a lot of different fields. Some are stars or near-stars, others are stable veterans. Some, however, are even KNOWN FOR their inability to drive in runs - most glaringly, Alex Rodriguez in his first season in New York.

The only thing these players have in common is that, in the year I looked at their statistics, they had good offensive seasons and hit in the middle of their batting orders. If you hit well, and if you are afforded opportunities, RBI's will come. The glorification of Jason Bay as a run producer is little more than a sportswriter's fantasy.

[1] The percentage is the (number of RBI) / (the number of runners on base + plate appearances). Remember, in every at bat, you can not only drive in the runners on base, but you could also hit a home run and drive yourself in.


Rob A from BBD said...

Don't fret if people call you silly. RBI and runs scored are a bad way to evaluate players. You've got the right idea here. Also, I like Jay Ray Bay.

Anonymous said...

RBI's are still part of the triple crown (probably the weakest component) much like Wins would be the weakest component of the pitchers triple crown as it is dependent on your team whereas ERA and K's can be controlled.

The top RBI producers of all time are all hall of fame players. If it were all about average and obp you'd prefer Tony Gwynn over Albert Pujols.

I guess this is why OBPS is such a popular stat?

Anonymous said...

Tony Gwynn career OBP: 388.
Albert Pujols career OBP: 425

Tony Gwynn career BA: 338
Albert Pujols career BA: 332