Miguel Cabrera reaches 100 RBIs, but that's not what's most impressive
It's only the first week of August, but Miguel Cabrera reached the 100 RBI plateau on Tuesday night, an accomplishment that resonates far more with traditionally-minded fans than with statheads. It's the 10th straight year he's reached that mark, which puts him in the company of some Hall of Fame-caliber hitters, but then it's not as though anyone should be surprised, given that the 30-year-old slugger is well on his way to Cooperstown himself. Even so, the accomplishment is worth a closer look.
Before I start peeling apart those numbers, let's look at that esteemed company:
|1||Alex Rodriguez||14 (13)|
|2T||Jimmie Foxx*||13 (13)|
|Lou Gehrig*||13 (13)|
|Babe Ruth*||13 (8)|
|5T||Manny Ramirez||12 (9)|
|Barry Bonds||12 (4)|
|Al Simmons*||12 (11)|
|8T||Albert Pujols||11 (10)|
|Frank Thomas||11 (8)|
|Hank Aaron*||11 (5)|
|Goose Goslin*||11 (5)|
|12T||Miguel Cabrera||10 (10)|
|Vladimir Guerrero||10 (5)|
|Rafael Palmeiro||10 (9)|
|Joe Carter||10 (6)|
|Willie Mays*||10 (8)|
|Stan Musial*||10 (5)|
The asterisks indicate players in the Hall of Fame, the numbers in parentheses their longest consecutive stretches of 100-RBI seasons. Again, it's fine company, and so long as Cabrera avoids the pitfalls that brought down Rodriguez, Ramirez and Palmeiro, he'll have a bronze plaque awaiting him. Now, onto the lecture...
Runs batted in matter. Without them, it's very, very difficult for a baseball team to accomplish its primary objective: to score, and in doing so, to compile more runs than the opposition. Where the traditionalists and statheads tend to differ is the extent to which RBI totals matter. To the former, they measure a player's ability to help his team by driving in other baserunners, and if not his moral fiber then at least his grace under pressure. To the latter, they're too dependent upon context to be taken at face value, because they don't tell you how many teammates were actually on base ahead of a given hitter, nor do they tell you how many outs -- how much of baseball's clock, so to speak -- a player used in compiling those totals.
In Cabrera's case, reaching the 100 RBI level this early in the season is superficially impressive; he did so in his 103rd game of the year, the Tigers' 111th game. While he's normally remarkably durable, he has missed seven of Detroit's previous 13 games and been limited to one or two plate appearances in two others due to a hip flexor issue. Still, as near as I can tell using Baseball-Reference's Play Index, the high RBI total for a team's first 111 games is Hank Greenberg's 133 in 1937. The top nine totals to that point in the season are all from the period between 1921 and 1937, when scoring levels were higher than they are now.
Cabrera is actually the second player to reach 100 RBI this year; the Orioles' Chris Davis did so on Aug. 1. If you've been reading this space, you know that Baltimore's slugger has been giving last year's Triple Crown winner a run for his money in several key offensive categories. Cabrera leads the American League in batting average at .361 and in on-base percentage at .455, while he's second in slugging percentage at .665. Davis leads that category at .673; he's ninth in batting average (.302) and fifth in on-base percentage (.375), but he's also first in homers with 40, eight more than Cabrera.
In the stathead view, those numbers, all of which are less dependent upon a player's teammates, are the more impressive measures of each player's skill and value. Wins Above Replacement, which cares nothing about RBIs, holds that Cabrera has been worth 6.1 wins this year, tops in the AL and 1.4 ahead of Davis, who is tied for fourth.
How much do surroundings matter? Baseball Prospectus' RBI report offers some insight. BP tracks the number of runners on each base during each player's plate appearances, and how often they were driven in. Rejiggering the columns for the purposes of presentation, and keeping in mind that the two are separated by only two total plate appearances (464 for Davis, 462 for Cabrera), we get the following:
Cabrera has had 29 more plate appearances with runners on base (PA_ROB) than Davis, for a total of 37 more runners on base (ROB), with more at each individual base (R1, R2 and R3 representing those totals). Of the two players, he's driven in a higher percentage of runners on second base, but Davis has the higher percentage of runners on first base and third base. Overall, Davis has driven in fewer other runners, but the slightly higher percentage of other runners (OBI%). He ranks second in the majors in that category, with Cabrera ranking fifth.
Now, does any of that tell us much more than the two players' on-base and slugging percentages, which are better measures of batter skill than RBI totals? My argument, as you can probably guess, is no. League leaders generally drive in around 21 or 22 percent of other baserunners; the highest rate for a batting title qualifier since 2000 is 23.7 percent by the Indians' Juan Gonzalez in 2001. Ten players topped 24.0 percent from 1950 (as far back as BP's data goes) through 1999. A total of 114 have topped 21.0 percent since 1950.
That means Cabrera and Davis aren't much of an outlier in that category. However, they are with regards to slugging percentage, which measures, among other things, a player's ability to advance other runners. Both men are approaching SLG marks not seen since 2006, when Albert Pujols slugged .671; the eight full-season marks higher than that since the millennium are tied to the offensive explosion driven by a combination of juiced players, juiced baseballs, high altitude and other favorable conditions.
For an even better measure of total batting skill than slugging percentage, on-base percentage or OPS, there's BP's True Average stat, which expresses runs created per plate appearance on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring conditions and pays no mind to RBIs. That stat shows Cabrera leading the majors at .377, with Davis third at .356.
If he were to maintain it, Cabrera's .377 mark would tie Willie Mays' 1965 for 22nd in the post-1949 era and be the highest since Barry Bonds in 2004. Where Cabrera truly stands out is in combining such a notable True Average with an equally impressive OBI rate. Only George Brett (1980, .392/26.9 percent) and Dick Allen (1972, .376/20.7 percent), have had a True Average north of .375 and an OBI rate higher than 20 percent. In part, that's because high walk rates end up costing hitters in the OBI% department, particularly since a disproportionate number of them come when there's no chance to advance a runner, let alone score one. For Cabrera to maintain his current level in both departments would be quite the feat.
As you can probably intuit, driving that combination of context-adjusted production stats is a spectacular performance with runners in scoring position. In fact, Cabrera's OPS with RISP is historically significant. Using a 140 plate appearance cutoff -- to choose a round number that captures his current total of 145 -- he ranks fifth:
Of the 20 seasons above, Cabrera is one of just five (all bolded) that fall outside of the 1996-2006 period, when scoring levels were considerably higher than now. It's a small-sample performance that's unsustainable, but like a monster 500-foot home run, that doesn't mean it's not worth at least pausing to admire. Still, it's Cabrera's overall skill level that's driving this. He's a career .321/.399/.568 hitter, and has been slightly but not remarkably better with runners in scoring position during his career; his .336/.432/.567 line is eight percent more productive (a 108 tOPS+, via B-Ref) than his usual production, mainly due to a whopping total of 174 intentional walks under such circumstances. Particularly at the level to which he's risen in his prime, nobody want to pitch to him with runners in scoring position -- and yet, somehow, he's managing to drive in runs nonetheless. That's a big part of what makes him the best hitter in the game, whether or not there's a round numbered tally to describe it.