In the latest Hit and Run, Jay Jaffe explains why the American League's RBI record doesn't actually belong to A-Rod and looks at whether Ryan Howard is actually a fit for the Cardinals.
1. Just because it sounds like a broken record doesn’t mean it is
You can be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the news that Alex Rodriguez took over the all-time American League record for runs batted in on Wednesday. Not because it's A-Rod, the black sheep of baseball, or because his drug-tinged past invalidates his considerable career numbers in the eyes of some, or because RBI totals have as much to do with the caliber of one's teammates as they do with skill. No, this particular eye-roll is about a squabble over bookkeeping and what bears the "official" blessing in the eyes of Major League Baseball.
Rodriguez's homer ran his season total of RBIs to 26 and his career total to 1,995. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistician of MLB, that pushes him past Lou Gehrig (1,993) and Babe Ruth (1,992) for the all-time AL lead and the third spot in history behind only Barry Bonds (1,996) and Hank Aaron (2,297). Turn to Baseball-Reference.com's all-time leaderboard, however, and you'll see a much different story:
Not only has Rodriguez not passed Gehrig or Ruth, but he's also behind Cap Anson as well. That's because Elias only recognizes RBIs since the start of the 1920 season, when the statistic became official. However, from 1907 to '19, RBI totals were compiled "unofficially" by sportswriter Ernie Lanigan of the New York Press (and other publications later).
Lanigan, the nephew of The Sporting News founders Al Spink and Charles Spink, didn't invent the stat, which according to Alan Schwarz’s fine book The Numbers Game first appeared in a Buffalo newspaper in 1879 and then in the Chicago Tribune the following year. However, outcry over the inequity of star players such as Anson and Mike "King" Kelly having differing numbers of chances to drive in runs soon led the paper to banish the stat from its box scores, and similarly led to their banishment again in 1891 after baseball statistics godfather Henry Chadwick re-introduced the stat. It was Lanigan's efforts that brought RBIs back into circulation. Finally in 1920, the two leagues began tracking them.
Fast-forward almost half a century. In the service of putting together the landmark Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia (first published in 1969), statistician David Neft and a research staff of as many as 20 people combed through some 87,000 games worth of box scores and old newspaper accounts of ballgames, which usually gave play-by-play reconstructions of how each run scored. They also went through scrapbooks of a man named John Tattersall to reconstruct scoring innings and tabulate not only pre-1920 RBIs, but also earned and unearned runs, a distinction that became official in 1912, and saves, a stat that didn’t become official until 1969. Tattersall even had box scores and his own day-by-day statistical logs for individual players from the defunct American Association (1882–91) and Union Association (1884). In addition to compiling and verifying the stats, Neft and his team computerized them for the first time. Discrepancies were ironed out via a Special Baseball Records Committee involving officials from the leagues and the BBWAA (that committee has its own controversial history).
Since the publication of “Big Mac,” diligent researchers from the Society for American Baseball Research (founded in 1971) have contributed their time to uncovering other discrepancies, including the RBI totals of Ruth and Gehrig, the hit totals of Cobb and Anson, the identity of individual seasons' actual league leaders, and so on. Squabbles between MLB—which had come to influence The Baseball Encyclopedia to the point of preserving inaccuracies instead of correcting them—and these researchers led to the creation of a new encyclopedia, Total Baseball, by Pete Palmer and John Thorn. That book used the data archive of Palmer, a radar systems engineer who spent his off hours at the Raytheon Corporation compiling statistics on an IBM mainframe via punch cards. Palmer is also the inventor of On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) and other sabermetric stats; Thorn is now the Official Historian of Major League Baseball. The pair's sabermetric landmark, The Hidden Game of Baseball, was reissued this spring by the University of Chicago Press and is well worth picking up for anyone who is interested in the origin of OPS, OPS+, ERA+, linear weights, replacement level and other sabermetric concepts—they didn’t all spring from the mind of Bill James.
Long story short: It's Palmer's data, historically vetted by expert researchers, that forms the foundation of the statistics at Baseball-Reference.com, which while clearly the greatest invention since the wheel remains unofficial in the eyes of MLB. The B-Ref data includes not only totals that have been adjusted from the "official" ones but also statistics from the first organized professional baseball league, the National Association, which ran from 1871 to '75, and which Elias and MLB do not recognize as a major league. Anson played in the NA from its inception, which is why his numbers for hits, RBIs and other totals differ greatly from what MLB recognizes, as I noted last year while Derek Jeter climbed the all-time hits leaderboard.
So, what Rodriguez did on Wednesday, while part a fascinating comeback from years of injuries and a full-season PED suspension, doesn't amount to a record-breaking feat. The best available data shows that he hasn't even passed Gehrig, though he will with his next RBI.
2. Patching for Adams
The Cardinals were dealt a difficult blow on Tuesday when Matt Adams suffered a right quadriceps strain while running the bases. The injury is so severe that Adams will require surgery on Friday, and according to general manager John Mozeliak, he will be out three to four months, a timeline that could stretch through the remainder of the regular season.
The 26-year-old Adams emerged as a middle-of-the-lineup threat in 2013–14, hitting a combined .287/.327/.474 with 32 homers and a 119 OPS+, but after a strong April (.304/.338/.493), he had tailed off drastically in May (.187/.228/.267). To date, he has a 77 OPS+ and just four homers in 153 PA. For the moment, righty-swinging platoon partner Mark Reynolds (.253/.321/.404 with three homers and a 97 OPS+) will handle first base chores, but the 31-year-old free swinger's recent track record (.209/.297/.394 with 43 homers, a 91 OPS+ and just 0.3 WAR for three teams in '13 and '14) suggests he's of more value as a long ball threat off the bench than a full-blown replacement.
Both in signing Reynolds as a free agent this winter and in replacing Adams on the roster, the team bypassed Triple A first baseman Xavier Scruggs, a 27-year-old righty who's currently hitting an uneven .212/.355/.474 with eight homers for Memphis, down from last year's .286/.370/.494 with 21 homers. Via the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2015, Scruggs cut his strikeout rate from 32% in 2013 to 21% last year, improving both his conditioning and his defense, not to mention destroying most lefties in his path (.345/.404/.669 in 161 PA last year). Instead, the team called up catcher Ed Easley, a 29-year-old righty swinging a hot bat (.295/.422/.400). Easley has 40 minor league games of first base experience on his resumé, but just five since the start of the '10 season, and none since '12.
At 31–16, with the best record in the league and a 5 1/2-game cushion in the NL Central, the Cardinals have time to sort this out from within the organization, but it wouldn't be a surprise if they make a trade as the July 31 deadline approaches. One name that's been mentioned in connection with the vacancy is that of Ryan Howard, a St. Louis native who is enjoying a minor revival in Philadelphia.
Thanks to a more aggressive approach at the plate when it comes to attacking the first pitch, the 35-year-old Howard already has 10 homers, and even with a dreadful 49/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio, his .256/.298/.519 line is good for a 122 OPS+, his best since 2011, the season that ended with him blowing out his left Achilles tendon. In the three years since, Howard has hit just .233/.309/.412 for a 98 OPS+ and -1.6 WAR while missing roughly a year’s worth of games due to injuries.
Even with his restored power, Howard has been right around replacement level (0.1 WAR), but there are numerous obstacles to a trade. He’s making $25 million this year and is owed $25 million for next year, plus a steep $10 million buyout for 2017. While the Phillies are believed to be willing to eat the majority of the $50 million or so remaining, it's unlikely that the Cardinals want to pay the rest of it to a player who makes more sense as some AL team’s platoon designated hitter.
What's more, Howard has trade veto rights via the 10-and-5 rule (10 years in the majors, the last five with one team), and an ugly, heartbreaking drama involving the mismanagement of his finances by his Missouri-based family may make a return to St. Louis a less-than-desirable proposition. Howard and his parents and siblings—who allegedly conspired to defraud him—settled out of court last year, but that's not to say the wounds have healed. One can only wonder what the impact of that saga has had on mental state and in turn, his on-field performance.
All of that is to say: Don't hold your breath on the Cardinals and Phillies making such a move.