There's a lot more to baseball statistics than the Big Three
If you are about my age*, then you grew up as a baseball fan with three statistics and only three statistics. There was batting average. There were home runs runs. And there were RBIs. That was it.
It would be difficult to overstate how deeply those three statistics were burned into our baseball fan psyche. Every single time we would watch a game on television, we would see those three same stats, always the same three stats, listed below the batter, usually in large blocky letters so that it looked like so:
Often, they would put the numbers across the screen, horizontally -- but no matter the design, it was still the same three numbers. But it wasn't just on television. The newspapers would only list those numbers. And every time you would hear a game on the radio, the announcer in (I suspect) every single town would give the player's name followed by the those three numbers: "That will bring up
Same numbers in the same order every time.
Baseball cards would have a couple more numbers on the back, but not many more. In the early-to-mid 1970s, when I started collecting cards, the only numbers they had on the back other than the core three: at-bats, hits, doubles and triples. It wasn't until 1977 that Topps even put
My point is we were
I think it's good, every so often, to consider how deeply batting average, homers and RBIs are cut into our baseball DNA. Those were more or less the only numbers we were even
The funny part is that even after you appreciate that there is a bigger baseball world, it's very hard to completely break away from what you grew up with. Sure, I
So what's wrong with a baseball world filled only with batting average, homers and RBIs? OK, well, I think everyone here can appreciate why on-base percentage is so much more telling than batting average. I've written at length on this, like everyone else has, but to put it simply: Batting average -- for reasons that go back more than 100 years -- does not incorporate walks. On-base percentage
In my view, walks, even now, even after
OK, so, the all-time record for total bases in a season is Babe Ruth with 457 in 1921. That's a massive season. If you tack on his 145 walks and the four times he was hit by a pitch (Four hit-by-pitch? That's all? Hey does someone want to move the Babe off the plate or something?), you get 606 grand total bases, which is the most in baseball history.
If they had walked the Babe every single time, he would have had 693 grand total bases, which would be, you know, more.
If they had walked Bonds every single time that season -- and Lord knows they tried -- he would have had 617 grand total-bases.
Ted Williams in 1941 hit .406 with 37 homers, 147 walks, a .735 slugging percentage. His grand total bases was 485.
If they had walked the Splinter every time, he would have had 606 grand total bases.
So it's pretty simple. Walks are a critical part of the game. The best on-base guys reach base about 270-300 times per season and more than a third of those are on walks. Batting average does not consider walks. So there you go: It's pretty clear to see that batting average is a very flawed statistic -- it's a bit like calculating a quarterback passer rating for every pass he makes
OK, the second part of the equation -- home runs are obviously very important. But I think that our obsession with counting home runs has probably skewed our view of the good power hitter. Former Royals manager
Then there are RBIs. Whew. RBIs. It is interesting to me that, for about as long as baseball has been played, people have viewed RBIs as more important than runs scored. It really seems to me that it should be at tie, or, if anything, it should be the other way around. After all, to
1. Get on base.
There are no other ways to score a run. You have to do those three things. Of course there are cheap and easy ways to get on base (by error, fielder's choice, catcher's interference, etc.). There are cheap and easy ways to get around the bases (wild pitch, balk, error, etc.) and there are cheap and easy ways to score runs (trotting around on someone else's home run, scoring on a passed ball, etc.). But you still have to accomplish those three feats, and the likelihood of scoring a run without doing something good is pretty low. More often than not it takes multiple skills to score a run.
Meanwhile, knocking in a run requires only one act: Hitting a baseball in such a way that a runner scores. That's all. Sometimes this means driving yourself in by hitting a home run. Sometimes this means getting a huge clutch hit with runners in scoring position and two outs. Often enough it means hitting a fly ball with a runner on third base -- the only time a fly ball is worth anything. Often enough it means hitting a routine ground ball with the infield back -- the only time a routine ground ball is worth anything. Often enough it means getting a hit against a mop-up pitcher with the game out of reach.
The point is: What takes more overall skill? I think you could argue pretty persuasively that -- and we're talking generally here -- scoring the run takes more skill. And yet the RBI has been the statistic of choice for a long time. The RBI, obviously, has a better press agent.
There are so many problems with judging a player by RBIs. Do you know who the best, the absolute best, RBI man in baseball was last year -- assuming that by "RBI man" we are talking about the player who most efficiently drove in runners on base? I suppose many of you do know because this blog is based in Kansas City, but for the rest of you it will probably come as a bit of a shock: The answer is
Of course you will point out that DeJesus only had 73 RBIs, less than half of Ryan Howard's total. Where are all those extra RBIs coming from? They are easy to locate:
-- Ryan Howard hit 48 home runs to DeJesus' 12. So that's 36 more RBIs right off the top.
-- DeJesus was usually the leadoff hitter for a Royals team that mostly had
So who in the heck did DeJesus have to drive in? Nobody, that's the answer. David DeJesus had only 284 runners on base when he came to the plate. Ryan Howard had 199 more baserunners -- 483.
That's a huge difference. Put it this way: If David DeJesus has performed exactly the way he did, only with Ryan Howard's men-on-base, he would have had 114 RBIs last year. And that's assuming he still hit only 12 home runs. If you want to be kind and give him another eight home runs -- not unreasonable, considering he would have gotten out of cavernous Kauffman Stadium -- then he might have had 125 RBIs or 130 RBIs. And suddenly people would be saying David DeJesus -- doing not much more than he did this year -- was the league MVP.
RBIs are just so much about circumstance. I'll give you another great Ryan Howard statistic -- and I don't mean to keep picking on Howard, but he's just in the middle of all this because he led the major leagues in homers and RBIs.
So, we know that Ryan Howard drove in 146 runs. Do you know what Howard hit in those situations called late and close -- that would be seventh inning or later with the score close (tied, within one run, tying run on base, at the plate or on deck)? Now, remember, this is the guy who
Ryan Howard came up late-and-close 124 times. He hit... .158 in those situations. He on-based .306. He slugged .337.
That is not Tony Pena. But it's the nicer house in his neighborhood.*
Does this mean Ryan Howard cannot hit in the clutch? Absolutely not. In 2006, when Howard had a massive year, he hit .290/.436/.613 in late and close. No, it just means that those RBI totals, while they are nice to look at, don't tell you very much.