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.
*You might also groan when you get out of a chair and get just a little bit too excited when you come across some nostalgic thing you had forgotten all about like Lite-Brite or the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast or Wacky Packages. And right about now you are humming the Superfriends theme.
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:
Graig Nettles.267 avg.21 home runs91 RBI
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 Sixto Lezcano, Sixto's hitting .273 on the year, 21 homers, 49 runs batted in."
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 runs on the back on cards. In 1978 they added games. In 1981, around that time when the Donruss and Fleer cards started to offer some competition, Topps added stolen bases, slugging percentage (what was this slugging voodoo?) walks and strikeouts. And that's how it stayed until my Cleveland Indians card collection runs out in 1987.
My point is we were inundated with batting average, homers and RBIs. We were inoculated with batting average, homers and RBIs. We were brainwashed with batting average, homers and RBIs -- those are, for kids of my generation, like the queen of diamonds in The Manchurian Candidate. If someone called me up right now and said, "Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire," and I looked at my baseball cards, and came across batting average, homers and RBIs, yeah, I'd probably be programmed to kill.
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 allowed to consider. Why do you think Bill James was such a seminal figure -- it's because he so clearly and concisely and hilariously was able to slap our faces and show us that, yeah, there was more out there, a bigger world. He was like the baseball version of Morpheus for us. Red pill or blue pill. Blue pill you can stick with your core statistics and believe that Steve Garvey had a good season in 1984 and Andre Dawson deserved his '87 MVP. Red pill and you can see beyond: .279, 14, 74.
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 know that on-base percentage is a more compelling statistic than batting average, and yet I find myself looking at batting average first. I know that home runs, while significant, do not give as complete a picture of a batter's power as slugging percentage does ... but I am built to look at the home run number and make judgments. I know that RBIs give an utterly incomplete picture of a baseball player's hitting talent, but I cannot help but feel a bit of admiration when I see that someone had 97 ribbies.*
*That would be Jose Guillen. I KNOW that Jose Guillen was one of the worst everyday players in the American League last year. I know this. He's an awful fielder. He can't, and often doesn't, run. He had a .300 on-base percentage, which is abominable (third-worst among corner outfielders). He had a .438 slugging percentage which is barely one step above abominable for a guy who was signed for $12 million per so he could hit with power. He was a total pain in the Hillman. And while he had a smoking hot 44-game stretch in the middle of the year (.380/.391/.659 with 10 home runs ... and, yeah, two walks), the other 109 games he was, no exaggeration, the worst player in baseball. He hit .215/.263/.344 as a lousy fielding corner outfielder with an attitude ... you simply can't pay enough for that kind of dreadfulness.
BUT ... I can't help it. I see those 97 RBIs and, against my will, I find myself reverting to childhood and involuntarily thinking, "Hey, that's a lot of ribbies." A person my age cannot help this, it's impulse and reflex . It's like if you go up to anybody my age, anyone, and start that Muppet Show song -- you know "Me-nah-me-nah" -- they will, without wanting to, respond with "Doo-doooo-doo-do-do." It's in our genes.
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 does incorporate walks. There's your difference. Walks are very good things for a hitter. Very good things. Important things. Significant things. Very significant things.
In my view, walks, even now, even after Moneyball, are wildly underrated. One of the many cool things Bill James has shown -- and others have shown it in different ways as well -- is that if a player could walk every at-bat, he would be the most productive player in baseball history. And that would be true no matter how brutal the players around him might be. Someone who walked every time -- and I remember reading a kids' book about the possibility, The Kid Who Batted 1.000 -- would be more productive than Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth or Ted Williams in their greatest seasons. Bill and others proved this in really cool and dramatic ways -- I believe Bill even set up some computer simulation to prove the point. I don't know how to to do computer simulations, but I should be able to demonstrate this in a few short sentences:
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.
Barry Bonds in 2004 -- the year he had that sick .609 on-base percentage -- had 303 total bases along with 232 walks (amazing) and nine hit-by pitch. That's a grand total of 544 bases (total bases plus walks plus hit-by pitch).
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 except when he throws to the running backs or the tight end.*
*Well, you know how much I love creating new statistics ... what about "Grand Total Bases?" That would be total bases plus walks plus hit-by-pitch:
2008 leaders in GTB1. Albert Pujols, 4512. David Wright, 4323. MannyBManny, 4304. Grady Sizemore, 4275. Mark Teixeira, 4216. Lance Berkman, 4207. Hanley Ramirez, 4188. Chase Utley, 4169. Ryan Howard, 41510. Josh Hamilton, 40211. Carlos Beltran, 396
And in 2007:1. Alex Rodriguez, 4922. Matt Holliday, 4593. Prince Fielder, 4584. David Ortiz, 4565. Jimmy Rollins, 4366. Oh-wee-oh Magglio, 4327. David Wright, 4308. Albert Pujols, 4279. Ryan Howard, 42110. Carlos Pena, 420
And over the last 25 years:1. Barry Bonds, 2001, 5972. Mark McGwire, 1998, 5513. Sammy Sosa, 2001, 5474. Barry Bonds, 2004, 5445. Luis Gonzalez, 2001, 5336. Carlos Delgado, 2000, 5167. Todd Helton, 2000, 5128. Todd Helton, 2001, 5059. Larry Walker, 1997, 50110. Ryan Howard, 2006, 500
Anyway, I think it's interesting.
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 Tony Muser and others have made the semi-comical, semi-interesting assertion that doubles are sometimes better than home runs because they keep rallies going and keep the pressure on pitchers, and while I I would not go there I would say that doubles are another underrated part of baseball.
Ryan Howard hit 48 homers last year, which led the major leagues, and so you would think he was the most powerful hitter around. But he only hit 26 doubles and his .543 slugging percentage placed him seventh in the National League. so he was, in fact, not the most powerful hitter. He was the best home run hitter. But that's not the same thing.
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 score a run you have to:
1. Get on base.2. Work your way around the bases.3. Score the run.
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 David DeJesus. Last season DeJesus drove in 21.5% of the runners that were on base when he came to the plate. That was a better percentage than Josh Hamilton, better percentage than Ryan Howard, better than Kevin Youkilis, better than anyone.
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 Tony Pena, Joey Gathright, John Buck or Ross Gload hitting in front of him. The Royals' bottom three in the order hit:
7th: .245/.288/.3648th: .252/.310/.3579th: .233/.281/.285
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 led the league in RBIs. So you could take away from that that he must have hit well in the clutch, he must have knocked in runs when the team needed them, he must have performed at his best when the game was on the line.
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.*
*Or to put it in Monopoly terms -- it's like a hotel on Baltic.
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.