Sac Flies and RBIs Are the New Market Inefficiency

I am a longtime reader, first time commenter or contributor. As a reporter, I cover education and sometimes politics. I am rarely willing to work for free, but over the years I have spent reading the comment section exclusively on LGT, there are a few areas where I believe groupthink has created blindspots. Also, I’m pretty sure Schlicting took this week’s Fanpost Friday idea from a comment I made on his Facebook Q&A, so I feel called out. Thanks for making me work extra, Schlicting.

The most perplexing bits of virtue-signaling that is regularly done in these parts involves a ritualistic assault against the counting of Runs Batted In, or RBIs. The stat’s obvious flaws make dismissing it easy: it can make an average player on a great team appear to be as good or better than a world-beater on a terrible team. Also Rick Manning and Hawk Harrelson will defend its use.

The whole-cloth dismissal of the RBI, however, throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Hidden in the stat is the recognition that some hitters do a better job of situational hitting than others. While I don’t have the bandwidth to run the numbers and prove this to you, common sense and listening to hitters that have actually played the game tell us this is a thing that is true.

In late 2013 with a runner on third and less than two-outs, I’d be willing to bet that the average Indians fan would have been happy to see Jason Giambi stroll to the plate. Not because of his 83 OPS+, but because chances were he was going to figure out a way to get the runner home. A good run producer in that situation looks for a pitch they can elevate and get the runner in on a sacrifice fly ball. If memory serves, Giambi, despite being a poor all-around hitter on the wrong side of 40, demonstrated an uncanny ability in those last weeks to produce runs when the opportunities arose. It’s how he squeezed out 31 RBIs in 216 plate appearances.

While a sac fly or an RBI groundout does not positively contribute to OPS, I would argue that in many cases, late in close games, successfully trading an out for a run is one of the most important plays a hitter can make—and many are able to do it intentionally. It can be the difference between winning and losing a game, which can make the difference between winning and losing a division.

I already know that many of you will counter that hitting outcomes are unrelated to in-game situations. A purely statistical reading of the game would argue that a career 333 OBP player can be expected to get aboard exactly a third of the time, regardless of who is on base, what inning it is, or what city the game is being played in. While I sympathize with where you are coming from, I respectfully disagree.

Humans with real emotions that impact their performance play baseball. If you were to run the numbers, I can almost guarantee that you’d find that some hitters outperform their baseline stats when faced with RBI opportunities, while others are more likely to wilt and strikeout.

So yes, the RBI as currently constructed is flawed. But that just means that the SABR community needs to find a better measure of scoring chances converted. It’s a tall order, as there are a lot of moving parts. A player should be rewarded more for driving runs in from first than from third, or with no one on. An RBI registered with a runner on third and two outs is a mightier feat than one registered with one out (as the latter scenario rewards sacrifice outs while the former precludes them). Common sense would also tell us that getting aboard through a walk or a hit that doesn’t score a run should be counted as a neutral, or minor plus for adding stress and congestion on the base-paths. Grounding into a double play, on the other hand, should be punished as doubly bad.

Consider an analogy to football. Total offensive yards is a good indicator of an offense's quality. But people still pay attention to rates of red zone success. Not much use to have an offense that moves the ball up and down the field, then stalls out every time it gets close and only comes away with field goals. A smart coach that diagnoses a problem with red zone offense might put in different packages or plays to adapt to what the defense is showing them in that situation, in the same way that a smart hitting coach may notice how pitchers are attacking a slugger differently depending on what the in-game situation is.

In its ant-conventional-RBI zealotry, the SABR community has inexplicably decided to stop measuring run production and situational hitting. If I were putting together a roster, I’d want to know which of my players is most likely to get a run in from third or second consistently. Imagine if it were late in a tie game, runner on third, one out in Interleague and the pitcher’s spot comes up. You can pinch-hit an 800 OPS player or a 650 OPS player—obviously you go with the 800 OPS player. But what if a deeper dive shows that the 650 OPS player gets the runner in 55 percent of the time, while the 800 OPS player only gets it done 40 percent of the time. Wouldn’t you want to have that data at your fingertips? For all its flaws, the RBI is the closest thing that I am aware of to a baseball stat that would measure that kind of thing over the course of a season. Especially if you are dividing RBIs over plate appearances—and I would imagine that there are easy ways to iterate on improving that denominator easily and intelligently.

Just to belabor the point, I’d be willing to bet that some skilled hitters are better at getting results with the infield in, or others might be particularly good at directing grounders to the right side of the infield that might also be more likely to score a run in certain situations. The bottom line is that it would be valuable to have a stat that measures runs produced divided by some measure of run producing chances. This would control for RBI’s problems: team quality and lineup positioning—and would ensure apples to apples comparisons.

Also, I get that you people love walks, but lets be honest, a single is almost always more valuable than a walk. I’ll always take a player that hits 10 singles a week over a player that racks up 5 singles and 5 walks a week.

Also, also, I dislike Carlos Santana. Sue me. He’s been quite good the past year and a half, so it is increasingly difficult to justify this position, but I will anyway. A big part of it is aesthetic. I remember months at the time where he managed to eat on little more than plate discipline and that wild loping ugly swing that would come up empty again, and again, and again. He’s a big misshapen fellow who can’t field and has been linked to claims of a poor work ethic. From the looks of it, he also goes through about a tin of Grizzly a day. I’ll take Frankie’s quick short stroke, hustle, and infectious smile anytime.

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