Wednesday, March 3, 2010

RBI (Ridiculously Bad Indicator)

Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly reminisced with Felipe Alou recently. They specifically talked about the regrets Alou had during his player days and those as the manager of the Giants. If you’d like to read about that, check out his blog (Extra Baggs) here. Towards the end, Baggarly says…

I’m left with a lot of memories of that ’04 team, which was my first on the Giants beat. Mostly, I look back and wonder how the Giants managed to win 91 games with that roster.

Michael Tucker? Dustan Mohr? Deivi Cruz? Neifi Perez? Herges closing for half a season?

How did this team contend to the final day?*

Oh yeah. Must be that guy who drew 232 walks and had a 1.422 OPS. (And yes, we have every reason to believe Barry Bonds used massive amounts of artificial enhancements that season. But so did a lot of other players and none of them drew 232 walks.)

Bonds’ 2004 season still remains the most impactful I’ve ever seen, or ever will. Without him. That isn’t a .500 team. No way.

As it turned out, the Giants soon discovered what life would be like without an elite-level Bonds – and how many massive deficiencies and fissures in the organization that he covered up for all those years.

*PaapFly: I recall that final day. I also vividly recall the grand slam by Steve Finley. It sticks out nearly as much as that which I’ve unsuccessfully attempted to block out of the 2002 World Series. What I recall the most about the final day of the 2004 season was when the Astros final (and winning) score became official and Bonds was pulled from the game, grabbed his famous black (maple) Sam bats, and reluctantly walked down the tunnel. Bonds knew his chance at a ring was slipping, and so did I and every other Giants fan watching. They’d failed to close the ’02 series against Anaheim despite the 5 run lead in game 6. They’d failed to get past the wild card Marlins (who were bound for their own ring) in 2003. That particular series ended painfully and dramatically with J.T. Snow being thrown out at the plate attempting to score from 2nd on a single, successfully running over Pudge Rodriguez, but his effort was in vain when Pudge clutched the leather red-stitched ball in his hand with the grip of a Boa Constrictor. And they’d failed again (with finality) in 2004. Why finality? We now know that Bonds’ chance wasn’t just slipping by, rather it had irrevocably passed him by.

I recently wrote an article on the issue of parity (or lack there of) in baseball. Using my method, the Giants managed to fall in an area of neutrality, but how? They were neither particularly good at allocating money and playing beyond the limitations of their payroll (such as the Twins and A’s), nor terribly inefficient such as the Mets and Orioles. I posited two reasons: 1) Moneyball (or adequate statistical analysis) wasn’t necessarily implemented widely throughout baseball until the early 2000’s and 2) they had this guy named BARRY BONDS. It seems to me that Baggarly is subscribing to at least a similar theory.

I’d like to get back to Bonds’ historic 2004 season and hopefully provide the verifiable evidence why the popular (and romanticized) statistic, the RBI, is not particularly useful at evaluating the best hitters around. Is it the worst statistic of all time? No, probably not. The problem with it is that it tells us very little, and as I’ve said over and over again, it’s a counting statistic. Accumulating RBI is (almost) completely dictated on opportunity, and thus, if one player is getting a sizable surplus of opportunity in relation to another, it becomes completely unfair (silly, stupid, moronic) to compare the two. I recently heard an argument from a Yankees fan (Libertyboynyc) of the Bronx Brass Tacks blog that J.D. Drew has been a horrible signing because he “…hasn’t batted in a 70th run in three seasons…” among other things. I don’t intend to get into Drew’s statistics. But let’s go down the path of looking at two players who accumulated 101 RBI over a full season of AB’s to determine why such an (attempted) justification to denigrate – which is Libertyboynyc’s favorite word – Drew’s abilities is plainly incorrect.

As you can see, Ruben Sierra accumulated 101 RBI’s in 692 plate appearances (PA’s) and Barry Bonds ended the season with 101 in 617 PA’s. But what else did they do? Bonds more than doubled his HR’s (45 to 22), Bonds struck out fewer times than he went deep (45 HR to 41 K’s), Bonds hit .362 to Sierra’s average of .233. When it gets really interesting is when you see the OBP/SLG/OPS and wOBA. Bonds more than doubled his OBP (.609 to .288); Bonds more than doubled his SLG (.812 to .390) and thus obviously more than doubled his OPS (.678 to 1.422). Sierra’s wOBA was well below average at .296 when Bonds’ was unfathomably high at .538, this when an excellent hitter will have a wOBA around .400. Bonds drew 232 walks that season. You read that right, 232. The 2009 entire Giants roster collectively walked 392 times and Bengie Molina has walked exactly 184 times in his 12 major league seasons. This is a drastic example, yes. But history is riddled with such (albeit less extreme) examples.

So ya, when someone tells me how important knocking in runners and hitting in the clutch is, I can only really scratch my head. There’s so much data out there for us to look through. Why would anyone in their right mind ever limit themselves to RBI? It’s about the last statistic I’d ever care to look at, if at all. The logical and easy answer (I guess) is because it’s been drilled into the fans heads, and fans are clingy. All this seems simple and straightforward to me, you know, considering I myself in the not too distant past would’ve happily and confidently expressed my reverence of a player like Ryan Howard for his ability to drive in runs, or Bengie Molina for that matter. But that veil of ignorance has been lifted.

It’s truly possible to enjoy the game in every way that you always have. There’s no danger of unraveling the mystique and beauty of the game by embracing something new. After all, the only thing in life that’s constant is change. And if along the way you find new found respect for players like Tim Raines and Alan Trammel, well that’s just sweet justice. And if along the way you manage to determine that a number of questionable Hall of Fame inductees just happen to be Yankees, well that’s ok too.

Not convinced? See this material: Joe Posnanski on batting average, HR and RBI and Keith Law on RBI

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