Baseball by the Numbers: RBI randomness

Michael Salfino
Yahoo! Sports

You can find more from Michael Salfino at NESN

The "R" in RBI sometimes stands for "randomness."

How many chances does a hitter get with runners in scoring position? Are you pitched to or pitched around? How far do you vary from your overall average when hitting in these situations?

I will not go so far as to say there is no such thing as clutch hitting. In the entire population of hitters, of course there are some who really do thrive in situations where there is more pressure, who rise to the occasion more than you'd expect precisely because there are runners on base to be plated.

But I'm sure the general public vastly overrates this ability. The hitters who do far better or far worse than we'd expect with runners on base most often are just experiencing random fluctuation caused by the relatively small sample size of at-bats with RISP. When looking at stats, bigger data samples always trump smaller ones.

Let's look first at how opportunities vary. Andre Ethier(notes) is the major league leader now with 189 at-bats plus walks with runners in scoring position. The other hitters with 180 or more are Evan Longoria(notes) (187), Mark Reynolds(notes) (184), Mark Teixeira(notes) (184), Jorge Cantu(notes) (181) and Robinson Cano(notes) (180). Note these totals do not include sacrifice flies.

Cano is hitting .215 with RISP or he'd already have 100 RBIs. But still, his opportunities are so plentiful that his current RBI total (76) is more than respectable, especially for a middle infielder. He's about Even Steven – lucky with RISP and unlucky in having an average in these situations so far below his overall average.

You don't have to play on a good team to get randomly lucky with these opportunities. Jeff Francoeur(notes) has split time this year with the offensively challenged Braves and Mets, yet has the fifth most at-bats with RISP (157). Francoeur RISP plate appearances are lower because he's walked just 10 times. His average is puny: .248 with only two homers, but still good for 53 RBIs.

For those who doubt Joe Mauer's(notes) MVP credentials, consider that he's hitting great with RISP, too, (.364/.465/.616) but is tied for 33rd in RBIs with RISP because he has just 121 at-bats plus walks in these situations.

Other good hitters who have hit well in these situations but who have gotten bad luck in opportunities (often due to where they're placed in the lineup) are Yunel Escobar(notes) (121, 1.147 OPS), Michael Bourn(notes) (109, 1.075), Derek Lee (142, 1.054 OPS), Ian Kinsler(notes) (100, 1.022), Ryan Ludwick(notes) (140, 1.014), Jorge Posada(notes) (110, .951), Chone Figgins(notes) (139, .945), Jason Kubel(notes) (137, .943), Brian McCann(notes) (121, .938) and Adam Kennedy(notes) (105, .892).

On the other end of the spectrum, here are the guys who got a little lucky in having the ducks on the pond – lowest OPS while still being in the MLB top 40 in RBIs with RISP (because they get so many chances): Jhonny Peralta(notes) (.704), Jorge Cantu (.751), James Loney(notes) (.815), Ryan Zimmerman(notes) (.815), Matt Kemp(notes) (.828), Juan Rivera(notes) (.828), Victor Martinez(notes) (.829) and Ethier (.844).

The other interesting stat is batting average with RISP minus overall average.

The guys who are hitting much better with RISP than overall are Escobar (plus-87 points), Bourn (plus-87), Kennedy (plus-82) and Bobby Abreu(notes) (plus-80).

Conversely, the guys doing far worse with RISP than overall are Cano (minus-101 average points with RISP) and Mike Napoli(notes) (minus-88). The only other guys I could find who are at least 60 average points on the minus side are Ivan Rodriguez(notes) (minus-63) and J.D. Drew(notes) (minus-60).

Now let's make some recommendations with an eye toward 2010.

Buy

Albert Pujols(notes), Cardinals: Not really a recommendations but I must note how he's been walked 51 times with runners in scoring position versus just nine Ks. I know that the numbers say you're always better off pitching to a hitter no matter how great. But then I'm not standing 60-feet, six-inches away from this one-man wrecking crew.

Prince Fielder(notes), Brewers: He has a 1.056 OPS with RISP. His 83 RBIs in these situations are one behind league-leader Ryan Howard(notes). But which slugger is the tougher out? Consider that with RISP, Fielder has 32 walks and 26 Ks versus 23 and 57 for Howard.

Hold

Adrian Gonzalez(notes), Padres: He's given the Pujols treatment, to Kevin Kouzmanoff's(notes) benefit. But A-Gon is hitting just .238 with RISP, so the 48 walks don't really make much sense. Gonzalez has some holes in his swing and doesn't deserve this supreme level of respect.

Sell

Chipper Jones(notes), Braves: He has 37 walks and 18 Ks with RISP, but has an overall OPS of .839. The overall counting stats were supposed to be for an injured year, but Jones hasn't been on the DL once (yet).