10 Degrees: The hard truth about RBIs

Jeff Passan
·MLB columnist

Let’s talk about RBIs. This is going to be a frank discussion, with no room for sentiment, dogma or any of the other things fostering the propaganda that crowns a Most Valuable Player because he leads baseball in a statistic with ever-waning relevance to such conversations.

Late Saturday night, a few hours after Toronto Blue Jays star Josh Donaldson drove in six runs to hit the 100-RBI threshold this season, the promotion of his MVP candidacy cranked into overdrive. The confluence of a fantastic game, a monster second half and particularly an unhealthy obsession with round numbers launched the Donaldson-vs.-Mike Trout MVP debate that seems likelier and likelier to dominate the final six weeks of the season.

Mike Trout has 73 RBIs in 123 games this season. (Getty)
Mike Trout has 73 RBIs in 123 games this season. (Getty)

There is no wrong choice between the two. Donaldson has been brilliant. Trout has been glorious. They’re the two best players in the American League this season. Nobody else is particularly close.

Because of that, the backers of each begin looking for something, anything, to differentiate them. We’ve seen this before, of course, in the Trout-vs.-Miguel Cabrera disputes over which many kilobytes were spilled. Runs batted in played a starring role in winning Cabrera the 2012-13 MVPs that Trout deserved, and they’re back wreaking havoc once again and necessitating the following treatise.

The problem with RBIs isn’t RBIs themselves. As a whole, they are incredibly valuable. About 95 percent of runs scored come from RBIs. The problem starts when applying this reality to an environment without context. And for an example of that, and other thoughts about RBIs that need debunking, let’s turn to the responses to a tweet that suggested “Let’s stop talking RBIs.”

This is accurate. It also conflates runs with comparing RBIs from player to player, which can be an apples-and-oranges appraisal, as it is with Donaldson vs. Trout.

RBIs are a team-dependent statistic. They often say as much about a situation in which a hitter finds himself as they do a hitter himself. Going into Sunday – as are all the forthcoming statistics – 72.55 percent of RBIs this season came in situations with runners in scoring position. Over the last decade, that number jumps to 73.61 percent. The best RBI men need opportunity to validate their quality.

Donaldson came into Sunday with 133 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, the 20th most in baseball. Trout came in with 100 – ranked 127th out of 179 hitters qualified for the batting title.

Ah, clutch. The presumption, because Donaldson has 28 more RBIs than Trout, is that he has somehow possessed more fortitude in situations that call for as much. Donaldson, in those plate appearances with RISP, is hitting .375/459/.654, after all. He is, by most measures, among the top five hitters in baseball this season in such situations. He’s got great company. Andrew McCutchen. Paul Goldschmidt. Cabrera. And the undisputed best with RISP: Mike Trout. In his 100 plate appearances, he’s hitting .347/.510/.708.

Now, this is not the only measure. In so-called “late and close” situations – seventh inning or later, with the hitter’s team up one, tied or with the potential tying run on base, at the plate or on deck – Donaldson is hitting .254/.324/.460 and Trout .262/.378/.590. On the other hand, in tie games, Donaldson is .352/.422/.789 and Trout just .234/.331/.544.

Here’s the point: Donaldson has been very good in high-leverage situations this year. So has Trout. One just gets a lot more opportunity than the other, and because of that one statistic that’s misleading without vital context, it gets presented as such anyway.

This is like arguing the best pitchers in baseball history are the ones with the most wins. RBIs are like wins for hitters. Stick around long enough as a good player, and you’re bound to pile them up. Over the course of a career, they speak to reasonable productivity and impressive longevity. In one season, they are desperately misleading.

Quick: Name the best player on the Houston Astros. Carlos Correa, right? Next? Jose Altuve. Then? George Springer or Carlos Gomez. And Preston Tucker and Jed Lowrie and Colby Rasmus. On and on you can go, through a full lineup, before you get to Evan Gattis, who leads the Astros in RBIs by 12. He is arguably their worst position player – and just so happens to have 24 more plate appearances with RISP than any teammate.

Having a lot of RBIs isn’t a bad thing. This is not to take away from Donaldson; he has been spectacular this year. It just isn’t anywhere near the best way to judge a player, not when we know as much as we do about the game and what really matters.

If the win is the RBI’s evil twin brother, this is their crazy uncle: the playoff argument. To reward a player for his teammates’ competence epitomizes unfairness. Choose on the merits of what a player did for his team, not what his team did for the player.

Oh. Like the difference between Trout’s on-base percentage (.391) and Donaldson’s (.369) that seems to be ignored when comparing the two?

And this is the problem. The institutional ingraining of RBIs is difficult to break. It is an extremely relatable statistic, something everybody understands, and because of that broadcasters are loath to skip over it and writers continue to advocate for it.

This is not an effort to kill the RBI. When trying to parse an individual game – to understand how and why it was won – it can be vital: a hitter coming through at an opportune time. Every RBI is different, though, and while some specific ones sear themselves into our minds, it’s best to take the entirety of a season as the truest arbiter of superiority – and opportunity.

The intent of this is to promote greater understanding of what truly matters, not what used to matter or what we’ve convinced ourselves matters. This is far from some sabermetric infiltration trying to mainstream statistics with complicated formulas. It’s instead an appeal to logic – to understanding that there are so many great reasons to advocate for …

Josh Donaldson is on the shortlist for the AL MVP award. (Getty)
Josh Donaldson is on the shortlist for the AL MVP award. (Getty)

1. Josh Donaldson as AL MVP, and to fall back on RBIs as the reason to cast a vote for him overlooks all of the other great things about him. A vote for Donaldson is a vote for someone who ranks second in the American League in home runs and slugging percentage (both behind Nelson Cruz) and plays a spectacular third base on the goofiest surface in the major leagues.

It is a vote for someone who has destroyed pitchers with runners in scoring position – a pretty wonderful quality regardless of the number of plate appearances in such situations – and a vote for someone who’s Trout’s superior in a number of categories, albeit by slight margins. Even though games in April count every bit as much as games in August, it’s worth noting that Donaldson’s post-All-Star Game ascendance (.325/.417/.742) has coincided with …

2. Mike Trout on pace to post the worst month of his career. Before his 3-for-4 afternoon Sunday, Trout in August was hitting .176/.315/.270. His previous low OPS for a full month: .766. He still plays an up-the-middle position well, is a strong baserunner, gets on base at a higher clip than Donaldson and is right there with him in slugging percentage. His case coming into August was great. His case as the month ends is still quite compelling, outside of one issue that only a strong end of the season can mend.

The narrative train is rumbling right into a tied-to-the-tracks Trout. The Angels stink and have dipped behind the Rangers in the standings while the Blue Jays have ascended to the top of the AL East. Donaldson headlines a modern-day Murderer’s Row atop the Blue Jays’ lineup while Trout is surrounded by veritable jaywalkers. And because Trout is such a favorite among the number-oriented set, it by default sends those afraid of statistics and in need of a contrarian candidate scrambling to Donaldson – who, funny enough, was a sabermetric darling long before the mainstream adopted him.

For all of Trout’s troubles, he knows it could be worse. Glance about 30 miles northwest, and the …

3. Los Angeles Dodgers are in complete free fall. Losers of five in a row and 17 of 33 since the All-Star game, they’re coming off a three-game sweep at the hands of Houston in which they allowed just nine runs – and scored three.

“I hope we’re panicking,” Clayton Kershaw told reporters Sunday after eight innings of one-run ball with 10 strikeouts weren’t enough to prevent Houston from walking off the Dodgers in the 10th inning. Getting no-hit by Mike Fiers on Friday was injurious enough. This was just insulting, and the Dodgers are lucky the Giants have been every bit as mediocre as them in recent weeks.

Going into Sunday, Dodgers pitchers not named Kershaw or Zack Greinke combined for a 5.47 ERA in the second half. That’s 19 pitchers – yes, the Dodgers have cycled through 21 since the break already – whose cumulative ERA would be the second worst, ahead only of the Rockies’ 6.27.

Still, the Dodgers are in first place, so it’s not like they’ve got …

4. Washington Nationals-level panic going on quite yet. The Nationals’ trouble is even worse than the Dodgers’, not just because they’re in second place but because the wild card is looking more and more like an impossibility.

At one game over .500, the Nationals aren’t just five games behind NL East-leading New York. They’re 9½ back of the Chicago Cubs, who hold the second wild card. And they’re also behind the second-place team in the West, currently the Giants, who are up on them 3½ games. And they’re even tied with the Diamondbacks, who have snuck onto the periphery of the playoff push.

Certainly 39 games gives the Nationals a chance to make a run. The Mets don’t seem all that worried, with …

5. Matt Harvey spending Sunday on the bench instead of atop the mound during his regular turn in the rotation. While Harvey hasn’t been the ace the Mets saw before he underwent Tommy John surgery – that title now belongs to Jacob deGrom – his return season has been a rousing success, among the best ever right off of a Tommy John, and the Mets are trying to save his arm for the postseason with an innings cap that necessitates starts skipped like Sunday’s.

It’s not an imprudent move, per se. It’s also not proven, by any means, to help a player stay healthy long-term. The Mets are guessing with Harvey, much like other teams are guessing with their Tommy John cases, and if he stays healthy it will validate a method that might just work because of Harvey’s particular body makeup and not the protocol itself.

When the Mets win, like they did Sunday in Colorado, they breathe deep, knowing that if the Nationals do make a run they can’t blame skipping Harvey like so many do the downfall of Washington when it benched Stephen Strasburg in the playoffs after his Tommy John. Baseball errs on the side of caution with just about everything, which is why it was so incredible to see …

6. Justin Verlander pleading with Major League Baseball over the weekend to erect netting around the field after a fan was injured on a foul ball hit into the stands.

On Sunday, a day after Verlander’s tweet, a fan was stretchered off at Wrigley Field after a foul ball hit her. We’ve covered this before, and nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes. Baseball is afraid of aggrieving season-ticket holders who pay premium dollars for seats near the field in foul territory, and they don’t want something as foreign as safety netting getting in the way.

Just because precedent in court cases gives baseball a way to slither out of liability when fans are injured at stadiums does not mitigate the league’s responsibility to provide the most accommodating, welcoming, safe environment for the people who consume its product. Hard, 5-ounce projectiles flying toward prone people at 100 mph-plus serves absolutely no purpose. It does not make the atmosphere any better. It is positively negligent, particularly when a solution as easy as netting exists.

Japan does it. Minor league teams do it. Fans sitting behind home plate do so with netting and don’t seem to mind. When a player with gravitas like Verlander chooses to throw his weight behind the matter, it deserves attention that it’s not getting.

Every game that goes by without netting brings MLB that much closer to an injury that could’ve been avoided, and not making this an immediate priority is unconscionable. When someone who hits the ball as hard as …

Joey Votto sends a lot of foul balls into the stands. But his teammate is worse. (Getty)
Joey Votto sends a lot of foul balls into the stands. But his teammate is worse. (Getty)

7. Joey Votto has 321 foul balls this season and hard-hitting teammate Todd Frazier leads baseball with 414, according to BaseballSavant.com, thousands upon thousands of balls imperil fans who have little to no recourse.

Granted, Votto isn’t exactly missing much lately. Since the All-Star break, no hitter in baseball has been better, none particularly close. His .398 batting average is tops among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances in that time. His .726 slugging percentage is fifth. As impressive as both are, they pale to the Votto special: a .561 on-base percentage.

Think about that. Every time Votto has come to the plate for five weeks, he’s had a better-than-average chance of ending up on base. Votto has drawn 41 walks since the break, far and away the most in baseball, some Bonds-level stuff. He’s so beyond everyone else that …

8. Dexter Fowler is second to Votto in walks and OBP since the break, and he’s 11 free passes and 109 points behind. It’s everything the Cubs needed, of course, and it’s no surprise that since Fowler broke out at the top of the lineup, they’ve been damn near unstoppable.

Starting off Fowler-Kyle Schwarber-Kris Bryant-Anthony Rizzo, as they tend to against left-handers, isn’t exactly like the Blue Jays. It is dangerous, though, and tossing in righty-killing Chris Coghlan when one is on the mound doesn’t take away from that. The Cubs’ offense is what hindered them in the first half. They’re a hell of a test case in the second half, with the most strikeouts to go along with the most walks.

The Cubs look and play young, which is where Fowler, a free agent who might be playing himself into some big money, comes in. Getting on base at a 45 percent clip gives Schwarber so many chances to look good, and if not him Rizzo and Bryant and the rest of Chicago’s deep lineup. Walking is chicken soup for the baseball soul. Walking and hitting for power like …

9. Miguel Sano does is rocket fuel. Sano hit another home run Sunday, his 11th in just over a month with the Minnesota Twins, and while his strikeouts do predict something of a slump once pitchers adjust, Sano’s plate discipline makes him look better and better.

He regularly pummels balls at 100 mph-plus, a level few players reach consistently. His walk rate of 16.2 percent is seventh among players with at least 175 plate appearances. Slugging .582 isn’t shabby, either. And if the Twins can find some way to play him in the field – he has acquitted himself well in seven games at third base – then Sano has a chance to join …

10. Josh Donaldson in future MVP races. For now, it is the Bringer of Rain vs. the Watcher of Rain, and if the finish were today, it would require photos from 50 angles.

Even the dueling Wins Above Replacement metrics disagree. FanGraphs gives Donaldson 7.1 wins to Trout’s 6.8 while Baseball-Reference has Trout over Donaldson 7.1 to 7.0. Perhaps it’s a cop out, but it’s true: Rather than say who’s MVP today, it’s best to see this as a six-week bake-off.

Just please don’t be the person who, during that time, tries to argue for Donaldson’s superiority based on his RBIs. Because you know who else wouldn’t do that? Josh Donaldson.

“It’s cool to have it done,” Donaldson told reporters when asked about reaching his 100th RBI, “but without my teammates and the guys who are getting on base, it’s not possible.”

Legacy stats like RBIs and wins have a place in baseball. It’s just not at the forefront where both exist now. To understand this takes an open mind, and for some that’s too much to ask. Those who want to better appreciate the game and how the story of the season exists not in cobbled-together moments but averages that better reflect its ebbs and flows will understand that lending credence to raw RBIs without considering any of the other factors is like offering a weather report with just the temperature.

Context matters, and if the Baseball Writers Association of America wants to hand somebody an award based on his teammates’ value … well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Here’s hoping the last comes sooner than later.

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