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Hanley Ramirez knocked in five runs in yesterday's season opener, highlighting how badly he's underachieved in that category due only to batting leadoff.
Once health permits, another famous leadoff hitter – Ichiro – is rumored to be in line for a move to the third spot like Ramirez. What's the likely benefit? A formula created by Bill James and referenced in his new, "The Bill James Gold Mine 2009," precisely estimates RBI with a simple formula – (total bases divided by four) plus home runs.
The formula allows us to see how many RBI these and other guys lost and gained. If you are a big believer in clutch hitting, you can reasonably attribute some of the variance of non-cleanup guys to that. But then you're still left with the number of opportunities hitters get with the ducks on the pond.
David Wright's 2008 is a fascinating case study. He hit .243 with runners in scoring position. But had 189 at bats with RISP, the most in the majors. If you assume that his poor average in these spots was random bad luck (he hit .310 and .365 with RISP in 2008 and 2007, respectively), it's almost perfectly compensated by the good fortune of all those opportunities. Wright should have had 117 RBI last year, just six percent less than actual and about the average variance of four percent between James's formula and actual RBI for all the players in our sample (everyone with 100-plus total bases last year).
Hanley Ramirez is clearly better suited to feasting while others set the table. In a neutral lineup/batting position, he would have knocked in 112 runs (assuming the same total bases and home runs). But Suzuki seems ill-suited to bat third; he would have knocked in just 72 runs in a more optimal slot. Once back from his bleeding ulcer, Suzuki should remain a leadoff hitter.
There's talk in Detroit of Curtis Granderson getting more time in the No. 3 slot now that newly acquired and speedy Josh Anderson can serve as a plausible leadoff man. Granderson would have knocked in only 90 runs last year in a more RBI-friendly slot. So that's a borderline call.
Grady Sizemore, though, would have knocked in 112 like Ramirez, too, off last year's total bases and home run numbers – about 25 percent more than he actually plated as Cleveland's leadoff man.
Which batters were most fortunate in having RBI totals inflated by good fortune (clutchiness and/or opportunities) and who suffered an RBI recession given their power stats?
The notable non-table setter hitters in the latter (unlucky) group: Kurt Suzuki (estimated 56 RBI, 33 percent more than actual), Jay Bruce (68, plus-30 percent) , Ty Wigginton (74, plus-27 percent), Edwin Encarnacion (85, plus-25 percent), J.J. Hardy (92, plus-24 percent), Mark Teahen (72, plus-23 percent), Kelly Shoppach (66, plus-21 percent), Brian Giles (76, plus-21 percent), Ryan Zimmerman (61, plus-20 percent).
Lucky guys of note last year were Jed Lowrie (estimated 28 RBI, 39 percent less than actual), Jesus Flores (38, minus-35 percent), Ryan Garko (64, minus-29 percent), Justin Morneau (101, minus-22 percent) and Bengie Molina (75, minus-21 percent).
Let's look at early batting order trends to make some RBI-only recommendations.
Khalil Greene, SS, Cardinals: Batting cleanup behind Albert Pujols will make for lots of RBI opportunities because no one will pitch to Pujols now in a big spot. Greene also has Ryan Ludwick (37 homers last year) behind him, so the pitches should be fat.
Hank Blalock, DH, Rangers: Qualifies at third. Blalock has slugged .500 two years in a row when healthy. The threat of platooning with Andruw Jones looms, but Jones looks done to me. Blalock gets the cleanup spot in a great hitting environment when he plays, which should be often.
Nate McLouth, OF, Pirates: He hit third often last year but struggled there (.394 slugging in 53 games). This could be sample-size related or a sign that he presses when given more slugging responsibility.
Travis Snider, OF, Blue Jays: Looking at him smoke an opposite-field homer off Justin Verlander's 95 mph cheese plated low and outside shows this Jay soon will be singing in the middle of the order after a short audition in the No. 9 spot.
Brandon Phillips, 2B, Reds: Had 114 games in the cleanup spot last year and if he produces similarly and gets 150 there in 2009, he'd be estimated to generate only 88 RBI. The Peter Principle applies here.
Chris Davis, 1B/3B, Rangers: Batting seventh is bad for owners who paid premium dollars for RBI. Now he gets fewer at bats, RISP opportunities and weaker hitters behind him (which means he'll be pitched around in potentially fruitful spots).
Geovany Soto, C, Cubs: Batting seventh is no-man's land in the NL. He shouldn't be there, but he is. The Cubs are likely to be good and thus less prone to tinker.
Michael Salfino's work has appeared in USA Today's Sports Weekly, RotoWire, dozens of newspapers nationwide and most recently throughout Comcast SportsNet, including SNY.tv, for which he also analyzes the Mets and Yankees. He's been writing "Baseball by the Numbers" weekly since 2005.