Thursday, August 13, 2015

In Defense of RBIs


Danville, Kentucky – Summer of 1971. The go-ahead run was on 3rd base with 1 out. After delivering a shutdown 1-2-3 inning moments prior, I found myself batting in an important situation. Pitching was my true forte, but I always made sure to turn in a professional at-bat. I laid off the junk pitches that would’ve fooled most other pitchers and waited for something I could hit to the right side of the field. On the fourth pitch of the at-bat, I hit a swinging bunt to the no-man’s land between the 1st baseman and the pitcher. The throw to the plate wasn’t in time and I beat the subsequent throw to first with a headfirst slide, breaking a scoreless tie and dirtying my Danville High home whites in the process. Thanks to my RBI, the good guys triumphed over our rivals from Boyle County that day. It’s not quite a no-hitter, but I’m pretty proud of my accomplishment, as anybody at the Lexington Chilis with the patience to sit through my yarns about the glory days will tell you.

RBIs are the name of the game. You win baseball games by scoring runs. Nerds like to criticize RBIs by saying they’re not representative of individual performance; that they’re too dependent on team-factors. I’d say that’s precisely the point. Baseball is a team sport. It’s a game about being clutch with runners in scoring position. It’s about picking up teammates; it’s about getting the ball in the air to execute a sacrifice fly, or scoring a runner from 3rd with less than two outs. If you can’t do those things, you’re not much of a ball-player and certainly not an MVP.

In that magical summer, my teammates and I got in a contest to see who could plate the most runs. I’d get mad at myself for not coming through with runners in scoring position. I’d get even madder at myself for getting a single with the bases empty. I’d rather strike out than not plate a run or reach base without being in scoring position. This logic probably sounds foreign to folks like Jesse Spector who have never got dirt under their fingernails, but its how the game is played. That’s why the Albert Pujolses of the world will always be more valuable than the Trouts.

Recently, the RBI has come under fire again, after Buster Olney implied Josh Donaldson and his 85 RBIs might give nerd wonder-boy Mike Trout serious competition for the MVP award. Because Buster tweeted what everyone was thinking and refused to bore his followers to death with arcane trivia like WAR, team spreadsheet is up in arms.

Truthfully, these nerds are still upset that the MVP voters had the audacity to reward Miguel Cabrera’s historic offensive seasons in 2012-2013. They’re still convinced Mike Trout’s higher BsR and outfield assists should’ve netted him the MVP nod in those years. They’re still operating under the delusion that Trout deserved the MVP award in 2014, despite the fact that he couldn't even bat .300, sold out for power and was content to steal awards from more deserving players like Victor Martinez and Nelson Cruz instead of stealing bases. What’s even sadder is that clutch, professional RBI-machines like Kendrys Morales might get snubbed in favor of Mike Trout and his UZR during the next round of MVP voting.

Sadder yet is the fact that the anti-RBI crowd doesn’t understand how little everyone else cares about their advanced metrics.
When Buster had the nerve to point this out, Jesse Spector insisted that “casual fans have at least heard of [WAR].” That’s a bold claim repeatedly made in these debates, with very little evidence. Does an old lady from Silver Lake, Kansas who faithfully wears her Billy Butler shirsey to Royals games know or care about WAR? How about a sheet-metal factory worker from Hamtramck, Michigan who likes having a few too many at the ballpark on weekends? A young boy from Cleveland who brings a glove to the park in hopes of catching an elusive Carlos Santana home run? When I go to games at the Great American Ballpark, I see families. I see kids with their face painted. I see dads passing on their love for the game to the next generation. I see hard-working folks trying to pass the time and break-up the monotony of working-class existence. I don't see anybody who gives a damn about WAR. I don’t know what Jesse Spector sees from behind his spreadsheet in the comfort of his nerd-cave, but it’s clear that he’s more out of touch with the on-the-ground realties than 538’s Trump coverage.

I’d invite Jesse to actually attend a game and get the people’s pulse so he can see just how wrong he is. I suspect Jesse would be quite disappointed to learn America is still a country that cares about runs, not comparing players to some nebulous and poorly-defined “replacement-level player.” If Spector actually went to a game and asked 50 genuine baseball fans what they think about WAR, most of them would say they haven’t served but that their grandfather is still scarred by what he saw in Korea. Folks don’t come to the game to see WRC+. They come to see runs. Because of this, RBIs will always be the number-of-choice for real fans, not WAR or other such nonsense. On behalf of the true fans, thank you Buster Olney, for tweeting about the stats that matter.