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Monday, May 28, 2007

The 100 RBI Men

A reader makes the following observation:

"Carlos Delgado is currently on pace to get 100 RBIs for the Mets this year, despite sporting an abysmal .234 BA, 306 OBA and 359 SL%. This helps to make the case that RBIs are as much a team stat as an individual one, as the fellas hitting in front of Delgado (Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright) are pretty adept at getting on base, which allows Delgado to make outs 7 times out of ten and still accumulate a decent number of RBIs. Simply put, he is getting a boatload of opportunities. Delgado also is lucky enough to bat cleanup on a team that is doing very well in the standings, so the manager is unlikely to move him out of the cleanup slot anytime soon."

Well, assuming Delgago plays in 144 games this season as he did in both 2005 and 2006 he'll wind up with 91 RBI and won't break the 100 mark. And as of tonight Delgado's OPS is 665 and taking 2006 league norms for league OPS and the park effect of Shea Stadium that means that Delgado is on pace to have a league normalized and park adjusted OPS of 92. In any case, that doesn't directly bear on the question which follows...

"So, anyways, my question: Who are the worst hitters in MLB history to get 100 RBIs in a season in MLB? And what are their stories? Were these players in similar situations to Delgado, or do they have some other tale to tell?"

To answer the first part and take a crack at the second, here are the "top" 50 players with 100 or more RBI in a single season with the lowest normalized and park adjusted OPS. There are 1,543 players with 100 or more RBI in a single season since beginning in 1901.


Name Year PA G RBI OPS NOPS/PF
Joe Carter 1997 668 157 102 683 89
Vinny Castilla 1999 674 158 102 809 92
Ruben Sierra 1993 692 158 101 678 93
Tony Armas 1983 613 145 107 707 94
Paul O'Neill 2000 628 142 100 760 94
Ray Pepper 1934 598 148 101 732 94
Marv Owen 1936 655 154 105 750 96
Joe Carter 1996 682 157 107 782 96
Glenn Wright 1927 626 143 105 716 96
Joe Carter 1990 697 162 115 681 97
Travis Fryman 1996 688 157 100 766 97
Joe Randa 2000 665 158 106 781 97
Jeff Francoeur 2006 686 162 103 742 98
Jeff Cirillo 2000 684 157 115 869 98
Tony Batista 2004 650 157 110 728 98
Torii Hunter 2003 642 154 102 762 99
Ray Jablonski 1953 640 157 112 735 99
Joe Pepitone 1964 647 160 100 698 100
Ernie Banks 1969 629 155 106 725 100
Carlos Beltran 1999 723 156 108 791 100
Bill Buckner 1986 681 153 102 733 100
Bill Brubaker 1936 620 145 102 736 101
George Bell 1992 670 155 112 712 101
Garret Anderson 2001 704 161 123 792 101
Travis Fryman 1997 657 154 102 766 101
Andres Galarraga 1995 604 143 106 842 101
Chili Davis 1993 645 153 112 767 101
Eddie Robinson 1953 685 156 102 735 101
Wally Pipp 1923 634 144 108 749 101
Willie McGee 1987 652 153 105 746 101
Bing Miller 1930 654 154 100 795 101
Pinky Higgins 1938 603 139 106 794 101
Butch Hobson 1977 637 159 112 789 101
Andruw Jones 2001 693 161 104 772 101
George Kelly 1929 632 147 103 760 101
Gee Walker 1939 645 149 111 773 101
Moose Solters 1936 676 152 134 802 101
Ed Sprague 1996 670 159 101 821 101
Al Simmons 1924 644 152 102 774 102
Ruben Sierra 1987 696 158 109 771 102
Billy Rogell 1934 679 154 100 766 102
Richie Sexson 1999 525 134 116 818 102
Vernon Wells 2002 648 159 100 762 102
Pinky Whitney 1930 662 149 117 849 102
Pinky Whitney 1928 636 151 103 768 102
Matt Williams 1997 636 151 105 795 102
Glenn Wright 1924 662 153 111 744 102


I know many of you had an inkling that Joe Carter would take the top spot. He also appears at numbers 8 and 10 (and number 53 for his 1987, 104 for his 1989 season, 110 for his 1993 season, and number 146 for his 1994 season...you get the idea). But given the poor light in which RBI have been cast in recent years, perhaps surprisingly only 17 times (a little over 1%) has a player ever driven in 100 runs while not being at least league average. So while getting to 100 RBI doesn't ensure that the hitter is an elite offensive performer, it is a pretty good proxy. Put in another way, one needn't be a great hitter to accrue 100 RBI but great hitters often get to 100 RBI. And so in the absence of better metrics it's not surprising that 100 RBI became shorthand for a great offensive performance. This is illustrated by the fact that the "average" 100 RBI man had NOPS/PF of 125 and the histogram belows which shows their distribution:



Contributing to the idea that RBI equals greatness is the ongoing debate over the significance and prevalence of clutch hitting. A player with alot of RBI is often automatically assumed to be a clutch performer as Joe Carter was.

That said, given that we now have much more granular means (with OPS actually being on the lower end) of estimating the run contribution of individual hitters, that usage should wane some although it may take generational turnover to bring about its demise. For a little deeper perspective on traditional and more modern methods of gauging a player's contribution see chapter 1 of Baseball Between the Numbers.

But in getting back to the question at hand, perusing the list you see a few factors that certainly play into reaching the century mark:

  • Performance - As mentioned above there is no doubt that in large part getting to 100 RBI requires a strong performance. From the graph above (the pink cumulative line that uses the y-axis on the right) you can see that fully 75% of those who have driven in 100 runs were 15% or more above league average and 60% were 25% or more above average.


  • Park - Vinny Castilla and Jeff Cirillo in the top 20 show that playing in a park where lots of runs are scored certainly helps, and of course by adjusting for park we don't give them any benefit


  • Era - Twelve of the top 20 players either played in the 1930s or since 1993 which were the two highest scoring eras in modern baseball history. Just like playing in a park where runs are more plentiful allows lesser hitters to drive in more runs, playing in an expanding offensive environment devalues the 100-RBI mark.


  • Teammates - Certainly the reader makes a good point about teammates having to be on the bases. You could probably make a case that Paul O'Neil in 2000 with the Yankees, Marv Owen for the Tigers in 1936, Glenn Wright with the Pirates in 1927, and Bill Buckner with the 1986 Red Sox all fall into this category where the individual was part of a strong offensive team from top to bottom.


  • Lineup Position - It probably comes as no surprise that many of the players on this list and that accrue 100 RBI generally are middle-of-the-order hitters. It probably comes as a bit more of surprise that, as shown in the graph below, the number three position in order actually hits with relatively fewer runners on base than does any other lineups positions save the leadoff and second spots in the order.



  • Plate Appearances - More generally the latter two contributing factors as well as this one fall into the category of opportunity. A player has to come to the plate often enough to reach the 100 RBI mark. Probably no one in this list better exemplifies these is Ruben Sierra's 1993 performance with the Oakland A's. In that season Rickey Henderson hit leadoff for half the year and he hit third in an AL lineup which increases the opportunities for the third hitter and racked up almost 700 plate appearances. On the average, the 100 RBI men had 651 plate appearances. Yes Rudy York did drive in 103 runs in just 417 plate appearances for the 1937 Tigers but all told just 213 players (14%) have ever driven in 100 runs while not coming to the plate at least 600 times.


  • So will Carlos Delgado get to 100 RBI and if so what does it mean? Speaking only in generalties and knowing only that about this performance, we'd have to guess that he was a pretty good hitter. However, that doesn't completely rule out the possibility that his park, era, teammates, lineup position, and playing time all conspired to his breaking the 100 RBI barrier.

    4 comments:

    Anonymous said...

    One thing that also influences this metric is these players probably don't walk much, since OPS includes walks, but walks are unlikely to drive in runs.

    Tangotiger said...

    You can estimate RBI as .2*1B+.4*2b+.6*3B+1.6*HR+.02*BB+some constant (more or less...easy enough to find out exactly).

    How much you differentiate owes to: performance with men on base, and opportunity.

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