2013 Reds / Baseball - General

One Million Pairs of Eyes, Part Two: You Can’t Drive If the Motor Won’t Start

Welcome back. I want to start by saying that I think the level of discourse yesterday was absolutely fantastic. There was a lot of respect offered to various viewpoints and I think the discussion moved forward instead of in circles. I’d like to see that again today, so let’s get started.

RBI Matter

Of course they do. RBI tell you how good a team is at scoring runs (runs also do this). But this isn’t really the source of our debate. Instead the debate is, do RBI work as an individual stat to tell you how good a player is? The answer to that is no.

It might be best to think about RBI as like wins. I don’t think there is anyone left who would argue that a starting pitchers is solely responsible for who wins the game. The offense has to score. The defense has to do its job. The bullpen has to not blow up. There are a lot of factors. RBI are the same way.

In recent comments, a lot of you have been pulling up RBI percentages and I was gearing up to address that, but there is actually an excellent piece in the Enquirer today that deals well with that. You should go read it. But basically what it says is that, if you take a wide view, you see that the percentage of runners a player drives in varies greatly from season to season and that one season’s percentage doesn’t tell you how good a player is driving in runs.

And that’s accurate. When you’re looking at how well a player drives in runs (at least, when he isn’t hitting solo homers), what you’re really looking at is average with RISP, and we talked about that yesterday. Batting average or any subset of it simply requires a much larger sample than we’ll get in one season before it becomes reliable.

One thing I do want to address before I stop (today will be much shorter than yesterday), is why, contrary to what Dusty says, getting on base is actually more important – in a long term sense – than driving in runs.

Imagine two teams. These teams each have nine identical hitters. Team A has 9 hitters with an OPS of 1.000. Team B has 9 hitters with an OPS of 1.250.

These are awesome teams, both. But they come buy their OPS’s in very different ways.

The “hitters” on team A never get a hit. Their slugging is .000. But they walk every plate appearance. The hitters in on team B only hit homers and they hit them once every four at bats, so they bat .250 and slug 1.000.

Which team scores more runs?

The answer of course, it team A. Team B is an offensive force, good for 9 runs a game. But team A never makes an out, so desptie the lower OPS, they score an infinite number of runs.

That’s a really extreme example, but it works the same way when you scale it down. In baseball, the outs are the clock, so the fewer outs you make the more you will score.

So, let’s finish like yesterday and ask what we actually know about this season:

1. Brandon Phillips has a lot of RBIs because Choo and Votto are getting on like crazy in front of him (the two players hitting in front of Hack Wilson when he set the modern RBI record, had OBPs very like those Choo and Votto are putting up).
2. Joey Votto is not driving in as many runs as we might expect.
3. The rate at which a player drives in runs does not tell you anything about the future.
4. Driving in runs is not as important as getting on base.

Brandon Phillips is a fine baseball player, but he’s not a great hitter and he does not have special RBI skills. The Luck Dragon has been his friend this year so far. We shouldn’t expect it to continue, but he will have high totals as long as Choo and Votto hit in front of him.

But he’s not Joey Votto. Votto is the best player on this team and he will be for a while yet.

Oh, and if you still believe that the best run producer is the player who drives in the most runs, just remember, you’re saying that right now, you’d rather have Brandon Phillips than Willie Mays because Mays never led the league in RBI.

39 thoughts on “One Million Pairs of Eyes, Part Two: You Can’t Drive If the Motor Won’t Start

  1. The key is going to be getting the media to buy in. The announcers, some analysts, reporters, and especially sports-talk radio hosts love looking at RBI and avg/RISP. Getting them to move on and to really, really start to get past these measures of “clutchiness” is going to be the key. It is also going to be difficult. Sports-talk radio hosts for example are paid to stir up controversy and get people calling in. Why would they want to stop using such stats? Of course the average fan may not listen to much talk-radio. They do however watch or listen to games. Maybe getting the announcers to buy-in is the place to start to turn the tide?

    • @LWBlogger: I still think RBIs, batting averages, etc. are still relevant because they do tell us what “has” occurred not what “will” occure. So when evaluating a player during a particular season, I will look at the standard statistics to judge “how” he did. If I want to have a better idea what to expect, than I will look at the Advanced Statistics.

      Like a lot of folks my attention span is limited and all I really focus on is today’s and yesterdays’ games. If I want to evaluate who to keep on a team, trade, trade for, etc. I will consult RLN, Fangraphs and the like.

      These posts by Jason have been instructive & helpful though. Thanks.

      • @CharlotteNCRedsFan: Seems to me you have the right idea. Look at past (traditional) stats to see what a player has done in his career, then look at advanced metrics to get an idea if you can expect the same/better/worse performance in the future.

      • @RedTitan19: I’m generally a Dusty-supporter much to the chagrin of many around here but yeah, getting Dusty to buy in to it would be great. Some of what he says and the decisions that he makes are just mind-boggling. Of course Harold Reynolds on MLB Network, as much as I generally like him, is much the same way. A lot of former players just look at things that way. Maybe if I played in the Majors, I would have too.

  2. Yeah but how old is the Say Hey kid? 90, I think. Give me BP.

    Clutch hit or not, what Todd Frazier did in that first inning was huge and set the pace for the night. Hope to see a lot more of that from the Toddster from here on out.

  3. Can someone calculate how many RBI votto would have if he hit behind choo and Joey votto? I bet that would end this debate…

    • @jgross07: Because he is driving a lower percentage of men on base than BP, he would actually have less RBI’s than Brandon. But it sure would be a lot more than 44. It would not be shocked if Joey ends up with +95 RBIs this year. When he does go on that hot streak, Katy bar the door!

  4. “Welcome back. I want to start by saying that I think the level of discourse yesterday was absolutely fantastic. There was a lot of respect offered to various viewpoints and I think the discussion moved forward instead of in circles. ”

    I guess my comment about asking “what was the matter with people” was the exception rather than the rule yesterday. Sorry, folks.

  5. I like the correlation you made between pitcher wins and RBIs. I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms, but it makes sense. RBIs ARE a team stat, and directly correlate to how many runs have scored (obviously). The problem is that many people only give credit to the player who had the RBI, rather than the ones who set it up.

    Unrelated note, Cuban shortstop in FA. 26, really good in Cuba. Dodgers, an NL team and an AL team are interested. I’d be interested to see if the Reds are the NL team. It’d make sense as a midseason upgrade. I hope they go after him.

    • @rhayex: That is exactly why my favorite stat is wRC+ (weighted Runs Created Plus). It shows, in relation to league average, how good a player is at creating runs. A vastly more accurate way to measure a player’s contribution that RBI or Runs alone! :)

    • @rhayex: To expound on that shortstop, he had a .997 OPS in Cuba the last three years he played. (2009-2011) Considering how other Cuban players’ stats have translated, I’d consider him doing that at a level in between AAA and MLB. Here’s MLBTR’s post on him: http://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2013/07/three-teams-vying-for-cuban-shortstop-guerrero.html

      Honestly, if Jocketty’s serious about making an inseason acquisition, I don’t see why he can’t sign this guy instead of trying to pull off a trade. Put him in AAA for a month or so, then bring him up if he’s hitting (and based on what I’ve heard about him, he can hit). Maybe he’ll be the next Cespedes.

      The only problem is that the Dodgers are interested in him. If they offer 7 years like it’s being reported, then everyone else is going to be out, because that is absurd.

  6. This topic is approaching the all-time record for beating dead horses.

    I subscribe to the theory that Brandon Phillips this year has taken a different approach to hitting in RBI opportunities, by shortening his swing, working the count for a good pitch to hit, and being more amenable to hitting to rightfield. Perhaps it is an illusion. He will not be a .400 hitter with this approach, but I don’t believe that it is totally an accident or result of small sample size that his numbers are better with this approach. In other words, Phillips is performing better when he takes what the pitcher gives him; because he only does this in so-called RBI situations, the numbers this year give the illusion of “clutchness,” when instead they merely reflect an approach that better fits his abilities.

    In short, Phillips should have this approach all the time, and abandon the swing-from-the-heels, pull-out-the-left-shoulder approach he uses with none on. He would give up some homers, but have a higher average and OBP.

    I always wondered what Adam Dunn would have been like in his prime, if he quit trying to hit homers into the 37th row, and instead actually choked up or shortened up, and tried to hit line drives. I doubt his homer total would have gone down much, because he would have (a) traded whiffs for a few homers, and (b) hit more homers into the 3rd row with a good swing.

    • @Big Ed: But you have no evidence of this, which is exactly the point. Lots of analysis has been done on RBI and the overwhelming factor in how many RBI a player gets is how many players are on base in front of him.

      Did you read the article I linked? RBI percentages fluctuate and they don’t correlate well from year to year. What that means then, is that if, as you claim, Phillips has made an adjustment, there’s a fantastic chance he’ll forget by next year.

      • @Jason Linden: I am with you 1000% on RBIs. My point is that Phillips takes a different approach ( or seems to;maybe he isn’t) this year with men on, and that he should take that same approach always. He is more effective with a shorter swing and a willingness to work the count, so he should always do that, pretty much a Derek Jeter approach. If a guy uses his most effective approach in circumstance ABC, then it stands to reason that his numbers will be better in circumstance ABC. Phillips, in other words, needs to use his ABC approach in circumstances DEF and GHI.

        Votto, on the other hand, already uses an approach that maximizes his abilities. He doesn’t change his approach, nor should he.

        We will never know about Adam Dunn’s ability to shorten his swing, because he was too thick to try. But I’ve seen plenty of wild-swinging holders who improve with less-is-more approach.

        • @Big Ed: So, basically, we are to conclude that either (a) Phillips is dumb (which he’s clearly not), or (b) the Reds’ coaching staff hasn’t figured out that he’s Ted Williams with RISP and Corky Miller without. I can’t believe either one of these.

        • @Hank Aarons Teammate: I can’t see how anybody who’s watched some of BP’s creative base running through the years could preclude the possibility that he isn’t Einstein or Barry Larkin. He isn’t dumb, but he is prone to errors of aggression.

          I am reasonably confident that BP’s hitting coaches, including his Dad, have tried to override his tendency to pull off the ball. Tons of guys do that. My point is that BP seems to have absorbed the lesson this year in certain situations and that maybe he needs to apply it to almost all situations.

          Phillips has had several very good, long at bats this year. I think he has done so because he’s become a smarter hitter, at times. That, plus luck and a whole lot of opportunities, explains his RBI total. Let’s hope he keeps it up.

  7. I wonder, if you asked a regular fan which of those two team they’d rather have (the one that walked or the one that hit home runs) without explaining the significance, how many would choose the team that hit home runs? I’m guessing more than you’d think, because the whole “never making outs” thing would never occur to them.

  8. After Jason and Steve tag-teamed me yesterday /humoron which one has the chair today?/humoroff, I gave it some thought and here it goes.

    Adv stat devotees want to treat their creations like a true science rather than the psudo-science that it is. At best it’s conclusions are imprecise that are sometimes accurate, at worst, it’s imprecise and seldom accurate.

    Advanced stats are built off of real data (reflecting the past), then assumptions, models, human judgement, and guesswork are used to fill in the gaps and project forward. So it really a P(SWAG).

    Don’t get me wrong, I like advanced statistics, but their value is over-inflated, much the same as traditional stat used to be and still are in somecases.

    • @Lost and Found: It’s a bit of a myth from those who don’t care for advanced stats as much that those who do see them as some sort of infallible truth. You’re right in that sometimes the analysis from advanced stats can be wrong. But what it has shown, time and time again, is that the conclusions using more data is simply correct and more predictive more often than old school counting and beliefs. More often isn’t always, but it’s better than less often.

      • @Matt WI:

        I don’t see many ‘infallible truth’ claims coming from strong proponents, I just don’t see the value as a leap forward, small steps maybe depending on the induvidual stat being discussed, but not much more than that.

        • @Lost and Found: I’d be curious as to some good examples of how you might be thinking of how advanced statistics have been of minimal or negligible service.

        • @Lost and Found: I’d partially agree with this sentiment.

          For instance, advanced fielding metrics still leave much to be desired. They’re better than the old measures and they do have uses, but they still have big problems.

          Hitting stats, on the other hand, are just the opposite. Interestingly, they hare heavily derived from traditiona stats. Really, the biggest sabr-movement has been to try and convince people that OBP is way, way, way, way more important than batting average. OBP is actually less fancy than BA because there are fewer variables.

          Pitching stats are somewhere in the middle. I think they get most of the picture, but not all of it.

          I think advanced hitting metrics give us something like 98% of the picture. Pitching maybe 80% and fielding something like 50%.

        • @Jason Linden:

          98% seems a strech when on this team alone, you could say that Robinson, Paul, Choo (marginally above), phillips, hannahan, hannigan, and Izturis could or have been argued to have ‘outlier’ seasons in some way shape or form.

          Votto, Bruce, Frazier, and Cozart could be argued to be closer to expectations. I am leaving heisey, lutz, soto, and miller out of this due to injury and/or PT.

          You could shift a few names around maybe, but still it seems to be a coin flip.

          I realize you could argue small sample and selective end points (and you would be justified to do so), but this illustrates my point somewhat.

          An N of 10-15 is quite high in many fields. Phase I clinical trials often are done with only a handful of participants.

        • @Lost and Found: It sounds like you came into this believing that advanced metrics is pseudo-science, imprecise and seldom accurate–gave it some thought–and came out the other side believing that advanced metrics are pseudo-science, imprecise and seldom accurate.

          Okay, then.

          You would have us believe the past is past and what will happen tomorrow is anybody’s guess and difficult to predict. 60 years ago or more, the Yankees went thru a 10 year span when 50+ guys closed games in the ninth. Guy’s with names you never heard of, like Virgil Trucks. They closed out games every bit as successfully as the great Mariano Rivera.

          Now, that just cannot be true, can it? And yet it is. This makes people angry. It challenges their bedrock beliefs about the game. Can’t have that. So we throw around a few adjectives, pick up our strewn apples, right the applecart and go about our merry way.

          Which is why this feels like so much spinning of the wheels.

          As Joe Posnanski once said: Everybody likes stats. They merely like THEIR OWN stats.

        • @Richard Fitch:

          Yours and other implications (via your save example) that I have little or no love for advanced stats in preference to traditional stats is misguided and wrong. My discussion with Jason (mostly) has streched over acouple of days and two posts.

          My biggest point that continues to be ignored (because you feel its right maybe?), is that stats (both trad and adv) have some utility, but the value they provide in a predictive sense is limited and prone to scatter (imprecise). In essence, they are like skeet shooting, one pellet out of many hits a target and it deemed a success, when you really had many more attempts that missed.

  9. The thing that’s interesting to me about the RBI debate is that people seem to have it backwards. The average fan looks at Votto’s RBI total compared to, say, Zach Cozart’s, and says “Wow, Votto is having a bad year, he only has ten more RBIS than our worst hitter,” when the proper reaction would be “Wow, RBIs might not be the best way to evaluate player performance, our best hitter has only ten more RBI’s than our worst hitter.” It’s the primary reason, as many have pointed out, that the advanced metrics such as weighted runs created and weighted on base average are much better measures of a players true offensive contribution.

    • @aweis09: That’s an excellent point. One would think that if Cozart and Votto have the same number of RBIs, then RBIs are the worst possible metrick to use!

      Coming soon to a theater near you: Izturis has almost as many RBIs as Votto!!!

  10. Take a look at this:

    http://www.baseballprospectus.com/sortable/index.php?cid=1432115

    This says that, in all of baseball, Joey Votto is ranked 12th in the number of runners on base during his ABs. I think this pretty much ends any debate that claims that Votto has low RBI totals because he simply isn’t getting the chances to drive in runs. 12th is all of baseball, and 4th in the National League.

    You will notice Votto has been especially terrible at driving in runners from 1st.

    Again, I’m not bashing Votto, I’m just showing that he has had more opportunities than most to drive in runs, and he is failing at it so far. Again, I’m not sure if this counts a walk as a failure to drive in runs, but it probably does and should.

    You can say one season’s percentage doesn’t tell you how good a player is at driving in runs. And you know what? I don’t care about that. I want to focus on what Votto is doing THIS season. Pretend you were in a coma the last 10 years and the world is ending on December 1st. Only this season matters, and this season, Votto hasn’t been getting it done IN THIS ASPECT OF HIS GAME. (Written in caps so it won’t be taken out of context later.)

    Getting on base is important, sure. And if you had a team that did nothing but walked, sure, they’d score an infinite number of runs. But let’s deal with the reality. We have 2 guys that get on base a lot, and one of those guys could potentially be driving in more runs as he has the ability to do so.

    Joey Votto is such a great hitter, why should we be happy with him designating the task of driving in runs and therefore scoring runs to the inferior hitters that hit behind him?

    Thankfully, between Phillips and Bruce, they have been able to pick up the slack.

    • @CI3J: I agree and wonder why/how people are missing this simple point. Nobody thinks Votto stinks or that RBIs are the best way to evaluate a player’s worth, but by the same measure nobody should be denying that Votto is not driving in runs at the rate that he should be in relation to the opportunities he has had.

      I tend to be old school and I’m grateful for these posts for finally explaining that fangraphs chart – until now it has just made my eyes glaze over. And I’m slowly but surely coming around to the value of some of these statistics. My primary problem with most of the advanced statistics is the implication that they make the “traditional” stats obsolete. I still think they mean something.

      I tend to take a pretty simplistic view of this stuff. I live in New York and for years I defended A-Rod from idiotic Yankees fans who screamed that he couldn’t hit in the clutch – despite the fact that EVERY stat contradicted them. My basic position was this: if a guy hits .340 with 45 homers and 145 RBIs there is NOTHING negative you can say about that player. Nothing. I don’t want to hear about batting average with two outs in the ninth inning, BA/RISP or any other ridiculous number. A guy with those numbers had a great year, period.

      By the same token, if Joey Votto finishes the season with 75 RBIs…I’m not going to say he’s had a bad season, but something has gone wrong. Can any of us even recall a guy who has hit third for a team of this calibre and finished the season with less than 80 RBIs? I sure can’t. I’m not saying he will end up with 75 RBIs, but he might.

      Again, I know I’m being simplistic. If someone wants to use all the stats in the world to explain to me why someone with 100 RBIs had a much more productive season than someone with 140, I’m listening. If someone wants to tell me it’s perfectly OK for our number three hitter to finish the season with 75 RBIs, I just can’t see it. Especially because I doubt anyone in the history of the game has had a similar season.

      Having said that, Joey is going to finish with 95-100 RBis, we will win the World Series, and all will be right with the universe.

    • @CI3J: I want to see one of these stat gurus debunk this because you have basically made the argument for everyone of us who gets thrown to the wolves for saying he hasn’t been himself this year. Excellent job.

  11. Trout had 83 RBI last year

    Encarnacion and Willingham has 110
    Soriano has 108

    Trout must have been less productive as a hitter

    • @BigRedMike: 1. Trout did not bat third. 2. No, those guys did not have more productive seasons. I think you may have missed a few of my points.

      • @PRoseFutureHOFer:

        Really? Where you bat in the line up might impact the amount of RBI? Would that be a reason why a player might have 140 RBI and another 100?

        What was the point?

  12. Joey Votto has become the proverbial “guy you don’t let beat you” on this club. He’s just *not* going to very many hittable pitches with runners on – pitchers would rather take their chances with Phillips and Bruce. And, having put another runner on, they’re going to have throw strikes afterwards.

    Barry Bonds, 2003 – .341/.529/.749, 45 HRs, 90 RBIs. I know, he mostly hit 4th, and Votto isn’t what Bonds was at that point (and thank goodness for that). But the principle’s the same.

    Votto this season:
    Bases empty – 246 PAs, 31 BBs (72 hits)
    Men on – 208 PAs, 45 BBs (46 hits)

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