May 27, 2011
The BP Broadside
What the Heck is an RBI Whore?
Earlier today, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that Mets manager Terry Collins has encouraged Carlos Beltran to be selfish in RBI situations:
Since baseball is an individual game wrapped in a team concept, selfishness by Beltran and Reyes actually could be a good thing. I heard that with Wright and Ike Davis out of the lineup and Jason Bay still in freefall, Terry Collins actually went to Beltran recently and told the switch-hitter to get greedy in RBI situations. The Mets manager liberated Beltran to essentially become an RBI whore.
As Craig Calcaterra suggested, the whole concept of the “RBI whore” is questionable, because when is a player trying not to drive in a run in an RBI situation? This is not “Bartleby, the Ballplayer”—no hitter, confronted with ducks on the pond, says, “I would prefer not to.” The only possibility I can think of is that Collins is suggesting that Beltran expand his strike zone with runners on, hack away instead of taking close pitches and working a walk. This hasn’t been a big issue for Beltran so far—he’s taken all of eight walks in 53 PAs with runners in scoring position, leaving him swinging away 85 percent of the time. Still, it’s possible that Collins is gripped by the same questionable thinking that confronted Ted Williams back in his day, that a walk taken with runners in scoring position was a wasted opportunity.
This kind of logic would seem to avoid a great deal of complexity in both batter mindset, the idea that more baserunners equal more runs, and so on. In any case, a great deal of the potential for whoredom is out of the hands of the batter. You can’t be an “RBI whore” unless your team propositions you. Driving in runs is a matter of opportunity. Solo home runs aside, no hitter, be he Babe Ruth or Rey Ordonez, can plate a runner who isn’t on base.
As longtime readers know, at Baseball Prospectus we have an RBI opportunities report which keeps track of how often the whores have been given cash offers. Looking at the numbers over the course of years, some obvious limits on the amount of whoring become apparent. Given 400 or more plate appearances, the average whore—er, hitter—drives in about 14 percent of the runners on base when he comes to the plate. In the period of time contained in our database, 1950 to present, no whorish hitter has driven in as many as 30 percent of his baserunners, and in fact they haven’t quite gotten to 27 percent. In the table below, “OBI” stands for “Others Batted In,” which is to say that RBIs on solo home runs are excluded.
Baseball is a cruel game, and what is truly frustrating is that the players most often given the chance to drive in runs aren’t the ones who have been must eager to indulge this particular vice:
Jensen drove in a league-leading 116 runs in 1955—90 of his baserunners, plus 26 RBIs on home runs. All else being equal, a hitter like Andres Galaragga in 1996, who saw 171 fewer runners, would have had 193 RBIs and banished Hack Wilson from the record books.
Beltran is going to have to get to work if he wants to satisfy Collins’ lusts. So far this year, he’s driven in 15.1 percent of his baserunners. He’s had 126 potential customers, the most on the Mets, but an insignificant amount league-wide, ranking 46th overall. The top ten runs from Torii Hunter with 165 (12.7 percent so far) to Kevin Youkilis (146, 16.4). Given the historical range of RBI production, Beltran could be doing a little more with what he’s been given, but not a lot more. As for his production with men on, .271/.351/.576, that’s not something to complain about.
Here are this year’s RBI sluts and prudes, 100 PAs and up:
Note that there is some correlation between those players who, both in 2011 and all time, have the greatest lust for RBIs and a certain tendency towards contact hitting and impatience. Still, that is not to say that this should be celebrated. First, a walk in no way diminishes a team’s offensive potential in an inning, it only enhances it. Hackers may drive in more runs, but their teams score fewer runs over all.
So, we’re back to the beginning. Carlos Beltran can’t be an RBI slut, he can only be Carlos Beltran. Were he to expand his strike zone, he would only diminish his value to the team, and in any case, he needs more than 126 baserunners to really throw his morals out the window. Or, to put this another way, Terry Collins is just not a good manager.
Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville, one of my favorite stories, can be read here, though you might prefer not to read it. H/T to Jonah Keri and Craig Calcaterra.
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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