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June 27, 2013

On the Beat

Old-School Thought, Old-School Success

by John Perrotto


For those of us of a certain age—in this case, less than one year away from 50—RBI still have meaning. Yes, the sum of a player’s RBI has long been rendered irrelevant by sabermetricians, who have logically and correctly proven runs batted in are a function of opportunity rather than skill. This fact is still hard to accept for someone who grew up in an era before the Bill James Abstracts were marketed to the masses. In my youth, RBI were the hallmark of a clutch hitter. So said the radio broadcasters and all the writers whose articles I devoured every Thursday in The Sporting News.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland grew up one generation earlier. The 68-year-old is not old school, he’s real old school. Thus, he is dug in to his belief that RBI are the most important offensive statistic in the game. He has no tolerance for the thought that they don’t matter.

“Everyone talks about on-base percentage all the time, and on-base percentage is fine,” Leyland said. “To me, the more important statistic is slugging percentage than on-base percentage. The even more important one is RBI. I know it’s important to get people on base, but everybody is going to get some guys on base. The big thing is driving those guys on base in. It doesn’t matter how many guys you have on base if you don’t have anyone who knocks them in.”

From a raw number standpoint, Leyland has the best in the business when it comes to driving in runs. Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera has 78 RBI. He is on pace to finish the season with 166, which would be the most by a major leaguer since Jimmie Foxx had 175 for the 1938 Red Sox. Manny Ramirez drove in 165 runs for the Indians in 1999.

“Some guys smell RBI,” Leyland said. “Miguel is that kind of hitter. He’s special. He’s the best hitter I’ve ever seen when it comes to driving in runners. He steps it up a notch.”

Not having the heart to actually test Cabrera’s sense of smell, it might be better to use some of Baseball Prospectus’ RBI metrics to see how he performs at the plate with runners on base. Cabrera has certainly had plenty of RBI opportunities; he had batted with 253 runners on base this season, prior to Wednesday, third in the majors behind the Tigers’ Prince Fielder (268) and Red Sox’ Dustin Pedroia (260). However, Cabrera isn’t necessarily the best clutch hitter. He had driven in 22.1 percent on the runners on base, which ranked sixth in the big leagues among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances after the Cardinals’ Allen Craig (25.0), Giants’ Angel Pagan (23.6), Orioles’ Chris Davis (23.0), Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt (22.7), and Braves’ Freddie Freeman (22.7).

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article What You Need to Know:... (06/27)
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