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June 27, 2013

On the Beat

Old-School Thought, Old-School Success

by John Perrotto

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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).

However, Cabrera hasn’t joined the sabermetric revolution. He has no idea what Others Batted In (OBI) is. Like most players and managers, he looks only at the raw RBI number.

“I don’t really care about statistics, I just want my team to win, and I know the best way I can do that is by driving in runs,” Cabrera said. “I feel driving in runs is what I do best on a baseball field. If I have a lot of RBIs we’re going to win a lot of games.

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The great Bill Chuck from BaseballAnalytics.org began a campaign a few weeks back to have Yankees closer Mariano Rivera start for the American League in the All-Star Game next month at Citi Field in New York. There is logic to the argument, as it would put Rivera, who plans to retire at the end of the season, in the national spotlight and ensure the all-time saves leader gets into the game. There’s a chance Rivera wouldn’t be used since the National League is the home team and there may not be a bottom of the ninth inning.

Rivera, though, has politely said he would rather close the game because he hasn’t started a game since his rookie season in 1995. An official with Major League Baseball expressed the same sentiment.

“It’s a nice thought, but it’s just not going to happen,” the official said. “It just wouldn’t seem right to have Mariano pitching in the first inning. I wouldn’t say it make a mockery of the game. That’s a little too strong, but it just wouldn’t feel right.”

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Speaking of the All-Star Game starting pitcher, much has been made in recent days in Detroit that Tigers ace Justin Verlander won’t be able to start in this year’s Midsummer Classic because he is scheduled to start on the last day of the first half of the season. Under MLB rules, a starting pitcher must have at least three days of rest to pitch in the All-Star Game. The fuss left the same MLB official wondering what the fuss is about.

“Justin is a great pitcher and one of our game’s biggest stars, but he hasn’t even been the best pitcher on his own team this season,” the official said. “Max Scherzer is 11-0. He’s more deserving of the honor, especially if he is still undefeated at the break.”

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The red-hot Blue Jays welcomed shortstop Jose Reyes, the biggest of their numerous off-season acquisitions, back to their lineup after he missed 10 weeks with a severely sprained ankle. To make room on the roster, the Blue Jays optioned popular utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki to Triple-A Buffalo. One scout who watches the Blue Jays thinks the demotion of Kawasaki could have a negative effect on the Blue Jays, and manager John Gibbons held a team meeting to explain the roster move, which is unheard of.

“I’m not making the case that Kawasaki is even close to being in the same category as Reyes. He’s a fringe major-league player but brings a lot of personality to that club, and I don’t think you can underestimate how important that is in the Blue Jays’ situation,” the scout said. “You had a team that had a lot of roster turnover in the winter. You had a bunch of different players being thrown together, and it was obvious early in the season that the team wasn’t jelling. Kawasaki is one of those guys who cuts across all cultural lines. He’s a really funny guy, and his teammates love him. In a lot of ways, he brought that team together and kept things loose. You can’t put a numeric value on that.”

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Scouts’ views:

Mets catcher John Buck: “Remember when he hit all those home runs in April? That seems like a long time ago. He swings at everything and gets himself out. I don’t think he has a lot of trade value.”

Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole: “You watch him pitch and realize he really hasn’t even scratched the surface yet. He throws hard but he doesn’t walk anybody and he doesn’t seem to get nervous for a young kid. He’s going to be something special.”

Rockies left-hander Jorge De La Rosa: “He has a good record, but it’s a bit of a mirage. His stuff isn’t as good as it was before he had Tommy John surgery. He doesn’t overpower anyone, and he has trouble finding that something extra when he needs to reach back for it.

Brewers right-hander Yovani Gallardo: “He’s pitched better lately but, for me, he’s not the guy he used to be. He doesn’t throw as hard, and his stuff just doesn’t have the same bite. I’d be wary to give up too much in a trade, because I don’t think he would necessarily make a big impact in a pennant race.”

Marlins right-hander Ricky Nolasco: “The Marlins are pushing hard to trade him now, and that’s a smart move. He’s throwing as well as I’ve seen him throw. I think getting into a contending situation will energize him that much more. Whoever ends up getting him is going to be happy.”

Astros first baseman Carlos Pena: “I could see a contender picking him up as a bench bat, but it’s a stretch to see him as an everyday player on a contending team. He might have more value to the Astros by keeping him and letting him be a mentor some of their young kids than all the more they would get back in a trade.”

Marlins third baseman Placido Polanco: “He’s finished. He’s had a nice career, but he’s done.”

Cubs left-hander James Russell: “I’d sell high on this guy. He’s having a good year, and everyone can always use a lefty reliever. You might get something good back for him if you play your cards right.”

Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks: “He’s starting to show signs of life. I think it was a real wakeup call when they called up Scooter Gennett and started platooning those two at second base. I think it put a scare into Weeks.

Twins designated hitter Josh Willingham: “He’s more of a one-dimensional player than ever, but the one thing he can still do is pop a ball out of the ballpark. His power plays in any park.”

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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