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April 24, 2007
A few years back, researchers discovered that Hack Wilson had been shorted an RBI in 1930. It took a while for MLB to come around, but eventually they acceded to changing his total, so Wilson's single-season RBI record now stands at 191.
If Wilson is going to hold that record much longer, his fans and descendants may need to round up those researchers and put them to work. Three weeks into the season, there's a perfect storm of performance and opportunity brewing that could render even the higher record obsolete by the end of the year.
Would you believe A-Rod 200?
Alex Rodriguez is off to the hottest start of his career, and one of the hottest starts in baseball history. Every day brings another set of "fastest to" marks, and with 14 home runs and 34 RBI in the Yankees' first 18 games, he's on his way to obliterating the established records for performance in those categories in April.
In baseball, as in the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. A number of players each year are "on pace for" various achievements and records, only to fall off well before the chase gets serious. Certainly I've hammered home the point that three weeks of baseball isn't enough to reach conclusions about any player or team, so you might see this as a strange place for an article about a potential record chase.
This is genuinely different, though. Batting fourth for the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez is in position to drive in more runs than anyone ever has before in part because he's going to get more opportunities than any player in the game. Last year, Rodriguez led MLB with 534 runners on base when he came to the plate, and in 2005 he had 516, which ranked him second to teammate Hideki Matsui. So far this year, he's batted with 72 runners on, or four per game, and he's on pace to have well over 600 runners on base for him.
This is what makes Rodriguez's start so tantalizing. It's not at all unrealistic to think that can continue; right now, the three Yankees ahead of him in the lineup are basically meeting their PECOTA-projected OBPs in the aggregate. While the team's #8 and #9 slots may be a bit less likely to appear on base in front of Rodriguez than they were a year ago, the effect that has on his numbers should be small. Also, with Bobby Abreu's home run power down from his peak, Rodriguez is less likely to find the bases cleared by a longball than he was last year, when he often batted behind Jason Giambi's 37-homer power.
Going beyond the raw opportunities, consider that Rodriguez's power redefines "scoring position." Any runner on base when he steps up is in danger of crossing the plate. Moreover, Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu all run well, which means that Rodriguez's hits have a better chance of scoring them than they would an average collection of runners. The more runners on base when he comes up, the more he faces pitchers throwing from the stretch, when they're generally less effective.
Finally, consider the performance of Rodriguez himself. No, he's not going to bat .400 or slug above 1.000 all season long, but he's capable of batting .300 and slugging .600, both marks he's reached six times in his career. His OBI percentage--the number of runners on base that he drives in--is currently an off-the-charts 27.8 percent. Given that the league leaders in this category are usually around 21 percent, you can expect that mark to come down, but keep in mind that record setting usually involves some kind of overperformance in a category like this. Rodriguez would have to lead the league in OBI percentage, likely with a mark above the norm. The record is 26.9 percent, set by George Brett in 1980, and since 1957, just four players have driven in at least 25 percent of the runners on base when they batted.
To have a realistic shot at 200 RBI, Rodriguez probably has to drive himself in 50 or more times on home runs, which seems within his reach. He'd have to bat with at least 550 runners on base, and preferably closer to 600. The record since 1957 is 573, set by Derek Bell in 1996. Nine players have batted with at least 550 runners on in a season. If Damon, Jeter and Abreu all sustain their current OBPs, and Abreu continues to be a 15-homer man rather than a 30-homer man, it's not completely unrealistic to suggest that Rodriguez could set the record here. It would also help if Jason Giambi had a big enough year behind Rodriguez to make intentionally walking the latter an obviously poor choice.
If Rodriguez were to drive in 25 percent of 570 runners, not quite setting post-1957 records in both categories, that would be 142 teammates driven in, just shy of Lou Gehrig's mark of 143, set in 1931. Six players have driven in 130 teammates, none since 1937. If he did that, Rodriguez would break the RBI record if he hit 50 home runs. Knocking in 200 runs is going to require hitting 60 home runs, or breaking a record for efficiency or opportunities, all of which are possible, if not probable.
Remember, we're talking about a record-setting performance here; it's unlikely by definition. Alex Rodriguez, however, is in as good a position as any player has ever been to make a run at Hack Wilson's RBI record.