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January 22, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Picking Your Opportunities

by Marc Normandin

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One of the categories in fantasy baseball that doesn't get much love here at Baseball Prospectus is the RBI. The reasons for that are obvious, regardless of how much some of the mainstream media admire them, as RBI do very little to explain how productive or unproductive a player really is-look no further than the induction of Jim Rice into the Hall of Fame this year for your evidence. They are, generally speaking, a detriment to the analysis of a player's value, and do little to add to the conversation that we continue to push forward on a daily basis.

That doesn't mean that we can't talk about them here though, because whether or not you like the stat, it is used extensively in fantasy leagues, and that's reason enough for devoting some time to understanding the nature of the RBI. Here at BP.com we have the RBI Opportunities report, easily accessed from the main Statistics page. Fantasy players should familiarize themselves with this particular page, and there are other reports similar to the one we're checking out today that will offer assistance when dealing with concepts that may run counter to the accepted norms.

If you've opened that first link, we're ready to take a look at what's available to us. There's the basic information (Player, Team, Season, Plate Appearances), and, as with all of the sortable stat reports, the ability to filter by year, team, league, position, or plate appearances. In the case of this report, you can go all the way back to the 1954 season. You can also set up your personal rankings so that the report is organized by whichever statistics you want to give priority to; the default for the RBI Opportunities report is for OBI (Others Batted In). Personally, I like sorting by OBI%, to see which players are performing at a better rate, rather than just looking at the cumulative totals.

Next to total plate appearances, you have plate appearances with runners on base (PA_ROB), which reveal some intriguing and less obvious trends. For instance, though Justin Morneau had just eight more total plate appearances than Josh Hamilton, he had 57 more PA with runners on. This should raise some eyebrows, as the Rangers led the majors in team EqA (.278) last season, while the Twins were closer to the average at .264.

It also stands out because Carlos Gomez (.281 OBP leading off) and Alexi Casilla (.332 OBP hitting second) were both used at the top of the lineup more often than any other Twin. Morneau was able to make up ground almost entirely because of Joe Mauer and his .418 OBP directly ahead of him in the three hole-as a clue, just take a look at the number of runners on first that Morneau had (R1, the next column in the report), relative to Hamilton.

That's the kind of context-sensitive information you want to pay attention to throughout the season; just because a team's offense isn't special doesn't mean that your player won't have the opportunities to plate runners. All you need is a fourth or fifth hitter behind one or two quality hitters, and he'll rack up the RBI. Another example is Raul Ibanez, the third hitter in an awful Mariners lineup behind Ichiro Suzuki (.360 OBP as a leadoff hitter) and Jose Lopez (.314/.331/.428 hitting second). Ibanez was sixth in the majors in OBI and 21st in OBI% (min. 450 plate appearances).

You can use the R1, R2, and R3 columns to get a general idea of how powerful (or fast) the hitters in front of the player you're looking at are. The next set of columns presents the number of runners driven in from each base, which helps give you an idea of how powerful that same player is on his own; more runners driven in from first means more extra base hits from your player of choice. Following these is the total number of runners on base, which, along with PA_ROB, gives you a full picture of the kinds of opportunities these hitters are getting to drive runners in.

The next column is where you start to get into the meat of the report, with OBI and the percentages for some of the previously introduced figures. OBI is essentially just RBI minus home runs, and is useful for seeing who is driving in players by other means. The players who bop homers are still getting the credit for those they drive in, but the playing field is leveled a bit by taking out the double counting. You still want the player with the most RBI, but this report focuses mostly on how successful players are at driving others in, so the exclusion of self-counting makes sense if you're looking for hidden values that other owners may not be aware of.

Next are R1BI%, R2BI%, and R3BI%-the rate versions of R1_BI, R2_BI, and R3_BI-and this is the place to look if you want to find those players that no one else in your fantasy league has noticed yet. Let's take an example from last season's columns with Casey Blake. Blake was hitting .226/.314/.379 as of May 21, but he also had an OBI% that ranked 25th in the majors with 24 OBI, good for 14th in the league. All of the indicators (a poor BABIP based on a small sample size, no loss of bat speed) pointed to Blake's improving in-season, and yet he was probably someone you could snag off of waivers or via free agency given his poor early season performance.

Sure enough, Blake ended up hitting .289/.355/.491 the rest of the way, and posted an OBI% of 20.6 percent with Cleveland before he was dealt to the Dodgers and suddenly stopped driving in runs despite slugging .460 with LA. The point here is that you can find underperforming players hiding in this report that you can take a flyer on, players that you might miss if you were only looking at standard leader boards, and any edge you can gain by refining the ways in which you analyze a player's production is worthwhile. Having one rotating roster spot for guys like Blake isn't a bad idea if you're good about picking up on these traits early enough to benefit from them.

Blake works for the purposes of this report, but he wasn't the only one you wouldn't expect to see ranked as high as he was. With a minimum of 450 plate appearances required for the leader board, David DeJesus led the majors in OBI%, driving in 61 of the 284 runners he had on base during the season. His lack of power kept him from driving in many runners from first (just six of 132) but he was efficient at driving in runners that were in scoring position. Bengie Molina (19.3 percent, eighth) and Ryan Garko (18.5, 17th) are some other names that don't quite fit in when surrounded by the Josh Hamiltons, Ryan Howards, and Miguel Cabreras of the world, but there they are, and they should not be ignored if you're looking for help in this category.

As always, you don't want to harm other parts of your team (especially in roto or rate-heavy head-to-head leagues) but picking up players who are going to help you the most in RBI by careful analysis of these categories-opportunities, efficiency, and power-is not a bad idea if done in moderation. Familiarize yourself with the RBI Opportunities report, as this and other selections from Baseball Prospectus' sortable stats pages can give you that extra boost not only on draft day, but also as you tweak your team throughout the season.

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