Wednesday, April 10, 2013

RBI, GIDP, and Clutch Hitting

By Brad Oremland

For decades, Runs Batted In (RBI) has been among the most celebrated statistics in baseball. In particular, players with a lot of RBI are generally viewed as good clutch hitters — hitting home runs or delivering with runners in scoring position.

The opposite side of the same coin is double plays. If you have teammates on base, you might drive them in, but you also might hit into a rally-killing double play. Those get a lot less publicity than RBI, but they're devastating to the team. If driving your teammates home is the essence of clutch play, grounding into a double play is the opposite.

So which players are really clutch? Who drives in a lot of runs without cutting off rallies? Sabermetricians now have sophisticated ways of calculating clutch performance, but I'm deliberately going for the simple approach here. I'm writing this because I hope you'll find it interesting, not because I want you to draw major conclusions from it. I've looked at three sets of players:

1. MLB's top 100 RBI leaders in 2012 (actually 104 because of a tie)
2. Every active player with at least 500 career RBI
3. MLB's top 100 career RBI leaders since GIDP became official (NL, 1933; AL, 1939)

Unless otherwise noted, all data sets are sorted by ratio of RBI to GIDP (higher numbers are better).

2012 Season

Among last year's top 100 in RBI, here are the 10 best in RBI-to-GIDP ratio.

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We're looking at pretty small samples of data here, so one double play can dramatically change a player's ratio. What's interesting is the cluster of Rangers in the top 10. Is there something about that team that lends itself to RBI, or prevents GIDP? As we look at the bottom 10, the answer is: apparently not.

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Michael Young's RBI/GIDP ratio is mind-blowingly bad. When he came to the plate with a runner on, almost half as often as he drove the man in, he would get himself out, and the baserunner, too. He grounded into more double plays than Hamilton, Cruz, and Beltre combined.

If you took the top 120 in RBI rather than cutting it off at 100, Derek Jeter would rank even worse than Young and Kendrick (2.42), with 58 RBI and 24 GIDP. Some other players of interest:

11. Adam Dunn: 96 RBI, 8 GIDP, 12.0 ratio
12. Mike Trout: 83 RBI, 7 GIDP, 11.9 ratio
16. Andrew McCutchen: 96 RBI, 9 GIDP, 10.7 ratio
37. Yadier Molina: 76 RBI, 10 GIDP, 7.6 ratio
66. Prince Fielder: 108 RBI, 19 GIDP, 5.7 ratio
69. Albert Pujols: 105 RBI, 19 GIDP, 5.5 ratio
71. Buster Posey: 103 RBI, 19 GIDP, 5.4 ratio
76. Alex Gordon: 72 RBI, 14 GIDP, 5.1 ratio
79. Miguel Cabrera: 139 RBI, 28 GIDP, 5.0 ratio
87. Robinson Cano: 94 RBI, 22 GIDP, 4.3 ratio

Teams that hit-and-run a lot will have more caught stealing and fewer double plays, but managerial strategy doesn't seem to play a major role in these stats, beyond obvious factors like batting order. If you isolate variables, however, you find a few patterns in which batters do and do not rank well:

1. Speed matters. Being unusually slow seems to matter more than being particularly fast. Looking at 120 batters, the top 30 in RBI-GIDP ratio stole 75% more bases and were 20% more successful than the bottom 30. The same applies less dramatically to the middle 60, who are much closer to the top 30 than the bottom 30.

2. Flyball hitters ground into fewer double plays. Captain Obvious reporting for duty, your honor.

3. Power hitters do better. This is probably implied by the point above. Sabermetricians use a stat called isolated power (ISO), which is just slugging percentage minus batting average. It's a measure of hitting for extra bases. And players with high ISOs have more RBI and fewer GIDP than those with low isolated power.

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What's interesting is that this remains true when you remove home runs. Since even solo homers include an RBI for the batter, we can learn more about clutch hitting and performance with men on base by subtracting HR from the RBI total. When you do this the gap shrinks, but it's still there.

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4. Players with good RBI-GIDP ratios put the ball in play less often. They walk more and they strike out more.

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It doesn't seem to be the ratio of walks to strikeouts that matters; it's putting the ball in play. Every time you decrease RBI-GIDP efficiency, walks and strikeouts go down. These numbers are virtually identical when you subtract home runs. Keep in mind that we're only looking at position players here, so there are no pitchers skewing the numbers.

The Best Active Players

We can learn about general trends by studying seasonal data for large groups of players, but to judge individuals fairly, we need to look at multiple seasons. I ran the numbers for every active ballplayer with at least 500 RBI, 86 players altogether. For purposes of this study, I'm ignoring the new season; stats are through 2012. And by "active" players, I mean those who appeared in the major leagues in 2012, even if they're not on the field this year. A lot of accomplished, older players are still looking for contracts. That means I am including some players who we know are retired, like Chipper Jones. Anyway, here's the list:

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These differences are significant. You look at experienced players like Johnny Damon, Adam Dunn, and Jim Thome, and their RBI-GIDP ratios are twice those of players like Paul Konerko, Miguel Tejada, and Derek Jeter. Statisticians often deride RBI as an opportunity-based stat, taken out of context. But this is largely in context, and the difference between Damon and say, Torii Hunter, is significant. For their careers, Damon has 1,139 RBI and Hunter has 1,143, almost exactly equal. But Damon has GIDPed just 94 times, compared to 219 for Hunter. That's not a fluke statistic.

Curtis Granderson is so far ahead that I got curious and looked at his stats on Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. At both sites, he rates as a negative clutch player. That's surprising, but it also tells you how careful you need to be before you draw sweeping conclusions from this research. Granderson's batting average and OBP with runners on base have not been good. Even though I keep using the term clutch, I'm really talking about two stats, not performance.

The Best of All Time

The last list shows MLB's top 100 all-time in career RBI, limited to years when GIDP was also tracked, which eliminates everyone before the 1930s and most players before the 1940s.

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If you go to 120, Will Clark (12.05) ranks between Barry Bonds and Eddie Mathews, while Julio Franco (3.85) is even worse than I-Rod. These are all good players — say what you will about the weaknesses of RBI, you don't drive in 1,200 runs without being a good player — so there are some Hall of Famers near the bottom of the list. The one who surprises me most, though, is 33rd-ranked Willie Mays. I'd have figured him in the top 10 or 15. These numbers aren't HR-adjusted, either, and if they were he'd be basically average.

This is a messing-around study, intended solely to be interesting. Hopefully, though, it's also a reminder that RBI don't exist in a vacuum. When you examine the offensive production of Mike Piazza (1335 RBI, 229 GIDP) and Ivan Rodriguez (1332 RBI, 338 GIDP), the RBI numbers leave a lot out.

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