Last week, I woke up to a bit of a Chicago-area Twitter kerfuffle based on some things Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said on local sports radio about how RBIs are a skill and not based on luck. Let’s face it: When wins and RBIs are praised, somebody somewhere is going to get worked up about it.
Happ said these things on Dan Bernstein and Leila Rahimi’s morning show on 670 AM The Score, and based on the tweets, it sounded like an argument, which surprised me. Dan is a thoughtful guy who has been in fixture in Chicago sports radio since years began with a 1. Like most sports talk hosts, people love him or hate him, but he’s not your standard run-of-the-mill screamer. He’s smart about baseball, exceptionally clever, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
After hearing the conversation, it was clearly overblown on social media (as to be expected when Twitter is involved). The most intriguing part of the argument, though, was probably about the 2012 AL MVP voting. Happ insisted that Miguel Cabrera deserved his award based on winning the Triple Crown, with Rahimi agreeing with him; Bernstein went with Mike Trout, based on overall value. I’m with Dan. Cabrera and Trout were roughly equal players offensively, but the latter easily surpasses the former once you factor in defense and base running.
Still, this wasn’t a mud-slinging battle. Dan was respectful throughout the whole conversation, and Happ is a regular on the radio in Chicago. “You can talk wRC+ with [Happ], and he understands it,” said Bernstein. “I think more players understand these kind of numbers now that they know the correlation between the math and how they get paid. A lot of players are past statistics because they’re into so much more measurement now. They want to know about their Rapsodo data and exit velocities.”
The whole situation left me wondering about a couple things — some more serious — in terms of why anyone cares about how players see statistics. But on a more fun and silly level, I wondered if you could make a case where RBIs would matter.
Here’s a thought exercise. Let’s go back to 2012 and create a fictional player; call him Ciguel Mabrera. He’s a bulky third baseman for the Tigers, and the majority of his value comes from his bat. Ciguel is a unique individual. He’s the only player with indisputable proof that clutch exists. On the downside, he’s useless when not in clutch situations; just withers away and has no ability whatsoever. In 2012, Miguel Cabrera had 622 at-bats, with 174 of them coming with runners in scoring position. My fictional friend Ciguel got those exact ABs and hit a remarkable 1.000 with runners on but somehow went 0-for-458 when hitting with the bases empty. Using Miguel’s extra-base rates with runners on, our made-up best friend Ciguel finished the season hitting .279 with 34 doubles, 25 home runs and a .454 slugging percentage. That’s a pretty damn good player, but certainly not the kind that would generate MVP votes.
But what about that clutch part? All of Ciguel’s hits came with runners in scoring position. He extended big innings and, using the real Miguel’s RBI/hit ratio in such situations, drove in 250 runs, eclipsing Hack Wilson’s long-standing record by more than 30 percent. Ciguel isn’t going to find himself near the top of any WAR leaderboards, but he probably kicked some major ass in terms of WPA, and his value to the team was amazing. He deserves MVP votes.
Ciguel is probably going to have a 2013 projection similar to 2012 in terms of OPS and WAR, but the 250 RBIs change the tenor of the conversation, or at the very least, him constantly getting hits with runners in scoring position does. We’re not talking about projecting anything based on what happened, or any sort of measurement of value based on bases and outs. We are talking about what actually happened to generate wins, and while RBIs play no factor in WAR (nor should they), they mattered in terms of winning baseball games for the Tigers. By racking up 250 of them, Ciguel was the MVP despite having a merely good season in terms of any traditional sabermetic measurements.
Am I crazy? There are plenty of smart people here at FanGraphs, so I got their thoughts.
For me, he’s absolutely an MVP candidate. The V stands for value, after all, and it’s hard to be more valuable when it comes to winning games (the relevant metric) than someone who never made an out with a runners in scoring position. We can’t see his WPA in this instance, but I’m positive it would lead baseball. Offensive statistics are best used in a context-neutral sense for projection, but ignoring context is harmful when it comes to explanation of what happened. If you drive in 250 runs, you’ve almost certainly added the most value to your team, whatever your slash line is. This split is comically extreme to the point where I’d want to see what he was doing differently with runners on, though. You can yell sample size and stabilization point all you want, but 172-for-172 is meaningful.
This is a new spin on an old discussion: Debates on the value of clutch hitting, WAR versus WPA, and so on follow a similar thread. In this case, I suspect that, particularly if the manager noticed the pattern and began strategically replacing our ephemeral slugger in certain bases-empty situations, this player would provide a lot of value. Even if much of that surplus production came in non-critical situations, there’s a real benefit to bolstering a modest lead — and like with everything else, Dave Cameron once had an article about that. The more mathematically inclined can tease out the details here, but as it relates to WAR and the business of helping win games, I’d buy that this player deserves down-ballot votes.
There’s a caveat in there though. A philosophical question requires an answer in kind, and this hypothetical slugger puts a bad taste in my mouth. The flip side of a player with the power to elevate his game in the clutch is one who cannot sufficiently motivate themselves when the adrenaline isn’t flowing; given the dramatic splits, it’s tempting to say they are not even trying at all most of the time. This smacks of the guy who slinks away from kickoff calls and meetings and mundane spreadsheet work only to reappear in full view and loud voice when the boss swings around to inspect the final product. A player who only performs in big moments is antithetical to the rhythms of the game, and for that reason, I’d probably leave him off my ballot.
Leaving aside the extreme split for a moment, if an elite defender (catcher or shortstop) put up those kind of numbers with exceptional defensive metrics, he could plausibly wind up in an MVP discussion, particularly if the softer factors were in his favor (i.e., on a playoff-bound team that was perhaps a surprise or in a tight race) as well. That’s not to say he’d win against somebody with big power numbers. As for the splits, while I’m averse to using RBIs as a measure of value, I certainly think it’s fair game to bring contextual stats into an MVP discussion. If I have a ballot, I’m not only looking at multiple flavors of WAR and their defensive inputs but also WPA-flavored stats, and this guy would probably light it up in that category to go with his record-setting RBI total.
This is a no-brainer, right? Not only would this player be an MVP candidate, he would be the prohibitive favorite (assuming no one else put up absurd, unprecedented numbers). Intuitively, his WPA would be notably higher than that of his contemporaries, and contributing to a team’s efforts to win games is ultimately how value should be judged. Going back to a time where statistical knowledge was much more rudimentary — and where WPA numbers weren’t available — Hack Wilson was unofficially voted NL MVP in 1930 after driving in 190 runs, with 119 of them coming with runners in scoring position. Wilson had a markedly higher OPS with RISP than Bill Terry, a .401 hitter who had a higher WAR. Intuitively, voters recognized that Wilson was the more deserving of the two. While RBI totals can be misleading, they’re meaningful when taken in context.
I think the novelty of a player who can only succeed with runners on base and the gaudy RBI totals would win over a number of BBWAA voters. Does that make him an MVP candidate? Perhaps. But his overall, context-neutral production is still fairly lackluster, probably around 10–15% better than league average. That doesn’t come close to being an MVP candidate in my eyes.
These theoretical questions are always tricky since they offer starker comparisons than in real life. I think in an extreme situation like this, I’d have to consider the context quite highly in any type of award voting. In most cases, you can largely dismiss this an outlier, but this would be an outlier so extreme that the odds of this happening by random chance are absolutely astronomical. While I wouldn’t give extra credit for the RBIs — the player’s personal stats already reflect his high-leverage supremacy — I think you’d have to look at WPA-type stats at this point, which I would if I was voting on this particular award when this craziness happened. It does make me wonder the best way to utilize a player with characteristics this extreme. Perhaps you’d maximize value by never putting them in the starting lineup but bringing them in for the rest of the game, pinch-hitting at the first high-leverage, men-on-base situation.
It feels very weird to say no, but I still think I’m going to. The most valuable player, to me, is the player who performs the best regardless of context. Whether the team is ahead or behind, in the light of day or under a full moon, they can perform at a high level under any circumstance. This hitter would be the opposite: His success is entirely dependent upon context. I don’t know if he engaged in some sorcery that guaranteed him this binary outcome and removed all free will from the occasion, or if he knows exactly how to come up with a hit at any given moment and simply chooses to tap into that only when he knows he can drive in a run (to which I would ask, why?). But whatever the reason, his results are predetermined by what the teammates in front of him do. And if this isn’t something that’s within his control, then he’s just a good-not-great hitter whose results got randomly distributed in a completely preposterous way. In that case, this would be best chalked up as the most astonishing fun fact in the sport’s history. And as they’re fond of saying on Effectively Wild, “all fun facts lie.”
For me, Ciguel is the clear MVP; for others, not as much; and for all of them, on some level, the RBIs matter. Mission accomplished?