I would like to begin with an apology to Bud Selig and Major League Baseball. I realize that Commissioner Selig does not want any big announcements this week that would take away from the glory of the World Series, but I just can’t help myself. I have too much brewing in the Junk Stat Laboratory, and if I don’t export some of this stuff, a major explosion could be in the works — bits of laptop, brain matter, and SQL code everywhere. So today we begin with what some (read: almost no one) would say is the most “prestigious” of my made-up, junk-stat-based, year-end awards. It recognizes the hitter whose RBI total most exaggerates his actual offensive contribution: the Joe Carter–Tony Batista award.
Most FanGraphs readers understand that RBI are a bad measure of offensive value. This “award,” named after two players notable for racking up RBI despite poor hitting, is just a fun way of sort of getting the point across with numbers, especially when you compare it with the list of players who actually had the highest wRC+ this season. The general idea (explained in more detail in 2009’s award, cf. 2010) was inspired by a piece written a while back by Jonah Keri.
In the past I have used or considered using situational linear weights (e.g., RE24) or team-level linear weights derived by way of Base Runs. However, I have found that the added complexity tends to obfuscate rather than illuminate. Instead, I simply divide each player’s number of RBI by the number of “absolute” linear weights runs created (wRC). The higher the number of RBI per wRC, the more the player’s RBI total “overrates” their actual offensive performance. I somewhat arbitrarily use a 90 RBI minimum baseline as a qualification for eligibility.
The hitters who made the top of the list seem to be of general better quality (at least in terms of true talent) than those in past seasons. Perhaps this year it was a case of a group of generally good hitters having relatively down seasons while remaining in the middle of their lineups, where RBI opportunities are more plentiful.
Before counting down the top five, we should give honorable mentions to Mark Teixeira (should be fun to watch that contract play out), Carlos Lee (seems like he should make the final cut more often), and Josh Hamilton (thank goodness for Ian Kinsler, huh?).
And now your top five, in reverse order of RBI per Run Created (wRC):
5. Victor Martinez, 1.13 RBI/wRC, 130 wRC+, .330/.380/.470
On the surface, Martinez had a nice year even in terms of wRC+, but the decline in power is a bit ominous for a guy who is a part-time catcher, most-time DH at this point. He is a bit unusual, as that most of his RBI opportunities probably came not from leadoff-type hitters (Detroit’s usual #1 and #2 spots had “unexceptional” on-base skills, to put it kindly), but from Miguel Cabrera, who had his typical monster season.
4. Evan Longoria, 1.14 RBI/wRC, 134 wRC+, .244/.355/.495
As far as I can tell, there are two types of Evan Longoria seasons: a) he is awesome, b) he misses about a month with injury, is still awesome. You probably are getting sick of reading praise for Longoria, so I will try to restrain myself. By straight wOBA, this was Longoria’s worst offensive season so far — a .239 BABIP will do that. However, if you adjust for run environment using wRC+, this was actually better than his rookie season in 2008 and just as good as 2009. You want to know what is scary? Longoria posted career-best walk and strikeout rates in 2011. He just turned 26. For a bit of perspective on the changing quality of hitters on the list, last season’s #4 was Adam LaRoche. Longoria probably owes on-base machine Ben Zobrist a shout-out here. You know, because Longoria is totally reading this post.
3. Adrian Beltre, 1.23 RBI/wRC, 134 wRC+, .296/.331/.561
I guess I need to take back what I said earlier about the changing quality of hitters on this list, since last year’s #3 was Delmon Young, who, despite having only one non-awful season in his career (2010), is apparently really good now because he hit a bunch of bombs in the playoffs. Like Delmon Young, Beltre is not known for his patience. Unlike Delmon Young, well, everything else. Hitting in the middle of the loaded Texas lineup is what put him on this list, but in all of the actually valuable aspects of the game, Beltre basically put the nail in the coffin of the “he only plays well in contract years” nonsense. Well, I guess we should give some credit to Michael Young for the way he stepped aside without a peep. Beltre and Mike Napoli have been, as I heard during a recent broadcast, great complements to Classy Mike this season.
2. Josh Willingham, 1.25 RBI/wRC, 123 wRC+, .246/.332/.477
Willingham was part of Oakland’s most recent failed attempt to compete, and had the dubious distinction of being their best hitter. He played a decent number of games, and it was not as if he had a lot of great on-base guys in the order in front of him. Willingham will be a somewhat attractive option for a number of teams as a corner outfielder or maybe even a first baseman or DH. He seems to be on the downswing, though — the switch to the more difficult league and a pitcher’s park is not the only reason he had the worst walk and strikeout rates of his career since becoming a full-time major-leaguer in 2006. But hey, RBIs!
1. Ryan Howard, 1.26 RBI/wRC, 123 wRC+, .253/.346/.488
Incredibly, Howard has not won this award, or even placed in the top five, since I started writing for FanGraphs in 2009. He made honorable mention last year. It was a rough year for Howard at the beginning of his new contract — oh, wait, that starts in 2012. The season did not end so well, either. Howard still managed the RBIs, though, thanks in large part to Shane Victorino‘s monster season and Chase Utley‘s ability to get on base at a good rate even in the midst of his decline.
Congratulations, Mr. Howard! You were definitely due.
NB: For those who think that perhaps this award should be seen as one of true merit, here are the “worst” three of the qualified (at least 90 RBI) hitters by RBI/wRC: Dustin Pedroia, Jose Bautista, and Miguel Cabrera.
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