That’s right, Le Petit Orange is the 6th-best RBI guy in the league, he of the 36 total RBIs.
Jimmy: “But wait, I just checked (insert stats source) and it says he’s got 36 RBI and that’s tied for 51st!”
Xtreem: “That’s right, Little Jimmy, but RBI TOTAL is not a good measure of talent and ability. And that’s the truth.”
See, it’s not just how often you succeed that matters most, but how often you succeed given your chances. Let me introduce you to OBI%. OBI stands for Others Batted In, and it’s “formula” is RBI-HR. A grand slam will give a batter three OBI, as will a bases-clearing double. Justin Turner has 34 OBI (36 RBI minus 2 HR).
OBI% is the success rate of driving in other runners give your plate appearances with men on base. Think of it like batting average for runs batted in. If I asked Little Jimmy who the better hitter was: Player A with 220 hits in a season, or Player B with 150 hits, he would immediately think Player A was. But if I qualified it with Player A’s 650 at-bats and Player B’s 400 at-bats, the answer is different now, isn’t it?
Jimmy: “So, Player A hit .338, but player B hit .375. So the total doesn’t tell the whole story? We need to know how many chances the player had to put it in perspective.”
Xtreem: “NOW you’re getting it, Little Jimmy!”
Back to Le Petit. If batting average is the most common statistic in baseball, and home runs per at-bat is a widely-known statistic, why is RBI left to be misunderstood all by its lonesome? It’s part of the triple crown, too, darn it! Talk about a third wheel…
Luckily for us, Baseball Prospectus keeps track of OBI% and all related statistics, right down to how may runners were on each individual base for a batter and how many times a batter drove in a base runner from each individual base. It’s quite interesting. You can see for yourself right here, and you can sort the other columns if you’re a member.
It shows plain as day that Justin Turner has the 6th best OBI% in the league at 19.9%, which means he succeeds 6th most often in driving in runs. NL RBI leader Ryan Howard? Fourteenth, at 18.1%. Sure, Howard has more than double the amount of RBIs Turner does, but he’s been up to bat this season with 309 ducks on the pond (most in the league by a wide margin) in 218 plate appearances (also most in the league). Turner, comparatively, has had only 171 ducks (81st in the league!) in just 132 plate appearances (75th).
If LPO had Howard’s opportunities, he’d have 61 OBI, six more than Howard, and those 63 RBI (remember his two home runs) would put him amongst the league leaders, despite minimal power. He’d be the talk of baseball.
Let’s put it in some more perspective. The highest RBI total in the NL since 2004 (when we could start somewhat trusting power numbers again) is 149 by our friend Mr. Howard in 2006. That year, he finished with an OBI% of 18.1 (hey, at least he’s consistent). He had 509 runners on base for him that season. So at Turner’s success rate, even though you could count his home runs on one hand, he’d exceed 100 RBI. Isn’t that something?
“Justin Turner, RBI Guy.” Whoda thunk?