Tuesday, April 21, 2009

King of Baseball Statistics: RBI or OBP?

Last week, Corry and I had a little debate over which is the more important of baseball’s offensive stats: RBI (runs batted in) or OBP (on-base percentage)? While Corry contends that the out is baseball’s scarcest commodity and, therefore, a batter’s primary objective should be to avoid getting out, I argue that it does not matter how many players a team puts (and leaves) on base if a clutch hitter is not bringing them home. Sure, outs are a prized commodity; but, the team with the most runs scored wins the game.

As baseball fans are prone to do, I went to the record books to support my claim. To my surprise, the list of top-ten RBI men and top-ten OBP players is quite similar. The most formulaic of baseball card stats, OBP (=H+BB+HBP/ AB+BB+HBP+SF) claims the likes of Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds and Ty Cobb, all of which, with the exception of Williams (replaced by Hank Aaron in the top spot), are in the top-ten for RBIs as well. What is astonishing is that these four players (Ruth, Gehrig, Bonds and Cobb) would find themselves on both lists. We could continue to argue ad infinitum which is more important, fewest outs or most runs, but I think this comparison of greatest players says a lot for these players, who did both. (*Steroids had little to do with Bonds OBP—unless you argue that his fly balls sailed ten feet farther. Even as a Dodgers fan, I accept that Bonds was an all-time great.)

This also raises the question as to baseball’s glory stats: batting average (Williams) and home runs (Aaron). Of course, it’s impressive to see a player knock the ball 450 feet and it puts fans in the stands; however, the home run is overrated. The same is true for pitching, where a strike-out pitcher is preferred over a ground-ball pitcher. Again, the name of the game is scoring more runs than one’s opponent; thus, ERA is much more important. As fans, we like the grandeur and intimidation of larger-than-life players (remember, athletes are gods). Still, as far as efficiency is concerned, the acronym stats—RBI, OBP and ERA—are far-and-away the most important.

To answer the question posed in this post’s title, I stick with one of baseball’s most underrated superstars and most clutch players, Hank Greenberg (the Manny Ramirez of his day; above), who lived for RBI and told teammates: “Just get on base and I’ll do the rest.”


Corry Cropper said...

Watch out! The Bill James guys are going to come after you for this. They are all enamored with OPS... taking into account power AND not getting an out. But not RBIs (luck, they contend--and I agree).

Robert J. Hudson said...

C'mon--the OPS, until 2004, did not even exist as a baseball card stat. What's more, it is the invention of sabermetrics Stat Monkeys (an impossible formula that takes into consideration more than a half dozen variables). I am talking real baseball stats here--tally marks, simple formulae. Tell the Saber-ites to bring it on, challenge me to a duel; weapons of choice: freshly-sharpened pencils and graphing calculators!

Seriously, all jokes aside, I respect the Bill James crew and all the statistical tools they've innovated for analyzing baseball. Still, for the purist in me, I stick to the hard stats.

Finally, we can't chalk anything up to "luck." That is a cop out and its not a measurable variable--unless you ask the Jazz fan in my ward who insists that Kobe Bryant is the "luckiest player in the world."

Libby said...

I am an avid fan of on base percentage. If you can hit the ball, you are good for the team. You create the opportunities. You are the silent hero.

Corry Cropper said...

I agree Libby. Bob is probably also a respecter of "wins" for pitchers (and I do not say that ironically). Wins are just as lucky as RBI--if your team scores 10 runs every time you, as a pitcher, start a game, chances are you will get a lot of wins... and be a bad pitcher.

Robert J. Hudson said...

Wins are not all luck, and I do think they are a good gauge of a pitchers stamina more than anything. As I said in the post, it is ERA that counts. Sure, outs are a prized commodity; but, baseball comes down to the number of runs--either scored (RBI) or disallowed (ERA). Common denominator: runs.

Anonymous said...

"I argue that it does not matter how many players a team puts (and leaves) on base if a clutch hitter is not bringing them home"

If *every* player simply succeeds in not getting an out-- whether by getting a hit, or walking, or being hit by pitch is irrelevant-- then the team will score an infinite number of runs.

By contrast, a team that sets a record for the most home runs ever, but fails to attain the 1.00 OBP, will score a lot of runs but, alas, a finite number.

As soon as we can decide whether an infinite number of runs beats a finite number of runs we'll know whether OBP is the most important stat or not.