Saturday, December 19, 2015

Filling The Gap Between Runs and RBI: 2015

Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar contributed to runs in ways that didn't show up in box score.
(Photo credit: FanSided.com)

Imagine the following scenario.  Tigers slow-footed designated hitter Victor Martinez leads off an inning with a single and is removed for speedy pinch runner Anthony Gose.  Third baseman Nick Castellanos doubles Gose to third and Gose eventually scores on a weak grounder by catcher James McCann. This sequence goes into the books as a run scored for Gose and an RBI for McCann, but Martinez and Castellanos get no credit for the team scoring a run despite contributing important hits.

To the best of my knowledge, the kind of run participation by Martinez and Hunter described above is not publicly tracked like runs scored and RBI.  For the past few years, I have track this run involvement for all players with the help of play-by-play data at Retrosheet.org.  I have tried to account for every instance of a player helping to create a run, whether it be a run scored, run batted in or an indirect contribution for all games where play-by-play data are available.

Limitations of Runs Scored and RBI 
 
The above example illustrates that the runs scored and RBI statistics do not always give players the credit they deserve for participation in run scoring, but that is not their only limitation.  Many analysts eschew these metrics because they measure things that are, to some extent, out of control of the individual batter.  Unless a batter hits a home run or steals home, he needs teammates to help him score runs.  Even a relatively poor base runner will score a lot of runs if he gets on base frequently and has good hitters behind him.  Who bats behind him in the line-up is as important as base running skill in determining how many runs a player will score.

The RBI statistic has similar limitations to runs scored.  Unless he smacks a home run, a player needs teammates on base in order to drive in runs.  If a player has hitters batting in front of him who frequently get on base, then he is more likely to drive in runs than if he has weaker hitters setting him up.   Thus, a player on a good hitting team has more chances to drive in runs than a player on a poor hitting team.


A batter’s position in his line-up also influences his runs scored and RBI totals. For example, a lead-off hitter  usually has fewer opportunities to drive home runs than a clean-up hitter, since the generally weaker 7-8-9 hitters bat in front of him.  The RBI leaders at the end of a season are as likely to be the players with the most opportunities as the players most proficient at hitting with men on base.

Many mathematically-minded fans would like to see RBI and Runs become extinct in favor of statistics, such as on-base percentage, Weighted On-base Percentage (wOBA) and Batting Runs, which isolate a player's contribution from those of his teammates.  Despite the shortcomings of these measures however, most traditional fans still like the concreteness of runs scored and RBI.  Players like it too which is understandable.  A batter does not want to reach base to improve his on-base percentage, but rather to put himself in position to score a run.  Moreover, a batter up with a runner in scoring position is not focused on his slugging average, but rather he is thinking about driving in the run.

The Origins of Runs and RBI

The runs scored and RBI statistics both have long histories. Shortly after Alexander Cartwright and the New York Knickerbockers established the first set of modern baseball rules, the first box score appeared in the New York Morning News on October 25, 1845.  The only statistics that were included in this box score were hands out (Today, they are simply called “outs”.) and runs for batters.  Some of the early baseball writers had ties to cricket, a relative of baseball, and early box scores reflected that association.  Hits that did not result in runs were not included because, in cricket, one either scores a point by reaching the opposite wicket or is out. 

The runs batted in statistic was recorded in newspapers in 1879 and 1880 and was an official statistic in the National League in 1891.  However, fans complained that the measure was unfair to leadoff batters and too dependent on opportunity and it was quickly dropped.  Ernie Lanigan, an important baseball statistician in the early 20th century, personally tracked runs batted in and included the statistic in New York Press box scores starting in 1907.  It became an official statistic again in 1920 under the name, “Runs Responsible For”.  The RBI statistic gradually gained acceptance and eventually became even more popular than the runs scored metric. 

Runs Assisted

Because of their extensive history and their popularity with fans, media and players, the runs scored and RBI metrics are not going to disappear as some in the sabermetric world would like.  I would argue that they really shouldn't be eliminated altogether even from the sabermetric community.  While they should not be used as overarching player evaluation measures, it is good to know how actual runs were scored along with how they theoretically should have been scored.

If one is going to use actual runs scored in any analysis of players though, it is a good idea to consider the entire run as opposed to the popular practice of just looking at RBI. To that end, the Runs Assisted (or RAS to distinguish it from the pitching metric "Run Average") statistic gives players credit for contributing to runs without a run scored or RBI.  Here are the ways a batter can get a Run Assisted:  
  • A batter advances a runner to either second or third with a hit, base on balls, hit batsmen, error, sacrifice bunt, or another kind of out.  If that runner then scores either during the same at bat or an ensuing at bat, the batter who advanced him is given a Run Assisted.
  • A batter reaches base and is removed for a pinch runner or is replaced by another runner on a force out.  If the new runner then scores, the batter who originally reached base is given a Run Assisted.
The 2015 American League Runs Assisted Leaders are listed in Table 1 below.  Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar led the league with 66 Runs Assisted.  Pillar assisted runs on the following events:
  • 35 hits (H)
  • 7 walks (BB)
  • 3 hit batsman (HBP)
  • 3 times reached on errors (ROE)
  • 1 sacrifice bunt (SH)
  • 13 outs (OUT)
  • 3 Removed from bases due to force out or pinch runner and new runner scored (RR)
Note that the above numbers only add up to 65 instead of 66.  That is because a player can assist more than one run with one event.

Table 1: AL Runs Assisted Leaders, 2015
Player
Team
H
BB
HBP
ROE
SH
OUT
RR
RAS
Kevin Pillar
TOR
35
7
3
3
1
13
3
66
Shin-Soo Choo
TEX
28
12
5
1
1
16
2
65
Prince Fielder
TEX
26
18
3
0
0
11
5
63
Alex Rodriguez
NYA
29
20
1
1
1
5
4
61
Josh Donaldson
TOR
28
16
2
1
0
8
2
57
Robinson Cano
SEA
31
9
1
4
0
9
2
57
Jose Bautista
TOR
24
22
1
1
0
6
1
55
Xander Bogaerts
BOS
34
5
0
4
2
7
1
55
Billy Butler
OAK
25
11
4
0
1
11
3
55
Kendrys Morales
KCA
26
10
1
4
0
12
1
54
Eric Hosmer
KCA
23
13
0
0
2
15
0
53
Mike Moustakas
KCA
21
11
0
2
4
12
3
53
Michael Brantley
CLE
34
3
1
2
0
9
2
52
Adrian Beltre
TEX
32
10
0
3
0
6
0
51
Mitch Moreland
TEX
22
12
4
2
0
7
4
51
Data source:Retrosheet

The National League leaders are shown in Table 2 below.  We saw in Table 1 that the RAS leaders are not necessarily the top hitters in the league.  However, the best hitter in the NL - Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper - was also the RAS king with 66. 

Table 2: NL Runs Assisted Leaders, 2015
Player
Team
H
BB
HBP
ROE
SH
OUT
RR
RAS
Bryce Harper
WAS
30
29
2
0
0
5
0
66
Anthony Rizzo
CHN
22
15
9
5
0
11
2
64
Matt Duffy
SFN
35
6
0
4
0
15
1
61
Ian Desmond
WAS
23
13
1
2
5
13
1
58
Andrew McCutchen
PIT
24
11
3
2
0
13
3
56
Joey Votto
CIN
18
21
2
4
0
5
2
52
Yunel Escobar
WAS
23
14
1
1
1
7
4
51
Starling Marte
PIT
23
6
3
6
3
8
0
50
Jason Heyward
SLN
21
11
0
2
0
13
3
50
Jhonny Peralta
SLN
28
6
0
2
0
11
3
50
Matt Kemp
SDN
24
15
0
1
1
5
2
48
Buster Posey
SFN
26
6
2
1
0
9
4
48
Paul Goldschmidt
ARI
22
15
0
2
0
6
1
47
A.J. Pollock
ARI
27
9
1
1
0
8
1
47
Kris Bryant
CHN
12
18
2
5
1
7
0
45
Data source:Retrosheet

The Detroit Tigers RAS leaders were Miguel Cabrera (47), Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez (43).  Other top Bengals can be found in Table 3.  

Table 3: Tigers Runs Assisted Leaders, 2015
Player
H
BB
HBP
ROE
SH
OUT
RR
RAS
Miguel Cabrera
17
19
0
2
0
5
4
47
Ian Kinsler
17
10
0
2
0
14
1
44
J.D. Martinez
21
11
0
1
0
9
1
43
Nick Castellanos
18
9
0
2
0
2
4
35
Victor Martinez
13
10
0
1
0
7
2
33
Jose Iglesias
21
2
0
1
0
5
0
29
Yoenis Cespedes
18
5
0
2
0
2
0
27
Anthony Gose
15
5
1
4
0
1
1
27
Rajai Davis
12
2
0
3
0
3
1
21
James McCann
15
0
0
0
1
2
3
21
Data source:Retrosheet

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