Now, responding to the second question, RBIs do indicate a positive contribution from the batter. To get the runner in, the batter must have done something to get him in—hit, sacrifice fly, groundout, walk, HBP, etc.—and that led to a run for the team, which by definition is a positive contribution to the team. Considering that runs are the ultimate way in which a team wins, it’s understandable that we be attached to this statistic. The problem, however, is how we assign credit. Subconsciously or maybe consciously, we give the batter all the credit for run—that’s why it’s its own separate statistic—but unless the batter hits a home run, there had to be another party involved. While we realize that, it doesn’t help that we’ve always preferred the “run-producers” than the “table-setters”. The phrase “run-producer” itself gives RBI more power as the term is “active”—the person is making something. “Table-setter”, on the other hand, is a “passive” term—while the person is technically acting, the audience knows there is another action, probably more important, about to happen. But we know the guys on base are actively involved in that run scoring. So while RBIs do indicate a positive offensive contribution by the batter, it also indicates a few more things as well, but those other things are not given credit. Simply, there are statistics that are much better at measuring a hitter than RBI. Go ahead and use RBI, but use it knowing it’s incomplete and needs supplemental information.
Okay, but what about “sentimental value”? Before I agree, what does “sentimental value” mean? Is it nostalgically valuable in a “Oh, I remember when …” kind of way? Or is it a “It was better in my day when …” kind of way? If you like the first sense, then we’re on the same page. RBIs have significant historical value. You can use them to talk about the invention of box scores, machismo in baseball, the history of statistics in baseball, describing the beginning of statistical analysis in baseball, and it will be essential when historians remember this point in baseball history. There’s quite a bit of value in RBIs, and they should never be forgotten.
Another argument is how fans just want to enjoy the game. That’s fine on the surface. People enjoy the game of baseball in various ways, and pretty much all of them are valid. Enjoy the game in whatever way you most enjoy, especially if it’s what drew you to the game. Watch the game in person, only on Sundays, only on TV, a mixture, on MLB.tv, in box scores, playing Strat-o-Matic. I don’t care how you do it, and no one else should either. How exactly RBIs play into that, I’m not sure, but I’m willing to concede that point. If you want RBIs to help you enjoy the game, be my guest.
But be careful when it comes to analysis. Enjoying the game is one thing. You can love watching David Eckstein play, and you can love him because he’s gritty, a hard worker, and short. You can call him your favorite player. You can even call him a good player, but you’d have to be careful how you say that (good for baseball, good for kids, etc.). But saying he’s one of the best second basemen in the league or that he helped the Padres get near the playoffs is wrong. Saying Ryan Howard is one of the best first basemen in the league because he knocks in a lot of runs is wrong. You can love Ryan Howard. You can enjoy watching him hit majestic home runs. He can be your favorite player. But he isn’t one of the best players in baseball, from a performance standpoint.
And here’s where the linguistic disconnect comes in, and it’s the reason we tell our kids to learn new words. Words like “bad” and “good” are vague. Even “valuable” is vague. Well, what do you mean? Are we talking valuable to baseball itself as an ambassador, star attraction, and/or community member? Or are we talking adding wins to a team? Or is it some mixture of both? Sometimes, we just aren’t precise enough with what we’re saying. So we end up arguing over “good” when we’re using different definitions. And we do this with analysis and enjoyment, though the words aren’t as vague.
When analysts criticize a player’s worth, it causes a negative reaction in the fan. In this instance, the fan is confusing their enjoyment of a player with an analysis of the player. One can get significant enjoyment from watching Howard hit while also realizing that he is not a particularly good hitter. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s not. Analysis is directed toward some goal. In this instance, the goal is to figure out what actually contributes to a winning baseball team. In a way, there are certain universal truths to what contributes to a winning team. When it comes to enjoyment, the goals are varied and sometimes not even conscious, but there are no truths, at least no universal ones anyway. Sometimes, those goals overlap, and sometimes they do not. We, in general, are terrible about parsing these details, but it’s essential in this discussion.
Going back to my comment on Chipper, I failed. The comment was meant as an analysis … actually let’s just say it’s aim was ambiguous. To begin the tweet, I was looking at RBIs from an analytical perspective, but then I compared it to an emotion that pertains to enjoyment. A high number of RBIs tell me a few things—that a hitter was probably hitting in the middle of the order, that he did this for a while, and that he must have been pretty good for a while. It does not tell me how good he was, but it’s a fair indication that he was good. But my tweet failed. I took an analytical concept and applied it to an emotional situation. Congratulating Chipper on his accomplishment wasn’t telling him that he was the best third baseman, switch-hitter, or run-producer ever. It was simply saying, “Congratulations on a long, well-played career.” Here, I failed to distinguish between analysis and enjoyment. Was the accomplishment completely arbitrary? Probably, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable. Jacob Peterson, a writer for Talking Chop (follow him, too, @junkstats after you follow me @Mark_L_Smith … okay, I’m done with my shameless self-promotion; Chip’s actually going to think my ego’s run amok) tweeted, “I don’t like RBIs, but 1,500 RBIs still seems a lot cooler than, say ‘80 career bWAR’. Can’t celebrate a WAR milestone b/c it can go down.”