Take two players. Both get on base 40% of the time. Player A has good players batting next in the lineup so he his knocked home 25% of the time. Player B has less capable batters hitting behind him and he only gets home 10% of the time. Player A will score more Runs but he isn’t any better than Player B.
Flip the example around by measuring the batters hitting first and you have the story of the RBI. Even position in the lineup can impact both a player’s Runs and RBIs.
So why do we still measure these values? Habit mostly. Baseball fans like to count everything. They also measure context.
Performance in Context
So why do Runs and RBIs matter in the Most Valuable Player discussion? As the above example illustrates, they put a players performance into the context of each game.
Players don’t play in a void. Getting a hit when someone is on base is more valuable to a team than getting a hit with bases loaded. Sure, both have value, but the first is clearly more valuable.
When looking at Runs, it is actually a good statistic because it encompasses so many things. The more you get on base, the more you will score. The more extra base hits you get, the more you will score because you will be closer to home. The more effective you are at stealing bases, the more Runs you will score.
All those are tied to the ability of a player. The player still needs to be knocked home by a teammate, bringing context into play.
Combining the Two
Neither Runs nor RBIs offer a complete view into how a players performance is in context. Both have to be taken into account when measuring value.
- RBIs show a player taking advantage of an opportunity.
- Runs show a player creating opportunity for their teammates.
They also provide context within their team. If a player has 100 RBIs for a team that scores only 600 runs, that is more impressive than a player that scores 100 RBIs for a team that scores 700 runs.
Context in Context
As I said when discussing WAR and the MVP, no single statistic can measure a MVP. Runs and RBIs in the context of the number of runs scored by a team is a good starting point.
While slugging, stolen bases, and other statistics measure production, RBIs and Runs measure outcomes.
Baseball is a team sport. No single player can create a winning team. Just ask the Steinbrenners. When trying to determine how valuable a player was in a given year, any discussion that doesn’t take into account the direct impact of the player’s performance to the team is inherently flawed.