Award season is upon us. It is a time for arguing about ERA versus FIP, pitching to the score, defensive value, and the meaning of “valuable.” Fun, right? It is also a time for me to whip out fun little toys to recognize different kinds of offensive contributions. One of these is the basis for the Joe Carter–Tony Batista Award, which annually recognizes the hitter whose RBI total most overstates his actual offensive contribution.
Spoiler alert: it was a banner year for the National League Central. Taste the excitement!
Diatribes against the RBI are not really needed any more, at least not around here, so this is not the place to look for one of them. This is just a way of looking at players whose RBI total is most out of step with their actual offensive production.
The award is based on a simple metric: runs batted in (RBI) divided by absolute linear weights runs created (wRC). More detailed explanations can be found in earlier write-ups. The higher a hitter’s RBI/wRC, the more his RBI total exaggerates his actual offensive production as measured by linear weights, the generally accepted (although differently implemented) sabermetric standard for measuring individual offense.
The award is named for Joe Carter and Tony Batista because they are the two players with the two “best” seasons according to this metric — seasons in which they hit poorly by sabermetric measures but accumulated high numbers of RBI nonetheless. Not all hitters who rate highly in this toy metric are bad hitters. As we will see, this year especially, that is not the case. Some of the 2013 hitting performances below were actually good according to linear weights. The winning performance was not. This is simply a fun (at least for me) way of highlighting the disconnect.
Here are 2013’s five Carter-Batista Award contenders (minimum of 90 RBI):
5. Allen Craig, 1.161 RBI/wRC, 135 wRC+, .315/.373/.457, 97 RBI
Want to know a good way to rack up RBI despite a serious drop in power (.142 ISO in 2013 after a .215 in 2012)? Spend 110 games batting cleanup behind Matt Carpenter (.392 on-base percentage), Carlos Beltran (.339, not great in itself, but pretty nice compared to, say, Zack Cozart), and Matt Holliday (.389). Allen Craig played in only 134 games this past season, but that is an ironman performance for him. Craig typified the 2013 Cardinals offense: unimpressive power, tons of line drives (resulting in a .368 BABIP), and insanely good hitting with runners in scoring position. Check out Craig’s splits:
Bases Empty: .262/.321/.383, 103 wRC+
Runners on Base: .378/.432/.432, 172 wRC+
Runners in Scoring Position: .454/.500/.638, 218 wRC+
There are a number of other ways one could point to Craig’s amazing situational performance (for example, contrasting his 22 batting runs above average with his 47 RE24) The Cardinals should not rely on this sort of clutch performance repeating itself on either an individual or team level, but it is remarkable nonetheless. Craig is a good hitter who provides nice value for the Cardinals despite his defensive limitations and health issues.
4. Jay Bruce, 1.171 RBI/wRC, 117 wRC+, .262/.329/.478, 109 RBI
A few years ago, Jay Bruce seemed headed for superstardom. He will only be 27 next year, so it could still happen, but in the meantime his offensive value has been limited by his contact issues. It is a testament to his walk rate and (especially) power that he has been able to a very good player (if not a star) anyway. In contrast to Craig, Bruce actually hit (slightly) worse with runners on than with the bases empty, but he had plenty of chance to rack up RBI given his impressive power and hitting most of the season fifth with on-base machine Joey Votto hitting third.
3. Mark Trumbo, 1.275 RBI/wRC, 106 wRC+, .234/.294/.453, 100 RBI
Trumbo was fourth on this list last year, so my advanced statistical analysis indicates that he should win it all in 2015. In terms of straightforward offensive value Trumbo had a relatively disappointing 2013 after his surprising 2012. It is not completely surprising, however. Trumbo’s power remained intact, as he hit more than 30 home runs for the second season in a row (and had 219 in 2011), but despite the uptick in his walk rate to around average, he still strikes out far too often, and his fly ball tendencies made his BABIP regression somewhat predictable. Like Bruce, he actually was slightly worse with runners on base. Also like Bruce, he hits enough home runs to increase his RBI total while also spending much of the season hitting in the middle of the order behind on on-base machine (Trumbo hit fourth or fifth most of the season while Mike Trout spent most of 2013 hitting second or third).
NB: Trumbo is the only player on this list who is not in the NL Central. Maybe the Reds will trade for him.
2. Pedro Alvarez, 1.334 RBI/wRC, 111 wRC+, .233/.296/.473, 100 RBI
Continuing our run of all-or-nothing sluggers, Pedro Alvarez outdoes Trumbo with a slightly lower walk rate, a higher strikeout rate, and more power. Again Trumbo (and Bruce), he did not hit better than usual with runners on (although he was not much worse than with the bases empty), and his RBI numbers are at partly a function of driving himself in with 36 home runs. He also hit behind Andrew McCutchen. Alvarez needs the power, as he does not really do anything else well at the plate.
It is not as if Alvarez is terribly young (he is actually two months older that Jay Bruce) with tons of upside. But if he can continue to play third base decently, his power should make him as asset for at least the next few years whatever irrespective of his RBI totals.
No one is going to accuse the 2013 Joe Carter-Tony Batista Award recipient of being too dependent on home runs. And here he is:
1. Brandon Phillips, 1.484 RBI/wRC, 91 wRC+, .261/.310/.396, 103 RBI
Even within the context Phillips’ career, this is curious, as his 103 RBI is his highest single-season total, while his 91 wRC+ is one of the worst of his career. Phillips’ decline and potential trade value have both come up in the off-season, so there is no need to discuss them at length here. Given Phillips’ lack of power (and pretty much everything less this season), it should come as no surprise that he hit much better with runners in on and in scoring position than with the bases empty, although he was not on Craig’s level. Hitting fourth for most of the year with Shin-Soo Choo (.423 on-base percentage) leading off and Joey Votto (.435) hitting third also might have helped a bit.
Congratulations to Phillips, Bruce, and the Reds. With that kind of RBI ability in their lineup, just imagine how many runs Cincinnati might score if they can convince Joey Votto to stop taking so many walks.
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.