Addressing Howard and RBI

I have seen the “Ryan Howard drives in a lot of runners” argument used as a justification for his contract extension quite frequently on the Internets lately. I would like to once again demonstrate that the RBI statistic is just about meaningless.

You have probably heard that RBI is dependent on the on-base percentage of the hitters in front of the player in question. This is very true. Ryan Howard will get more RBI opportunities with Chase Utley (career .380 OBP) in front of him than with Brandon Phillips (.312). Additionally, Howard will get more plate appearances hitting fourth in a high-powered lineup (weak offenses don’t rack up as much PA for obvious reasons).

Most people using RBI recently have been mindful of these flaws, but there is a more glaring mis-use still making the rounds — percentage of RBI opportunities. I don’t mean to pick on David Murphy, but he has the most recent and easiest-to-access example.

Howard has driven in a higher percentage of men on base than Pujols has in each of the last three seasons.

Now, part of that is prob due to pitchers treating Albert more carefully (if you are a lefty, you are going after Howard) w/ ROB

Only point is that, in this case, Howard’s RBIs are actually a good reflection of his ability to drive in runs

There’s information missing that is absolutely necessary to make RBI in any way meaningful in this discussion: how many runners are on base for Pujols and Howard respectively? Presumably, the “percentage of men on base” counts runners on second and third the same as a runner on second.

As you can see, Pujols has stepped to the plate with just a runner on first (the worst probability for an RBI) seven percent more often than Howard has. The other percentages are similar, with Howard holding one-to-three percentage points over Pujols. Using counting stats, we should expect Howard to out-produce Pujols in RBI every season.

The following graph will show each hitter’s percentage of RBI by base-state.

Howard has driven in more runners from first base which has a lot to do with A) the speed in front of him and B) his HR/PA rate being nearly double that of Pujols, 9.4% to 5.5%. Pujols makes more contact, however: .327 AVG, .403 OBP to Howard’s .306 AVG, .386 OBP.

Howard is also better with a runner just on third base and with runners on first and third. Again, this is due to a higher HR/PA rate (7% to 4%) and that Howard has been intentionally walked only 16 times to Pujols’ 39 with a runner on third.

Finally, while it is true that Howard has driven in a lot of runs, the real question that needs to be asked is: do we expect him to continue driving in those runs. Some people, such as Matt Swartz, expect Howard to age gracefully. Others expect the duration of his extension to be a turbulent ride. For reasons stated on Monday, I believe Howard will not age gracefully:

Already, Howard has shown signs of decline as his walk rate has declined every year since 2007 and sits at a paltry 3.6% thus far in 2010. His BABIP has been lower as more and more teams have employed an infield shift against him. Opposing teams have also been bringing in more left-handed relievers to face Howard and his production against them has swiftly dropped. His strikeout rate has declined gradually but so has his isolated power. Using FanGraphs’ pitch type linear weights, Howard’s production against the fastball has dropped every year since 2006. He has swung at more and more pitches outside of the strike zone every year since he came into the Majors. Finally, his whiff rate (swinging strike percentage) has increased every year since 2006.

Simply put, comparing Howard to Pujols is a fruitless endeavor. Pujols is, literally, twice as valuable as Howard. And the “Howard is a run producer” argument completely misses the point about projecting his talent through his age 36 season. He may have driven in 136+ runners in each of the past four seasons, but that doesn’t mean he is going to continue to do so throughout the duration of his contract — especially when stalwarts like Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Chase Utley won’t be around forever.

Graph of the Intermittent Time Period

(Tip of the hat to Steve Sommer of FanGraphs as well as Jeff Zimmerman and Sky Kalkman.)

This graph will display Charlie Manuel’s bullpen usage by Leverage Index, a stat found at FanGraphs. I have shrunk it down to fit on this page, but you can click it to view a much larger version to enhance readability.

Ryan Madson, the Phillies’ closer while Brad Lidge has been out, is marked by the large red circles. While he has been given the Phillies’ most heralded job in the bullpen, he typically has not been pitching in the most important spots in a game.

(Note: Madson pitched on April 24 in Arizona, but it is not marked on the graph because the LI was so high — 3.74 to be exact.)

Jose Contreras, meanwhile, has come in with an LI above 1 (neutral) in four of his seven appearances. Danys Baez has also pitched in LI > 1 situations in four out of his seven appearances.

Manuel has kept his younger hurlers out of crucial situations when possible. Antonio Bastardo and David Herndon have combined for only three appearances in LI > 1 situations. J.C. Romero, recently healed from off-season surgery, has not been called upon to get any important outs yet. Not long after joining the Phillies after being cut by the New York Mets, Nelson Figueroa was thrown into high-pressure situations in his first two appearances out of the bullpen.

Elsewhere, you can catch the pitching-half of my installment of Smoke and Mirrors at Baseball Daily Digest.