The Chart That Launched A Thousand Ships

Much has been made about Sean Forman’s article in the New York Times that took Ryan Howard down a peg. Forman deconstructed Howard’s glamorous RBI totals, illustrating that the statistic is more a function of opportunity than skill. I don’t wish to rehash the arguments about Howard and RBI that I’ve had before, but I made a chart that I found quite interesting.

The above plots every qualified player’s WAR along with his RBI total. As the trend line indicates, you can see a positive relationship. The more RBI you have, generally the more valuable you are to your team. The r-square, or coefficient of determination, is 0.2265. That is to say, generally speaking, 23 percent of a player’s value is explained by RBI (and factors relating to RBI).

To traditionalists, that will seem very low; to Saberists, it will seem high. There are a bunch of caveats with this, of course, such as a biased sample (only one year), but it paints a good enough picture. That red diamond you see is Ryan Howard. He is all by himself, with the most RBI but not nearly as much WAR as other players with similar RBI totals. In fact, a lot less.

That Howard is an outlier is enough to make people take one look and swear off Sabermetrics forever. But to immediately discard a theory because it doesn’t match up with your preconceived notions is a fool’s errand. All progress you see and have seen is because people set aside what they think they know about their world and open their mind to new possibilities.

In statistics, we accept that in every sample, there are going to be outliers, pretty much no matter what. The 68-95-99.7 rule tells us that in normally distributed data, approximately 68 percent of the data will be found within +/- one standard deviation of the mean; 95 percent within two standard deviations, and 99.7 percent within three. If you take a look at this table for higher deviations, you’ll see that all of the data can never be found within any deviation range.

To laypeople, an outlier is a sign of failure, that the stat is doing something wrong. Unless your statistic claims to account for all universal factors, how can that make any logical sense? I believe this is the biggest obstacle for laypeople when it comes to accepting Sabermetric principles. They see Howard with a MLB-best 95 RBI and comparatively-low 1.4 WAR and cannot reconcile the two.

Wins Above Replacement is far from a perfect metric and anyone that tells you otherwise does not understand the statistic. In fact, any self-proclaimed Sabermetrics adherent that tells you that the stats we have now can explain anything and everything is a crazy person. However, Sabermetrics are a cut above traditional stats, such as RBI and won-lost records. Sabermetric stats don’t have to be perfect, or even extremely accurate, for you to discard your older, more familiar but incredibly flawed metrics.

Let’s do some critical analysis of the RBI stat. Runs batted in. What does it tell us? Simply, how many teammates the player in question helped reach home plate.

Now, what does RBI not tell us? It doesn’t tell us:

  • How often the player in question has other runners on base
  • The base running skill of the runners the player is driving in
  • The scoring opportunities of the player’s hits (i.e. a player who gets a lot of extra-base hits is more likely to drive in runners than a singles hitter)
  • The player’s common spot in the batting order
  • The quality of opposition
  • Effects of ballparks on run-scoring

The Phillies’ number one, two, and three hitters in the batting order have on-base percentages of .336, .348, and .343, respectively. If, instead, Howard had hit fourth in the batting order for the Washington Nationals, with 1-3 OBP’s of .269, .289, and .352, would we still expect him to have 95 RBI?

In another alternate reality, let’s imagine that the OBP stays constant, but in one lineup Howard has three Jose Reyes clones ahead of him; in the other, three Adam Dunn clones. Each has an OBP of .340. Would we expect Howard to drive in the same amount of runs with each team?

Let’s imagine Howard switches over to the AL West. Everything stays constant except the ballparks. Instead of playing at Turner Field, Citi Field, Sun Life Stadium, and Nationals Park, Howard is now hitting in Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Safeco Field, Angel Stadium of Anaheim, and the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Don’t you think that the more pitcher-friendly parks of the AL West would have an impact on Howard’s RBI total?

If any of the examples above make sense — and I should hope that they do — then the flaws in RBI are apparent. Saberists are often accused of holding up particular stats — flawed ones — as the be-all, end-all of player evaluation. But when the same people making those accusations fall back on RBI, they are holding Sabermetrics up to a double standard. You don’t have to accept every tenet of Sabermetrics, or even Sabermetrics at all, to admit that the RBI stat is extremely flawed. All Saberists ask of you is to be consistent when you apply your criticism. I think this is at the crux of the emotional debates that pop up every time Howard and WAR and RBI are mentioned in consecutive sentences.

Be critical of Sabermetrics. It is always good to look at the world from a skeptical point of view; it is a necessary biological trait that has allowed the human species to prosper. But be level when you do so. Don’t hold Sabermetrics up to a standard you wouldn’t be willing to or are incapable of living up to yourself.

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77 comments

  1. Jay

    August 17, 2011 12:52 PM

    WAR undervalues the importance that an elite power hitter like Ryan Howard has on a lineup. His ability to change the game with one swing of the bat effects how pitchers throw to all batters around Ryan. He remains the most important hitter in our lineup.

  2. sean

    August 17, 2011 12:58 PM

    was going to write this yesterday but couldn’t word it right. people love RBIs because they are tangible “results”, just like ERA. they have context in wins and you play to win the game so to speak. WAR strips out context, though if you added WPA to WAR that could help to determine how much a guy helps.

    people like the guy with the large numbers of rbi on playoff teams even if i told them they came while the team was already ahead(don’t know really) and did not affect the final. Humans have selective memory and will remember what they want to remember thus why we keep stats in the first place. they see howard have 2-3 hits that affect a result but will forget the 8 other situation where he didn’t help.

  3. sean

    August 17, 2011 01:04 PM

    this was brought up during their sound off segment, later that day. the caller says on base percentage is what matters more the rbis(true but i’d go with OPS) if howard hits a grand slam, and then the pence hits a home run after, is pence’s home run worth less because he did it with the bases empty? of course marks then says well if howard hits the home run then pence walks they are both getting on base! same on base percentage. “whats more important the grand slam or the walk that followed it” poor wording by the caller

  4. Maestrobe

    August 17, 2011 01:04 PM

    Bill,

    I’m going to make this point every time you post something about Ryan Howard and WAR. You say above:

    “I think a good portion of that can be explained by the shift. With the bases empty, opposing defenses are free to stack up on the right side. But when there are runners on base, they need to be held, so the fielders need to stay closer to the bases in the event of a pick-off play or a stolen base attempt. Thus, there is more space in the areas of the field that Howard frequents.”

    If your formula for WAR does not take the “skill” reflected in that last sentence into account, your formula is doing something wrong. (The quotation marks around “skill” are there because Howard’s penchant for “hitting ‘em where they ain’t” appear to arise out of tendencies in his hitting over which he seems to have little control.) That “skill” is precisely what makes him valuable as a clean-up hitter.

    I’d love to hear your counter-argument.

    Maestrobe

  5. sean

    August 17, 2011 01:08 PM

    Jay ryan howard is 20th in the NL in slugging percentage. he doesn’t even have the highest percentage on his own team.

  6. sean

    August 17, 2011 01:18 PM

    maestrobe the shift is employed on more players then just ryan howard, mark teixeira when he bats lefty and david ortiz to name two off the top of my head. All players hit better with runners on by the simple fact that it’s harder for starting pitchers to pitch in the stretch, and the fielders have to compensate for the runners and play out of an optimal position. last three years OPS for those three players when a runner is on base is .965(howard) .923(ortiz) and .921(teixeira)

  7. Maestrobe

    August 17, 2011 01:43 PM

    Sean,

    I don’t doubt what you say, but it doesn’t answer the question. Does WAR take into account the advantage these hitters have when there are runners are on base? All of those OPSs are impressive, Howard’s most so.

    Bill’s point seems to be that Howard’s an oultier in RBIs because he has more opportunities than most hitters. But it seems like his OPS when there are runners on base would play a large role. If his OPS consistently goes up more consderably than other hitters with runners on base (including Texiera and Ortiz this season), then that “skill” (as opposed to the randomness of “clutch”) is something that could and should be quantified and included in WAR. Is it?

    Maestrobe

  8. Bill Baer

    August 17, 2011 03:24 PM

    Maestrobe,

    If Howard is in those spots and he produces, then yes, it is in WAR. He had a plate appearance, and if he got a hit (be it a single, double, HR, etc.) then he is credited appropriately.

    It seems like you want to give Howard extra credit for being in a specific circumstance that has little to do with Howard himself and more to do with what the hitters ahead of him accomplish.

  9. Jim

    August 17, 2011 06:44 PM

    it does raise the question though: if a player can be expected to get an extra boost from having runners in scoring position (beyond what other players get), won’t WAR underrate him by some amount? regardless of the mechanism (in this case, the shift), if a player will continually perform better in higher leverage spots, then the context-neutral stat will not capture everything.

    whether you want to give him “credit” or not for that is an interesting thought. but it seems like you would want to consider it for sure in putting a value on his future performance, no?

    i say this as a pretty staunch howard critic. i doubt this effect would be enough to vault him over multiple players (especially since his vulnerability to left handers should work in the opposite direction in late innings), but it is interesting to consider nonetheless.

  10. Maestrobe

    August 17, 2011 11:55 PM

    As Jim points out, I do want to give him credit (not “extra credit”) for hitting well in high-leverage situations if there is an identifiable, non-random reason for it. You can have the clean-up hitter with an OPS of 1.000 with the bases empty and .800 with someone on base. I’ll take the player with the opposite numbers. Plug that into a computer and see whose team wins more often.

  11. Jay

    August 18, 2011 02:16 PM

    By my calculations, there are only 7 players in all of baseball that would have more RBIs than Ryan Howard given the same opportunities. Those names are Curtis Granderson, Nelson Cruz, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Braun, and Josh Hamilton. Only one other first baseman in that group, and all are superstars. So yes, Ryan Howard is one of the run producers in all of baseball, and it has little to do with the number of opportunities he gets.

  12. jauer

    August 18, 2011 03:34 PM

    Jay, Howard is not in the top 20 in OBI%. what were your calculations?

  13. curtwill

    August 18, 2011 04:05 PM

    I have seen the Ryan Howard argument and debate so many times. I think it comes down to his contract, if he was making say, 15 Mil then I don’t think this is an article.

    Then again, he is getting paid like he is because what Arbitration awarded a while back. It’s a pay raise, that’s what the Phillies gave him and whether you can argue whether he deserves, it’s a 5 mil a year pay raise that will begin next year. I think once that’s understood, I think the arguments will be less frequent.

  14. jauer

    August 18, 2011 04:38 PM

    The argument would still exist because people (re: missanelli and his peers) are putting Howard (and sometimes even Rollins) in the HOF before Utley

  15. curtwill

    August 18, 2011 04:47 PM

    @Jauer

    Well, considering Ryan’s #s in terms of the “traditional” numbers, you can kind of understand why some would make that statement.

    I already know how it would turn out on here, so I won’t. Both of them are HOF caliber as far as I am concerned so I will go down that road.

  16. jauer

    August 18, 2011 05:10 PM

    I understand. My point was that there are additional areas for this discussion that are salary-irrelevant

  17. curtwill

    August 18, 2011 05:45 PM

    ^^^^I see your point

  18. Eric S.

    August 19, 2011 11:43 AM

    By “incredibly flawed metrics” do you mean HR, RBI, and BA? Those aren’t flawed, but sabermetrics has helped to show what we’ve always known, that the “bottom line” nature of those stats won’t tell the whole story.

    I think Sabermetrics undervalues Howard and his raw stats overvalue him. He’s more than a 1.4 WAR in my opinion, but we still need other facts to settle this the enigma that is Ryan Howard’s performance. Here’s what I propose:

    an RBI rating that takes into consideration the amount and type of RBI opportunities that a player has compared with his RBI competitors. For instance, assign a low value to a plate appearance with nobody on, and a higher value to bases loaded, less than two out. Obviously, more work needs to be done on this, but I’m surprised no one has developed, or at least analyzed and compared RBI numbers based on the types of opportunities that he has, using the situation as a key indicator.

    Considering the OBP of the guys ahead of him is a great way to consider this, and it does seem like Howard always has guys on base in front of him. But let’s think back over the last few years … Rollins and Victorino didn’t have above average OBPs for a 1-2 hitter. Utley, on the other hand, usually does for a three hitter. Comparing their OBPs to the Nationals is unhelpful. Compare him to the league averages at least. Numbers will tell the final story here, but not Sabermetrics, since Howard is an outlier in that system. Somebody who has access to all these numbers, please solve this for us!

  19. Jay

    August 19, 2011 09:54 PM

    HR + 375*(RBI-HR)/BR is the calc for every player

  20. Jim

    August 20, 2011 03:28 PM

    There is really no way around this point. Even looking at his OBI% is going to overrate him compared to players who walk (or are walked) more often with men on base. You can compare him to various hitters that most would consider superior but drive in less runners even when accounting for opportunity. Without accounting for outs made, you have a stat that is going to make him look better than Pujols, Cabrera, Gonzalez etc. Strip out the walks and account for where the runners are on the bases and I think you will have a different story.

    Eric S., RE24 is a stat that shows how much run potential a guy creates over league average results in those situations. It is ALMOST like a RBI formula weighted to league average in each situation, except it also factors in where the batter ends up AFTER the plate appearance (did he make an out, is he on second, etc).

  21. Jim

    August 20, 2011 03:35 PM

    I’ve actually asked around in a few places and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to acquire Left On Base counts. This would be an easy shortcut for removing the effect of walks with men on base, but the data doesn’t seem to exist.

  22. John A

    August 21, 2011 12:37 PM

    My father is impossible when it comes to this debate. He refuses to denounce RBI, and refuses to accept new statistics. I spent over an hour debating this with him. His argument is that RBI correlates with how many runs a team scores, which is how you win games. He concedes that Ryan Howard would have fewer RBI on the Nationals, but says that he wouldn’t be “as valuable” a player on that team. When I asked what RBI actually tells you about a player, he responded that it tells you how many times a guy came through for his team. When I brought up BA w/RISP, and pointed out that Ryan Howard is ranked 14th in the NL in that category (min. 100 PA w/RISP), he dismissed it, saying it could be wrong for any number of reasons, and that there was no way Prince Fielder (who has a higher BA w/RISP) would have more RBI in Howard’s spot than Howard has now. I asked him what a reason could be for BA w/RISP being wrong, and he said Prince Fielder must have fewer PA, and therefore his number is inaccurate. I mentioned Prince Fielder only has 15 fewer PA w/RISP, and he just insisted the number isn’t as good as RBI, and that you can’t discount Ryan Howard’s RBI total. He honestly believes Ryan Howard is the most valuable position player on the Phillies.

    So basically, I guess he only wants numbers that line up with his notions of what a good ball player is. I really can’t stand that he refuses to have even a slightly open mind. Has anyone found a way to deal with people like this?

  23. John A

    August 21, 2011 12:44 PM

    Also if you’re wondering why, of all the numbers I could go to, I went with BA w/RISP, it’s because he only understands traditional numbers (BA, RBI, OBP, etc.). Anytime I’ve tried explaining even something as simple as wOBA to him, he dismisses the idea of weights, or any number saying a hit is worth X runs or anything like that. His favorite saying is “You can make numbers say anything.” He truly believes sabermetrics are just some guys throwing together some formulas to come up with meaningless numbers to tell whatever narrative they want, just like he believes about any statistic he can’t understand.

  24. Phillie697

    August 21, 2011 02:29 PM

    @John A,

    He has somewhat of a point with BA w/RISP. That’s not a perfect stat either, because not all hits w/RISP are equal. The number of RBIs you get with every RISP situation depends on the number of runners on base and whether you hit a single or double/triple or HR. Then of course there are the RBIs you get without RISP (double/triple with a man on first or, of course, HRs).

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but you should also acknowledge the shortcomings of the stats you rely on, as you would ask him to do the same.

  25. Leo

    August 22, 2011 07:58 AM

    I didn’t have time to read each comment but I think it’s safe to say you missed one point about the Reyes/Dunn comparison.

    The RBI totals may be EXACTLY the same in a given season no matter which player is ahead of him. I could argue that Dunn may be a bit higher a run scorer in the end of a season. How is it possible? Simply because you could not keep ONE Reyes in the line up ahead of Howard let alone 3 of them. They’d all burn out and make stupid base running errors. Dunn may not score as quickly, but he’s going to put in a complete season’s worth of scoring chances. As does Howard BTW while other first basemen may not play as many games.

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