Smack a double off the wall in left-center with Bengie Molina on 1B, and you’re not getting that run batted in. Hit a dinky groundout with Garrett Hampson on 2B, and your RBI ledger miraculously gets a +1.
Runs Batted In is a really rough stat to bank an argument on when evaluating player performance. I’m not going to call it a ‘bad’ stat, since I’m pretty much of the opinion that no stat in baseball can possibly be ‘bad.’ Some just tell a much, much better story about what a player either has been up to or could be expected to be up to in the near future. RBI, really, is a team stat since that homer you yank over the LF fence only gets you a lone ribbie unless 1, 2, or 3 of your teammates managed to get on base in front of you. As with pitcher wins, it’s never really a bad thing to have a lot of them, but it doesn’t really begin to tell the whole story.
It’s only one part a measure of production, with the other parts matters of circumstance and the efforts of other players, and therefore means there are dozens of better ways to evaluate a player’s individual performance than citing their RBI total. That said, you can still have a reasonable range of estimation on what kind of RBI total you might expect from certain players given where they hit in the batting order, how often they play, how their other stats look, and what kind of players they have hitting in front of them. That’s a totally reasonable frame of mind in which you can have a discussion, and opinions, on how RBI totals define a player.
Joey Votto has driven in a hell of a lot of runs in his career. 920 of them, to be exact, which ranks as the 7th most in the history of the Cincinnati Reds. He’s topped 100 ribbies in a season on three separate occasions, and his career stats with runners in scoring position - .333/.484/.577 (1.061 OPS) - dwarf his career marks when there’s nary a soul on base - .298/.399/.504. There’s a reason why he’s won an MVP, made six All-Star teams, and consistently hit 2nd/3rd in every single lineup he’s ever graced.
So, to see him with just 23 RBI through the first 93 games of the Reds season should rightfully make you do a double-take. No, he’s not hitting 8th. Yes, he did do a brief cameo in the leadoff spot, but has had a stranglehold on hitting 2nd in the lineup for the bulk of the season. And unlike the fact that he had Billy Hamilton’s league-worst offense hitting in front of him in the previous years where folks have criticized his lack of arby-eyes, that’s no longer a bugaboo we can point to for why his RBI total is so low.
The fact is, there are a full 150 MLB players who have logged at least 300 PA this season, and not a single one of them has fewer than Votto’s 23 ribbies. Not one. He sits tied with Adam Eaton of Washington and Seattle’s Mallex Smith, with fewer even than San Francisco’s Joe Panik - he of the career .384 slugging percentage.
I’m not mad about it. I’m not really even critiquing him. Rather, I’m simply marveling at a stat that has me completely befuddled.
Votto, of course, is not 2010 Votto anymore. He wasn’t last year, either, and likely will never again approach even the 2017 version of him that was snubbed for another MVP. Still, he’s the owner of a reasonably average 91 OPS+ and has 83 hits so far this season - just 2 fewer than team leaders Eugenio Suarez and Yasiel Puig. Even his .259 batting average with runners in scoring position is better than his overall .257 mark, and while neither of those is anything approaching his career levels (or is the best way to evaluate a hitter’s performance), you’d think that would equate to something more than 23 damn arby-eyes.
Hell, if he had just 35, that’d still seem low, but would put him ahead of Lorenzo Cain, tied with Francisco Lindor and Nick Castellanos, and just behind the likes of Brandon Belt and Paul DeJong. It would also put him firmly in I don’t need to be writing this article territory, which would be fantastic for the psyche of a writer whose blogging career has spent hours, weeks, years chronicling just how amazing of a hitter the now 35 year old has been.
But, he doesn’t. He’s got 23, and nobody who’s played as much as he has this year has fewer, and that’s just too damn strange to ignore. Fortunately, for the same reasons that RBI totals are fickle beasts, he’s one good, lucky week or two away from making this article a completely irrelevant relic.
I’m going to take a stroll and hope for that.