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Statistics matter, some more than others

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I will say that your humble correspondent has developed a foolproof method of determining a player's defensive skills ... I call it the EBT (the Eye Ball Test). You can't tell the difference between a great play in the field and a routine play unless you see it happen.

Dick
Flavin

I got an email from an old pal the other day, asking if I agreed with him that RBIs were baseball's most meaningful statistic.

RBIs are important, of course. Runs are how we keep score, and if there is no one on your team to drive them in, the chances are that your side ain't gonna win many games. Even if you do have power hitters in the lineup who can drive runners in, there have to be runners on base in the first place.

Take Mookie Betts, for example (anyone remember him?). In 2018, he had a monster year, batting .346 and hitting 32 dingers. But he had only 80 Runs Batted In, just the fourth most on the team. J. D. Martinez had 130, Xander Bogaerts joined in with 103, and Andrew Benintendi added 87. The reason for Mookie's paltry total is that he batted leadoff for the bulk of the year, which meant that, after the first inning, he followed the number eight and nine hitters in the lineup, and they didn't get on base very often. If there's no one on base, that makes it tough on one's RBI stats.

On the other hand, Mookie scored 129 runs in '18, tying him for the major league lead.

Mookie got on base a bunch of times that year, and he had J. D. and Xander hitting behind him. Every time he got on there was a pretty good chance someone was going to drive him in.

The ideal situation is to have guys at the top of the lineup who get on base all the time and guys hitting behind them who can drive them home consistently. Seventy-one years ago, the Red Sox had just that kind of a lineup. The one and two hitters were Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky, perhaps the best table setter combination in American League history. In 1949, between hits and walks, they reached base an astounding 557 times (they had 185 hits apiece, DiMaggio had 87 walks and Pesky had 100). That is what made it possible for the three and four hitters, Ted Williams and Vern Stephens, to tie for the major league lead with 159 RBIs each that year. The fifth hitter, Bobby Doerr, chipped in with another 109. Think of it -- just three players in the middle of the lineup accounted for 427 runs batted in. As for Runs Scored, DiMaggio, hitting leadoff, had 126, Pesky, batting second, had 111, the incomparable Williams had 150, and Stephens had 113. That's 500 runs scored by the first four players in the batting order.

Here is the most mind boggling statistic of all, though. Despite those numbers, the Red Sox lost the pennant that year.

The old saying that good pitching beats good hitting happens to be true. In 1949, the Yankees could not match the Red Sox at the plate, but their pitching was much deeper. Guess who won all the marbles.

Recent history teaches the same lesson. In 2018, Red Sox pitchers had a combined Earned Run Average [ERA] of 3.75, and they won 108 games while losing only 54. In addition, they went 11 and three in the postseason. In 2019, their ERA went up almost a full run to 4.70, they won 24 fewer regular season games (84 and 78) and they didn't even make it to the playoffs. This year, the last time I had the stomach to look, the team ERA was well north of 6.00 and they'll be lucky if they don't finish the season in the American Association.

Does that mean that ERA is a more meaningful stat than RBIs? Maybe so, but I believe my pal was thinking about position players' statistics when he posed his question about RBIs.

There are now statistics that are more sophisticated and complex than was the case in the old days, things like WAR (Wins Above Replacement). I have developed a hard and fast rule when dealing with such newfangled metrics: I ignore them. The way I figure it is that anything that requires more than a master's degree in Mathematics to understand isn't worth the trouble. If you ever want to give yourself an instant migraine headache, check out the formula for determining a player's WAR. It's guaranteed to turn your mind to jelly in a matter of moments.

I will say that your humble correspondent has developed a foolproof method of determining a player's defensive skills. In the spirit of the modern day self-important practice of using only initials to identify it, I call it the EBT (the Eye Ball Test). You can't tell the difference between a great play in the field and a routine play unless you see it happen.

An example of that took place several Sundays ago at Fenway Park when the Sox hosted the Washington Nationals in an afternoon game. The weather was beautiful, almost cloudless; the sun was shining brightly, temperature in the mid 70s, and a refreshing breeze of about 20 MPH coming out of the west. It was ideal in every way -- unless you were playing right field for the visiting team. That was the fate of Adam Eaton of the Nationals. This is Eaton's eighth year in the big leagues and he has a solid reputation as a good defensive outfielder. But he was tortured all afternoon by fly balls to the right. In the second inning, Rafael Devers hit a high fly ball to right, and Eaton drifted back toward the visitors' bullpen, shielding his eyes from the sun. The ball got caught up in the wind, which was blowing out to right, and Eaton kept drifting back. Finally, at the last second, Eaton leaped and crashed into the bullpen fence, the ball just missing his glove and barely clearing the short fence for a home run.

I thought to myself, Mookie would have had it, easy. He knew the territory; Adam Eaton didn't.

No matter how sophisticated the metrics get, they don't measure the difficulty of playing right field at Fenway on an afternoon like that Sunday as opposed to a night game when the sun has gone down and there might be no breeze at all.

All of which is a round-about way of addressing my pal's question of whether RBIs are baseball's most meaningful statistic.

This is my answer: I dunno.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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