It's time for another gripping episode of leaderboarding!
This time around let's talk about RBI, but let's do so in terms that render RBI a bit more useful than it is in its purest form.
As offensive measures go, raw RBI totals aren't particularly illuminating in terms of expressing a player's value and future outlook. After all, RBIs are highly, highly dependent upon opportunities -- lineup spot, on-base skills of runners in front of the hitter in question, etc. Now, RBI are somewhat enlightening at the extremes. For instance, it's impossible to rack up, say, 130 RBI in a season and not be an outstanding hitter. But it's entirely possible to reach the vaunted 100 RBI level and still be something less than productive (see, among others, Joe Carter in 1990 or Ruben Sierra in 1993).
A better way to measure a hitter's proficiency at driving in runs is RBI percentage. It's simply the percentage of RBI opportunities -- i.e., runners on base, not counting those times the hitter drove himself in on a home run -- that he's successfully converted. It's still prone to ballpark influences and the base-running skills of the those on base, but it's still far, far less context-dependent than plain ol' RBI.
So, courtesy of the data available at David Pinto's Baseball Musings, here are the top 10 performers of 2013 in terms of RBI percentage (minimum 250 runners on) ...
As it turns out, this isn't a bad short-list of some of the best players in baseball for 2013. There's AL MVP Miguel Cabrera in the sixth spot, and elsewhere you find three members of the NL-champion Cardinals (also worth noting: Matt Holliday just missed the list, as he ranked 11th). Indeed, over time and given a large enough sample, good hitters tend to hit well in all situations -- cluch, non-clutch, runners on, bases empty.
Noticeably absent from this list? Two Reds sluggers, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips. Bruce and Phillips this past season ranked, respectively, fourth and 10th in the bigs in RBI, but that was in part a function of how many opportunities they had. In fact, Bruce had 500 runners on base for him during the course of the season, and Phillips checked in with 492. In that regard, they ranked one-two in all of baseball (batting behind the high-OBP likes of Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto will do that). As for their RBI percentages, Phillips checks with a mark of 17.28 (comfortably out of the top 10), and Bruce is at 15.80 (even further down the list). Again, you shouldn't pay too much attention to raw RBI totals.
And the other, less fortunate end of the continuum ...
Not good! The Braves, despite their excellent season, place two on this list, and there's the Cubs' middle infield to keep them company. Ichiro's presence can't be a surprise, as he had more infield singles (35) than extra-base hits (25). Half the above names manned offense-first corner positions, which is not what you want from those manning offense-first corner positions.
The overarching lesson? Sometimes players deserve those lofty RBI tallies, as is the case with Cabrera and Chris Davis, and sometimes they don't, as is somewhat the case with Phillips and Bruce.