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Whither Career RBIs?

With the advent of modern statistical measurements, the significance of RBI (runs batted in) has been questioned. I have no interest in joining the debate. I will accept the RBI as a valuable measure. It remains one of the three standard numbers attached to any batter, along with batting average and home runs. My interest in this post is in the question of why the number of RBIs a batter accumulates in a season is closely watched, but little attention is paid to one’s career RBI total. In contrast, career home runs are an obsession among fans and career batting average is another of the key statistics used to measure a batter’s career. Any serious fan and many casual fans can name the top 3 or 5 home run hitters of all time, along with their totals. Many can name the top career batting averages and who has them. But RBIs? Why are they such significant seasonal measures but little discussed as career measures?

Before turning to the numbers, let’s think about what career RBI total might be a sign of excellence, or greatness. A review of career greatness thresholds in other categories might served as a guide. Hits? 3000 of course. Home runs? 500 has been the standard, though 600 may be the new standard. Switching to pitching, we would look for 300 wins. And maybe 3000 strikeouts. In looking over these numbers, I realized a good rule of thumb might be that the career thresholds are on the order of 15 times the number widely accepted as a mark of seasonal excellence.

Let’s try this rule out. We look for 200 hits in a season. 200 x 15 = 3000. Yup. Wins? 20 in a season of course, and 20 x 15 = 300. Strikeouts? Same thing — 200 x 15 = 3000. Oddly enough, there’s no clear threshold for home runs in a season, all the more since the decade of home run inflation that we have just recently come out of. Maybe 35, or 40. Our rule would convert 40 home runs in a season to 600 in a career. The old standard of 500 career home runs would correspond to 33 1/3 home runs in a season.

Let’s apply the rule of thumb to RBIs. The mark of excellence for a season is 100. 100×15 = 1500. So 1500 RBIs might be a reasonable baseline for career excellence. How many have achieved this mark. Turning to the list, we find 50 players, the 50th being Mickey Mantle at 1509. But maybe a threshold that lets 50 players in is too large. That’s far more than the number of batters with 300 hits (27) or 500 home runs (25). Maybe we should aim for 120 RBIs per season, or 1800 in a career if one averages 120 over 15 years. How many have 1800? Just 18, the last one being Ken Griffey, who just had 2 RBIs last night against the White Sox to reach a career total of 1809. (In fact, it’s Griffey’s performance last night that got me started on this, as I decided to check where he is on the career list in what may be his final season.)

Notice that the thresholds we’ve discussed in other statistical categories are round numbers (in base 10), such as 3000 and 2000 and 500. The round number that jumps out as a natural one in the career RBI category is 2000. And this is an interesting one to explore, as we see when we review the list of top career RBI totals. Let’s look at the top 25. (The third, Cap Anson, played his entire career before 1900, so we may wish to omit him.)

1. Hank Aaron 2297
2. Babe Ruth 2217
3. Cap Anson 2076
4. Barry Bonds 1996
5. Lou Gehrig 1995
6. Stan Musial 1951
7. Ty Cobb 1937
8. Jimmie Foxx 1922
9. Eddie Murray 1917
10. Willie Mays 1903
11. Mel Ott 1860
12. Carl Yastrzemski 1844
13. Ted Williams 1839
14. Rafael Palmeiro 1835
15. Dave Winfield 1833
16. Al Simmons 1827
17. Frank Robinson 1812
18. Ken Griffey 1809
19. Manny Ramirez 1766
20. Honus Wagner 1732
21. Frank Thomas 1704
22. Reggie Jackson 1702
23. Cal Ripken 1695
24. Gary Sheffield 1671
25. Alex Rodriguez 1669

Omitting Anson, we find that only two players reached 2000 RBIs (and got well past it), Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. It would seem to be akin to getting 700 career home runs. And look how close Bonds and Gehrig were to 2000! Gehrig had two near misses — the well known career home run total of 493, just short of the 500 total that only Babe Ruth had at the time, and the career RBI total of 1995. Which gets back to my point: why does no one pay attention to these numbers? Who was tracking Bonds’ RBI totals just two years ago, asking if he would reach the rare level of 2000? I don’t recall reading about it. Yet, he came even closer than Gehrig, and certainly would have passed 2000 if any team had chosen to sign him last year. The 1900 club is pretty exclusive as well, yet I don’t recall a fuss when Murray or Bonds reached it.

Who’s next? Even if Griffey sticks around for another season, he won’t reach 1900. Ramirez is the obvious candidate to be the third post-1900 player to reach 2000. And Rodriguez would appear to be a shoo-in, barring major injury. The only other active players in the 1500 club are Jim Thome at 1557 and Carlos Delgado at 1512. Both are too old to advance to 2000. Even 1800 may be out of reach. So keep an eye out for Manny and A-Rod as they climb the RBI list.

What’s that? What about Albert Pujols? Yes, right. He’s tied for 202nd place with Jose Cruz at 1077. A 2000 RBI-er for sure, again barring major injury. He should be the fourth or fifth player to reach that plateau. It’s difficult to spot anyone else who is on track. Surely someone is, but we’ll have to wait a few more years for him to emerge.

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