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Griffey Career RBI Watch

Ken Griffey, out at the plate last night

[Mark Harrison, Seattle Times]

Last August, I wrote one of the rare posts in which I had anything original to say. The subject was career RBIs. (An RBI, or run batted in, is a baseball statistic. Roughly, a batter is credited with an RBI when his action at home plate results in a baserunner scoring, whether through a hit, a walk, a sacrifice fly, or a ground ball out, but not if the run scores during a double play or through a fielder’s error.)

In my post, I wondered why baseball fans and writers don’t pay much attention to a player’s career RBI total. Traditionally, the statistics most often used in evaluating a batter’s work during a season are his batting average, home run total, and RBI total. When we pass to career evaluations, we continue to examine lifetime batting average and home runs, and these numbers are well known for the best players. But few can name a player’s career RBI total.

In fact, and this was the principal point of my post, we don’t even have a sense of what career RBI numbers would place a player among the historic leaders. In contrast, every fan can name the three players with more than 700 home runs*, the three with between 600 and 700**, and many of those in the 500-599 range. It was news last week when Alex Rodriguez hit his first home run of the season, the 584th of his career, thereby breaking his tie with Mark McGwire on the career list and moving into sole possession of 8th place. Frank Robinson lies two home runs ahead at 586. Once A-Rod passes him, it’s on to the 600 milestone, then to passing the six players just mentioned (implicitly).

In my post, I examined the standard thresholds for excellence in career home runs or, for a pitcher, career strikeouts and wins. This led to a rule of thumb that, when applied to RBIs, would suggest that a career total of 1800 might be a reasonable baseline for excellence. Comparing this to the career list, I noted that only 18 players have reached this level. It seemed like a good analogue to the 500 home run threshold.

At the time that I wrote the post, Ken Griffey was the last-ranked player in the 1800 RBI club. His 2 RBIs the night before put him at 1809. It was those RBIs that got me curious about where he stood on the career list and led to the post. I thought at the time — as did many others — that last season was likely to be Griffey’s last, and I wondered where he might ultimately end up on the career list. He would go on to get 20 more RBIs, finishing last season at 1829, passing Frank Robinson and Al Simmons and settling into 16th place.

But then Griffey decided to return for this season. And last night he got 2 RBIs again, numbers 2 and 3 for the season, putting him at 1832. Time to re-start the Griffey Career RBI Watch.

Griffey remains in 16th place, but he needs only 12 more RBIs to jump into a tie for 12th, and 16 more after that to tie for 11th. He won’t move up any higher, since yet another 43 RBIs would be needed to tie for 10th. Here are the numbers:

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. Ken Griffey 1832

If Griffey were to suffer an injury, I suspect he would simply retire and that would be that. If his productivity remains low, he may get limited playing time. Thus, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if he doesn’t reach Mel Ott, and should injury come sooner rather than later, he might not even reach Dave Winfield. On the other hand, a repeat of last season’s 57 RBIs would put him at 1886 at season’s (career’s?) end, closer to Mays than Ott.

I just realized that I’m missing a crucial point here. Even as Griffey moves up the career RBI list, two active players are not far behind. Manny Ramirez is in 19th place at 1798, having already recorded 10 RBIs this season. He’s a good bet to pass Griffey by the end of the season. A-Rod is in 21st place at 1713, with 7 this season. A-Rod too could catch Griffey this season, though he’s more likely to do so next season. (Who’s between Manny and A-Rod on the list? Honus Wagner, at 1733.)

Of course, wherever Griffey ends up on the list won’t change the overall significance of his career. It’s just a curiosity. But as we follow A-Rod’s climb up the career HR ladder, why not follow Griffey’s (and Manny’s, and A-Rod’s) parallel climb up the career RBI ladder?***

*Bonds, Aaron, Ruth

**Mays, Griffey, Sosa

***What about Griffey’s climb up the career HR ladder? He’s fifth — as revealed in the previous footnote — at 630. Mays is fourth, at 660. Griffey hit 19 homers last season and 18 the season before. He will almost surely stay in fifth. The only question is when A-Rod will pass him. Two other active players are in the hunt, Jim Thome at 566 and Manny again at 548. They won’t reach Griffey this season, if ever.

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