White Sox hitting coach Frank Menechino scoffed when presented with the two sides of the RBI debate earlier this season.
Of course, he’d heard both sides before, as the “traditionalist” and “sabermetrics” camps went back and forth for years on end. It was clear from his reaction that he didn’t see it as much of a debate.
“What do you think I think?” he said.
That wasn’t hard to guess, days after White Sox first baseman José Abreu had hit the 100 RBI mark for the sixth time in his career.
“Not everybody can drive in runs,” Menechino said. “The pressure times, especially late in the game, not missing your pitch, or expanding off the zone and getting it done. Those guys are special.”
Abreu, the White Sox’ veteran leader and MLB’s 2020 AL MVP, continues to stoke the RBI debate with performances like his 117-RBI and 30-home run 2021 season. He had what he considered an “up and down” start to the year. But by the end of it, Abreu had put together his fifth season with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI. In franchise history, only Frank Tomas (eight) and Paul Konerko (five) logged as many such seasons.
“You win games by scoring runs,” Abreu said last month, through team interpreter Billy Russo, “and in order to score runs you have to drive those runs in. That’s just what it is.”
A deeper dive into Abreu’s numbers, however, reveals some common ground between the pro- and anti-RBI contingents.
The RBI debate is akin to the disagreement over pitchers’ wins. RBI and wins stats both depend on the performance of a player’s teammates. That’s how the RBI got a reputation among the sabermetric minded for being outdated.
On the flip side, only select stats account for players’ situational adjustments. Wins and RBI don’t do so perfectly, but they do measure tangible outcomes. Traditionalists will also note that batters don’t step into runners-on-base situations by accident. Managers construct their lineups to give the hitters who are best at driving runs as many chances to do so as possible.
The RBI debate reached a fever pitch in 2012, when Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout were the top two AL MVP candidates. Cabrera had etched his name in the record books, recording the first triple crown in 45 years. Trout posted the highest WAR (10.5) in the league, well surpassing Cabrera (7.1) in that category.
Cabrera won the MVP, collecting 22 of the 28 possible first-place votes.
In Abreu’s case, however, the RBI conversation is centered around his offensive value to the White Sox, not how to weigh various statistics in an MVP race. Stats old and new support the impression of Abreu as an elite run producer.
Before finishing this season No. 2 in RBI (117), Abreu led the American League in in 2019 (123 RBI) and 2020 (60). In his MVP year, Abreu also topped the league in RE24 (22.70).
RE24 (run expectancy based on the 24 base-out states) is a run-creation measurement all about context. It takes into account the number of outs and position of baserunners to calculate the change in run expectancy over the course of a plate appearance.
For a batter, if the value is a positive number, it’s above league average. If it’s negative, it’s below average. In short, RE24 assigns a value to capitalizing on a given situation. For those who challenge the notation that clutch hitting is a replicable skill, RE24 is a context-rich compromise.
In addition to being the AL’s RE24 leader in 2020, over the past three seasons combined, Abreu ranks No. 11 in MLB.
“The most important thing, you know what it is?” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said of Abreu’s RBI numbers. “He knows what the score is, and he's trying to help his team win. And that's the purest motivation there is, and that's the best because that never changes."