With Miguel Cabrera, don't key on RBI total

June, 1, 2013
6/01/13
12:00
PM ET
Miguel Cabrera has played in all 53 of his team's games, driving in a league-best 61 runs. In a season after completing baseball's first Triple Crown in 45 years and winning the American League MVP award, Cabrera is about one-third of the way through a season in which he is on pace to challenge Hack Wilson's 83-year-old single-season RBI record of 191. Presently, he is on pace to drive in 186, which would be the second-most in a single season and would easily surpass the post-1930s high of 165 set by Manny Ramirez in 1999 with the Indians.

All of this has the traditionalists going nuts. If you didn't get enough RBI citations in last year's Cabrera-versus-Mike Trout debate, you're in for a fun summer as older sportswriters across the nation load up AOL with their 56k connection and log onto AltaVista to look up a poorly designed RBI leaderboard on a GeoCities page. We're in for plenty more debates on the usefulness of the RBI metric. Fun for the whole family.

Focusing on RBI, sadly, sells Cabrera way short. According to Baseball Prospectus, Cabrera has come to the plate with the most runners on base of any hitter in the majors (tied with Dustin Pedroia) at 182. As a percentage of opportunities, Cabrera has driven in 24.2 percent of players not named Miguel Cabrera. (In other words, excluding RBIs earned from home runs.) Among players with 100 plate appearances, his percentage of others driven in ranks fifth -- behind Freddie Freeman (27.1 percent), Kelly Johnson, Adrian Gonzalez and Ryan Zimmerman.

Basically, looking at Cabrera's RBI total tells us two things. One, that he comes to the plate with a lot of runners on base. Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks, and Torii Hunter -- the three hitters that have hit in front of Cabrera the most this season -- have respective on-base percentages of .333, .305, and .361. The league average is .323. Two, it also tells us that those runners have gone home with high frequency, a combination of their ability to run the bases (the trio has stolen 11 bases in as many attempts) and Cabrera's ability to hit well, which we knew already.

Let's compare Cabrera's place in the Tigers lineup to a weaker offensive lineup like the Marlins. Through Thursday, he had hit in the No. 3 spot in all 52 games, coming to the plate with 93 runners on first base, 57 runners on second base, and 34 runners on third base. He has knocked them in at 8.7, 33.9, and 50 percent rates, respectively. Marlins No. 3 hitters had come to the plate with 61, 33, and 18 runners on base, respectively. If everything else is held equal, including the rate at which Cabrera has driven in runners at each base, and Cabrera was the No. 3 hitter for the Marlins this year, he would have driven in three fewer runners on first base, eight on second, and eight on third for a total of 17 runs.



What Cabrera's RBI total doesn't do is put his offensive prowess in any kind of context that involves him as an individual. Right now, Cabrera leads the AL in runs scored, hits, batting average, total bases and on-base percentage, as well as RBI. And that's not even the most impressive thing. If it holds, and it very well may, his current adjusted OPS of 193 would mark only the second such season since 2005, joining Albert Pujols (192) in 2008. (Chris Davis, at 214, is also over that mark right now.)

If Cabrera finishes the season with a 175 or better adjusted OPS, he would become the 19th player with at least three such seasons. The only post-integration players on that list are Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas and Pujols.

Perhaps even more impressively, Cabrera's 2013 could be the second of 14 post-Triple Crown seasons in which the winner improves in all three of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Ty Cobb did it in 1910 after winning the Triple Crown in 1909. Mickey Mantle came close in 1957, improving in average and on-base percentage, but fell 50 points shy in slugging percentage. It is arguable that Cabrera's Triple Crown season last year wouldn't even rank on his current top-three best seasons and may not rank in his top five by the time he retires!

Weighted on-base average (wOBA), a statistic that weights each component of offense by its contribution to run scoring, helps put Cabrera's season in an even greater context. Currently at .468 (the AL average is .321), Cabrera is on pace for the best offensive season since Bonds in 2004, when he posted a ridiculous .534 thanks to 232 walks, 120 of which were intentional. The last non-Bonds players to post a .463 wOBA or better were Jason Giambi and Todd Helton (.476) and Carlos Delgado (.471) in 2000.

We're talking about a once-in-a-generation type of offensive output for Cabrera this year. While the writers argue with each other about RBIs, Cabrera will continue putting up ridiculous numbers across the board in his quest to become the best hitter of the past 10 years. Don't sell Cabrera short by focusing on a stat that tells you as much about his teammates as about him.

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