The appreciation of objective analysis in baseball has never been higher. Most clubs have an analytics department, or have at least added a couple of math whizzes who know the ins and outs of baseball stats to their payrolls. The Baseball Writers Association continues to get more statistically savvy writers in its membership. Wins Above Replacement and Win Percent Added are two of a handful of sabermetric stats regularly cited during live broadcasts and recap shows such as "Baseball Tonight."
As far as we have come, we still have a long way to go. Here is why -- and I need your participation. Without cheating, name the two best hitters in baseball dating back to 2009 going by weighted on-base average (minimum 1,000 plate appearances). No. 1 is quite easy, as Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown last year and is having an even better season in 2013.
The second-best hitter over the past five years, however, may be more of a surprise: Joey Votto. In fact, it's not even close -- Cabrera and Votto have been in a league of their own. Cabrera has posted a .431 wOBA, Votto .420, Mike Trout ranks third at .405, and Ryan Braun fourth at .402.
How is it that Votto has been so good and so underrated? The answer is many people still rely on runs batted in as the primary gauge of offensive success. This is true even in Cincinnati, where Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman has made a habit of disparaging the first baseman. Earlier this season, Brennaman said of Votto, "He's not paid to walk. ... He's paid to drive in runs." Later, he said "Saber people get all worked up" over walks.
Votto is currently sitting on 57 RBIs after his go-ahead home run in Thursday's 2-1 win over the Brewers. That ranks tied for 54th out of 148 qualified hitters -- and half of Cabrera's 115. For someone hitting .320/.434/.511, one would certainly expect more RBIs, especially when you look at his teammate Brandon Phillips with 89 and a .259/.308/.404 slash line. There are three factors influencing Votto and Phillips' disparate RBI totals:
Zack Cozart: For most of the season, Cozart was hitting second in front of Votto. Cozart has a .272 on-base percentage, meaning he rarely got on base in front of Votto.
Votto's walk rate: It's true that Votto walks a lot, and that's a fantastic thing. Walks aren't as sexy as home runs or doubles, but they always help. Votto has walked in nearly 17 percent of his plate appearances this season (he has the highest walk rate in the majors). However, because a walk does not produce a ball put in play, the opportunity for other runners to advance other than by force is lost. So Votto isn't taking advantage of leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo's .411 on-base percentage the way ...
... Phillips is taking advantage of Choo's OBP and Votto's OBP. Phillips has batted with 382 runners on base -- the second most in the majors. Votto has batted with 325 runners on base (13th). However, Votto's walks and Phillips' aggressiveness means Phillips puts more balls in play -- 79 percent of his plate appearances to Votto's 64 percent. Putting the ball in play is good in theory, but remember that an elite hitter gets a hit in only three out of every 10 at-bats. While putting the ball in play is conducive toward padding that RBI total, Phillips' frequency of making outs has hurt the Reds' ability to score runs. Going by wOBA, the gap between Votto (.406) and Phillips (.307) represents about 45 runs created over 600 plate appearances.
Given the wealth of information at our disposal, there is absolutely no reason anyone should still be using the RBI stat as part of any semi-serious analysis. In most cases, it paints an unclear picture, but in the case of Votto, it is wildly misleading -- the "Dewey defeats Truman" of baseball statistics, if you will. (Votto, by the way, is hitting .308 with runners in scoring position and .298 with runners on base.)
Votto is leading the National League in on-base percentage for the fourth consecutive year. Since 2000, the only players with more .300/.400/.500 or better seasons are Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Todd Helton, Cabrera, Lance Berkman and Barry Bonds. By FanGraphs WAR, the only players more valuable to their teams than Votto since 2009 are Cabrera and Evan Longoria. By focusing on RBIs, Votto's generationally great offensive skills are going unnoticed and unappreciated.
Saberists celebrated when Felix Hernandez went home with the American League Cy Young Award in 2010 -- because he had posted a 13-12 record. Since the inception of the award in 1956, it was unheard of for a pitcher to win the award without crossing the 20-win threshold or otherwise having a hefty win-loss differential and a great ERA. Not only did Hernandez win in 2010, he took home 21 of 28 first-place votes. It was only five years prior when Bartolo Colon, then of the Angels, won the award despite a 3.48 ERA (compared to third-place Johan Santana's 2.87) because he had a 21-8 record.
Just as baseball fans and pundits weaned themselves off of the pitcher win-loss record, they must now wean themselves off a hitter's RBI total. The stat is often more reflective of the players around a particular hitter than that particular hitter himself. If it happens in the next few months, perhaps Votto -- debatably deserving -- will wind up with the NL MVP and become the Felix Hernandez of RBIs.