Ryan Howard Has Made the Most of RBI Opportunities

RBIs is not a very useful stat when trying to determine hitter effectiveness, because it is heavily dependent on the players ahead of you in the lineup.  A lot of e-ink has been spilled lately trying to explain this, and to say that if you do look at RBIs, you have to put them in the context of the opportunities a player has to drive people in, i.e. the runners on base when he comes to bat (ROB).  Naturally the focus of many of these articles is the NL leader in RBIs, Ryan Howard.  I don't want to get into how bad or "sneaky good" his season has been, only whether he drives in baserunners at a less-than-stellar rate.

For example:


[Howard] does have 19 home runs and is hitting .318 with runners in scoring position. But he has also hit with more runners on base than any hitter in the majors other than Adrian Gonzalez.


That Howard has driven in "just" 48 runners, or 17.9 percent, is far from an indictment of his abilities as a play-maker -- it’s still a very good clip.


Howard leads all of baseball with 296 runners on base. He had an amazing 60 game-stretch recently when he hit .223 … and he still drove in 47 runs in those 60 games. You can say he is a run producer. You can say he’s just in a situation where there are ALWAYS runners on base. Either way, the man will get paid $145 million from now until 2017. 


Give any guy that many opportunities to drive in runs and lo and behold runs will be driven in. In this regard, Ryan’s success is more the result of the success of people batting ahead of him rather than his own ability to bring them in.

So even though he's leading the NL in RBIs, Howard is only 26th in the majors in OBI% (i.e. the percentage of runners on base that he’s driven in). 

The problem with focusing on this as evidence that Howard's RBIs are a product of the lineup that he bats in is that players' rank in OBI% fluctuates quite a bit from year to year, and it’s not unusual for some of the top sluggers in the game to rank low in a given year.  From the Christina Kahrl article above:

But Fielder’s presence also illustrates how players aren’t necessarily consistent in their OBI% from year to year. In 2010, Fielder drove in just 10.8 percent of his runners (or 51 of 474), a clip that only Alcides Escobar worsted [sic] among Brewers regulars.

OBI% rankings for 2011 and recent years after the jump...


OBI%, 2011

So if Howard is 26th, all of the other (better) slugging first basemen must be ahead of him, right?  Well, sort of. 

Below are this year's Top 30 in OBI%, as of a few days ago, out of 268 qualifiers with 180+ PA's:

1   Josh Hamilton 24.7%   11   Matt Holliday 19.8%   21   Jonathan Lucroy 18.6%
2   Chipper Jones 22.2%   12   Victor Martinez 19.7%   22   Joey Votto 18.5%
3   Ryan Braun 21.7%   13   Adrian Gonzalez 19.6%   23   Jason Kubel 18.4%
4   Neil Walker 21.0%   14   Pablo Sandoval 19.2%   24   Carlos Gonzalez 18.4%
5   Hunter Pence 20.7%   15   Travis Hafner 18.8%   25   Evan Longoria 18.3%
6   Xavier Nady 20.6%   16   Andrew McCutchen 18.8%   26   Ryan Howard 18.3%
7   Justin Turner 20.5%   17   Adrian Beltre 18.7%   27   Matt LaPorta 18.2%
8   Michael Young 20.4%   18   Danny Espinosa 18.6%   28   Kevin Youkilis 18.2%
9   Mike Aviles 20.3%   19   Prince Fielder 18.6%   29   Nelson Cruz 18.1%
10   Martin Prado 19.9%   20   Brian McCann 18.6%   30   Lance Berkman 18.0%

The list includes many of the hitters you would expect to see.  However some notable names are further down the list:

40. Mark Teixeira  17.7%
74. Albert Pujols 15.9%
82. Miguel Cabrera 15.7%

OBI% Rank, 2006-2011 by Year

Below are the annual rankings in OBI% for some notable sluggers (minimum 300 PA’s through 2010, 180 in 2011):

Qualifiers: 271 280 281 284 270 268
Rank 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Albert Pujols 4 89 25 21 54 74
Mark Teixeira 112 19 38 68 85 40
Joey Votto 37 25 7 22
Ryan Howard 40 43 5 10 42 26
Miguel Cabrera 1 12 16 97 14 82
Prince Fielder 186 65 87 17 250 19
Adrian Gonzalez 121 101 39 163 39 13
Justin Morneau 5 55 14 50 101 181
Kevin Youkilis 146 103 11 72 117 28
Josh Hamilton 122 4 36 8 1
Raul Ibanez 6 14 27 89 103 85
Jayson Werth 7 150 133 190 249

OBI%, 2006-2011 Combined

As mentioned above players move up and down quite a bit from year to year, so we need to combine stats over multiple years.  Below are OBI stats since Howard’s first full year in 2006:

Out of 368 players with 1000+ PA's:

2006-11 rank ROB OBI OBI%
1   Josh Hamilton         1,421            279 19.6%
2   Joey Votto         1,358            253 18.6%
3   Aramis Ramirez         2,102            388 18.5%
4   Ryan Howard         2,751            506 18.4%
5   Miguel Cabrera         2,514            462 18.4%
6   Ryan Braun         1,849            339 18.3%
7   Bobby Abreu         2,410            437 18.1%
8   Joe Mauer         1,935            348 18.0%
9   Victor Martinez         2,189            389 17.8%
10   Albert Pujols         2,463            437 17.7%
11   Justin Morneau         2,294            407 17.7%
other notables:
18   Raul Ibanez         2,404            422 17.6%
37   Mark Teixeira         2,622            439 16.7%
44   Kevin Youkilis         2,270            374 16.5%
48   Adrian Gonzalez         2,446            400 16.4%
92   Prince Fielder         2,489            387 15.5%
204   Jayson Werth         1,613            226 14.0%
MLB Average 14.0%

This includes Howard's huge 2006, but he's still 4th in MLB in 2007-2011:

1. Josh Hamilton 19.6%
2. Neil Walker 18.8%
3. Joey Votto 18.6%
4. Ryan Howard 18.5%
then Braun, ARamirez, VMartinez, Holliday, ARodriguez, Mauer

...and 3rd in 2008-2011:

1. Josh Hamilton 20.3%
2. Neil Walker 18.8%
3. Ryan Howard 18.7%
then Votto, KMorales, Mauer, ARamirez, Abreu, Braun, ARodriguez

So yes, Howard has gotten lots of opportunities to drive in runs, but he's been one of the most efficient in baseball at driving those runners home. 

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