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The Big Score: Bobby Abreu as Joey Votto

Patience is being debated as a virtue in baseball. This is not a new debate.

Pictured: Scoring.
Pictured: Scoring.
Harry How

As a too-lame-for-sports kid and then a too-cool-for-sports teenager, I missed out on a lot of seminal Phillies moments.  Yes, I am the late-arriving fan; I have always passively rooted for the Phillies (I still remember being excited with my dad when they beat the Braves in the '93 NLCS), and have more generally always been a "four-for-four" kind of guy.  I'm a fairly enthusiastic Eagles fan.  I can't quite follow hockey or basketball very well, but I know that I am in the tank for the Flyers, the Sixers.  Hey, I'd follow the Union if WetLuzinski and JustinF could explain soccer to me.  So be it.

But as a latecomer into actually understanding and appreciating baseball, I missed one of the more polarizing players of the last decade plus of Phillies baseball: the eternal padder of doubles, Bobby Abreu.  Now, I knew who Abreu was, and even now, I grasp his overall importance to both the game and the Phillies.  The Good Phight, so the lore goes, was founded in part to defend young Abreu against the army of critique he got from the local media and fans.  This is a noble gesture, but a puzzling one when you consider that Abreu: a) cost the Phillies peanuts (they traded SS and 1993 hero Kevin Stocker to the Devil Rays, who had picked up Abreu in the 1997 expansion draft); b) Abreu accounted for 46.5 fWAR over his eight-and-one-half seasons in Philadelphia; and c) Abreu managed a 303/416/513 line over those seasons, with 195 home runs, 42 triples, and 348 (!!) doubles.  That's a rate of 40.94 doubles per year; the record is 67; Manny Machado presently leads the league with 44; Abreu's best season was 50.  That's damn impressive.

So why did Abreu get so much flack from Philadelphia fans? You who were in the thick of it (Prof Cohen, the late great Peter Lyons, dajafi, schmenkman, Liz, et al) would know better than I, but it seems to me that a contemporary debate might shed some light on the issue of Abreu's legacy: the great Joey Votto RBI debate.  This has actually caused some acrimony in the comments recently, and instead of rehashing that, I'll let you read this excellent Jeff Sullivan piece on the issue.  For you non-linkers out there, Sullivan's point in precis is three-fold: 1) some people (Dusty Baker; Reds fans) seem to think that Joey Votto is not aggressive enough with runners in scoring position, leading to what some have called a disappointing RBI total of 61 thus far; 2) Joey Votto thinks he's just patient enough, and wants to put himself in a good position to get on base; and 3) probably the guy who is sporting a wRC+ of 159, an OBP of 435, and an AVG of 312 probably knows what he's doing.

But here's the link in my mind between Abreu's ambivalent status as a Phillies hero ex post facto and Votto's arguably undeserved scrutiny: both players thrive on a passive stance in what is often considered an active game.  And while Abreu was no slouch with the RBI (814 in his eight and a half seasons as a Philly; 95.76 RBI/yr average), he was no all-timer in the ribeye stat, as Miguel Cabrera's 730 RBI in (almost) six seasons as a Tiger would suggest (121 RBI/yr average).  And indeed, Votto's 316/419/545 line over his seven years in MLB is close enough to Abreu's as a Philly to suggest a sort of spiritual similarity.  The patient ones -- the SABR guys who get the ire of the casual fan.

But stat-elitism aside, is this ire deserved?  Brandon Phillips has been held as the anti-Votto this year.  To whit wit:

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p>&quot;The OBP of Brandon Phillips means nothing.&quot; - Mitch Williams</p>&mdash; Heard on MLB Tonight (@HeardOnMLBT) <a href="">August 29, 2013</a></blockquote>

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And Phillips has indeed been a run-producer -- his 95 RBI this year is tied with Adam Jones for sixth in MLB.  That's pretty good! And while Sullivan's point that Votto's 88 runs scored (fifth in MLB) speaks to the utility of getting on base, there's something gutturally compelling about the RBI as a tool.  It makes runs happen, right? What if, instead of having all that OBP, Votto had given the Reds 34 more runs? That'd probably be pretty useful, right?  What if Abreu had been more aggressive at the plate and knocked in 110, 120 runs? That might have pushed the 2005 and 2006 Phillies over the edge, right?

Well, of course, we can't actually determine this for sure, since aggression at the plate may or may not lower OBP and runs scored.  And determining the context of the added RBI of Abreu and Votto would be a fool's errand.  And indeed, if we gave all the RBI to Votto, then Phillips would have significantly fewer men on base ahead of him, lowering his own RBI.  But in thinking this all over, I realized something about baseball -- it's unique in its quality as a potentially endless game.  Think about that: if no one ever got out, if teams perpetually were able to reach base, a game of baseball would never end.  This is, of course, insane, as it's terribly difficult to get on base against major league pitching, but the point remains: there's no clock in baseball, and no impetus to score quickly, as in football, for instance.  This may in fact be why statistics work so much better in baseball than in other sports, but that's more an errant thought.

Anyway, if we believe the above conditions, a big part of the game is making it short when you're on defense and making it long when you're on offense.  Is this a bigger part than knocking in RBIs?  Allow me a small thought experiment with the disclaimer that, as constructed, it is by no means a rigorous statistical analysis.  More a series of errant, potentially useful frames.  Let's take Votto this year and compare him to the RBI leader on his team in Brandon Phillips.  And, at the same time, we'll consider Abreu in his most dramatically divergent OBP/RBI year (2000, a 446 OBP with 79 RBI) with the Phillies' RBI leader, Scott Rolen (89 RBI).

For the Reds, if Votto gave them as many RBI as Phillips, they would have 34 more runs over 134 games, an average of .25 more runs per game.  Not nothing, of course -- that's a fairly solid improvement.  More, of course, than if Abreu had earned Rolen's 10 RBI over his 154 games, which would have gotten the Phillies a .06 run per game increase.  Again, not nothing.

But if Votto had Phillips' OBP (311 this year), how would that affect things?  And if Abreu had Rolen's 370 OBP in 2000, instead of his OBP of 416?  Well, Votto has been on base ~258 times out of 598 plate appearances; if you cut his OBP to 311, he'd get on base (rounding up) 185 times out of 598 plate appearances.  That's 73 extra outs, or .54 outs per game.  For Abreu, he got on base ~283 times out of 680 plate appearances; if he had Rolen's (excellent) OBP of 370, he'd get on base, rounding up, 252 times out of 680 plate appearances. That's 31 extra outs, or .2 outs per game.

So while Brandon Phillips has given the Reds an extra run every four games, Joey Votto has given them an extra out every two.  That's an extra chance every two days to do some damage, to extend the game of baseball.  Similarly, Rolen gave the 2000 Phillies an extra run every 16 games or so, while Abreu gave them an extra out every five.

I realize this is fairly shoddy math, but you see the point I'm making.  There is nothing flashy about extra outs, but they are the core of the game of baseball.  If you can stay on the field, you still have a chance to win the game, and that, even more than the concrete runs that end up on the scoreboard, seems a consistent measure of offensive success.  Yet the yeomen who elongate games are not so beloved as the pitchers who shorten them, and our spiritually connected brethren Joey Votto and Bobby Abreu won't get the due that their work suggests they should.

But we'll know, when we see a long, excellent inning from the Reds, that the ghost of Bobby Abreu is still alive and well, and keeping up the good phight.