Week of September 17, 2021


Where Have All the RBIs Gone?

Phil and I were at the Giants game on Wednesday. Brandon Belt, in the midst of the best season of his career, was at bat. Phil noticed that Belt’s RBI to Home Run ratio was very low – with 25 dingers and just 52 RBI, it’s barely 2:1. And this got me thinking: how low is it in today’s game? Are RBIs down relative to home runs and hits? 

In Moneyball, the book, Michael Lewis called the “fetish” of the RBI a “good example of the general madness” of “perverse incentives” created by various statistics. He explained:

“RBI had had come to be treated by people as an individual achievement – free agents were paid for their reputation as RBI machines when clearly they were not. Big league players routinely swung at pitches they shouldn’t to lard their RBI count. Why did they get so much credit for this? To knock runners in, runners needed to be on base when you came to bat. There was a huge element of luck in even having the opportunity, and what wasn’t luck was, partly, the achievement of others.” 

As Lewis relayed, Bill James once wrote, “The problem is that baseball statistics are not pure accomplishments of men against other men, which is what we are in the habit of seeing them as. They are accomplishments of men in combination with their circumstances.”

Moneyball was published nearly twenty years ago. But that quote from Bill James was published in 1977, nearly 50 years ago. So we are well into the era where the people who are paid to think about baseball have devalued the RBI. And as the RBI has been devalued, I wondered – have RBIs gone down? And, is Belt’s RBI to Home Run ratio that far out of whack? If so, why?

The answer to the second question is yes. As Phil and I talked, I guessed that no or very few guys have 100+ RBI this year, with just two weeks left in the season. That was pretty close. As it turns out, just 7 guys have 100 RBI so far. Those 7 have the following RBI:HR ratio.

Salvador Perez: 2.5

Jose Abreu: 3.6

Vlad Guerrero: 2.3

Rafael Devers: 3.0

Teoscar Hernández: 3.8

Adam Duvall: 2.9

League average RBI:HR ratio is 3.5 (5,373 HRs vs 18,887 RBI). So Belt’s 2.1 is pretty low. At league average you’d expect him to have 88 RBI, not 52.

However, the Giants have a ratio of 2.85 and they lead the league in home runs with 222. So my theory is that because they hit so many dingers there are fewer people on base to hit in. As Bill James said, the RBI is the “accomplishment of men in combination with their circumstances.” Belt just gets fewer RBI opportunities. 

But I think, for Belt, it’s also that he’s playing out of his mind this year. The league average hit to homer ratio is 6.6. The Giants are just 5.5. Belt’s is just 3.0! One out of every three of his hits is a home run. Similarly, his home run rate is 7.4%, which is WAY over league average of 2.9%. 

So what’s really going on with Belt is that he’s crushing a LOT of dingers – 25 in just 289 at bats. If he had a full season of 500 at bats, he’d be on a 50 home run pace. 

But what of the first question? Are RBIs down relative to other baseball events? Yes. 

First, I charted the RBI:HR and HIT:HR ratios over time for 1971, 1980 (1981 was a strike year), 1991, 2001, 2011, and 2021. 

The HR:Hit rate has dropped a great deal over time – from one home run every 14.5 hits in 1991 to one home run in just 6.6 hits in 2021. This is important in considering my question about Belt – it does seem that RBI opportunities are down. We’ve written before about how strikeouts are up, batting average is down, and home runs are up. There are simply fewer people on the base path, so fewer opportunities to hit someone in. The RBI:HR rate has also dropped, from a peak of 5.5 in 1980 to just 3.5 in 2021. In other words, a greater share of RBI in today’s game (28%) come from a home run hitter scoring himself, as compared to 1991 (18%). So while Belt’s 2.1 is low, it’s a lot less low now than it would have been in 1991. -TOB


We Were This Close To A Legendary Clip

Who’s looking for a laugh? This is a great catch by Defector’s Tom Ley. Gavin Newsom, riding high after surviving the recall (the CA recall rules are bananas, by the way, regardless of your party preference), and so – while visiting a school in my neck of the woods here in Oakland – the governor decided to flex with a little basketball skill: 

Not bad, Gov. He even put a little stank on the pass back to the kid. But that’s when Tom Ley earns his pay for the day. 

What’s important about this video is what it doesn’t show, which are the moments following what sure looks like Newsom getting his damn ankles recalled by a young lad. I spent a good chunk of today looking for more complete footage, and came up empty.

Now, go back and watch the video again, and you’ll see that this kid put the fear of God in Newsom. The kid had Newsom skating, and how great would it have been if this kid actually took it to him, made him fall over, then place the ball on the stomach of the leader of the fifth largest economy in the world and walked away. 

I echo Ley’s demand: release the rest of the footage! – PAL 

Source: Release The Footage,” Tom Ley, Defector (09/16/21)


A Take: A Combined No-Hitter is Not Worth Celebrating

A combined no-hitter is, by definition, a no-hitter. But it’s not worth celebrating.  

No, Milwaukee. That celebration is bush league. Stop it. -TOB


Worst of the Week: The Clemente Option

I’ve always appreciated MLB’s Jackie Robinson tribute on April 15 – especially the tradition of everyone on all teams wearing number 42 to honor Robinson’s legacy. Everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, shares that gesture of respect.

At the same Giants game TOB referenced earlier, we noticed some players wearing the number 21 with no name on the back. It was Roberto Clemente Day in MLB. Clemente was a fantastic all-around player for the Pirates. 15-time All-Star, 12-time Gold Glove winner, World Series MVP, National League MVP. He’s also the first Latin player inducted into the Hall of Fame. Clemente died in a plane crash when he was on a cargo plane flying supplies and aid to Nicaragua after an earthquake in 1972. The Roberto Clemente Award is given out annually to a player who makes a major impact in their communities. 

Instead of taking the same approach as they do for Robinson and have everyone wear Clemente’s number 21, the rules dictating who can honor Clemente’s contributions seem needlessly complicated. 

Per Marly Rivera:

MLB has extended the honor to all uniformed personnel of Puerto Rican descent this year for the 20th annual Roberto Clemente Day. In addition, all 2021 Roberto Clemente Award nominees, as well as the six active players who are Roberto Clemente Award recipients, can also wear the No. 21, sources told ESPN.

So players of Puerto Rican descent, coaches of Puerto Rican descent, past Clemente award winners, and 2021 Clemente award nominees, and the entire Pirates team. Got it. Not sure why the source couldn’t be revealed on this bit of info, but OK. 

But later in the story, I became confused: 

This year, it will also be possible for any player, regardless of heritage or place of birth, to request to wear No. 21, as long as the club is given enough notice to create the uniform.

So, all of the above, and—ya know—any other player (but not coaches) that wants to rock the 21 can do so. 

Feels convoluted, and it takes away from the honor.  People spend time trying to understand why some players wear 21 while others don’t. Just have all the players rock the 21 on Clemente Day in recognition of his contributions on and off the field. 

Why didn’t Rivera follow-up with someone with MLB for an explanation for all the rules around this? And then I start to wonder if Rivera talked to anyone for this story. The Yadier Molina quote is attributed as him “telling ESPN”. The MLB quotes aren’t attributed to anyone, and the quotes around the Clemente award look like they were pulled from an “about” page on MLB.  We can do a little better than this, right? – PAL

Source:MLB expands list of who can wear No. 21 to honor Roberto Clemente on Sept. 15,”Marly Rivera, ESPN (09/14/21)


What’s it Like to be Sportswriter?

Recently, the Athletic’s beat writer for the Warriors, Ethan Strauss, resigned his position and started his own Substack. This has become a popular move for journalists with a big enough following to make financial sense. When he did so, Strauss talked about how he had become burned out by the beat writing job. This week, he wrote a bit more – about how he fell into the beat writing gig and what that job entails these days.

On his first job out of college, working for the NBA:

Every day, seven days a week, I’d wake up at 3:30 AM to beat the news cycle. Still in bed, I’d read literally everything written about the NBA in every major outlet. From there, I would send a summarizing memo to commissioner David Stern and others. You know, just notes on who to kill, who to shake from a balcony, etc. Simple stuff. 

This was a miserable gig, and its seven-day requirement was perhaps legal only for the following technical reason: Back then, it was actually possible to read everything written about the NBA in a span that qualified as “part-time.” I’m still not sure why they gave no days off, but the short answer is probably just because the NBA could. If I didn’t want my job, some other early 20s kid would pop up and take it, if only to be associated with big-time sports. That was especially true after the 2008 financial crash bludgeoned New York City, something that happened concurrent with my arrival. Roughly a month after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, the NBA would lay off nine percent of its workforce. I survived, however. I was too little to fail. 

And so I kept going, despite the lack of sleep and other problems. The issue wasn’t any one morning, but the cumulative effect of never getting a day off and never visiting an office. I was a zombie, ambling outside life’s rhythms as I watched my good buddy Matt live out a fuller existence, with his girlfriend and his hobbies. In contrast, I’d take a late afternoon nap and then just walk the streets of New York alone. In the winter I’d trudge through the living history shtetl of Hasidic Borough Park, wafting through the snow like an aimless dybbuk, disconnected from all around me. 

Every now and again, I’d attempt to steal joy out from under the schedule. I’d try to push it, try to go out, try to drink. My body would rebel every time. I have memories of waking up in a blizzard at the Coney Island station because I’d passed out on the N train. I vaguely recall vomiting on a brick wall, in the dark, about 30 minutes before I had to punch in for more Media Monitoring. 

And on how the job of a beat writer has gotten infinitely worse in the age of Twitter:

Older beat writers describe the pure Internet era rather wistfully. You’re in Chicago for a road game the next day. Maybe you spend the afternoon bullshitting on the phone with team executives. Maybe one of them tells you a relevant bit of breaking news about a trade. You’ll get to publishing it in a couple hours, perhaps. Breaking news was a thing back then, and a website operated out of Spain called HoopsHype chronicled who broke it, but the time pressure wasn’t overbearing and up-to-the-second constant. Twitter wasn’t a thing, at least like it is now.

The next day, you’ll prep your Notes column on team news to run before the game, and later, your “gamer” on the game itself. Beyond the modest output asked of you, you’re exploring cities and enjoying basketball — often from courtside seats. 

Older beat writers describe the pure Internet era rather wistfully. You’re in Chicago for a road game the next day. Maybe you spend the afternoon bullshitting on the phone with team executives. Maybe one of them tells you a relevant bit of breaking news about a trade. You’ll get to publishing it in a couple hours, perhaps. Breaking news was a thing back then, and a website operated out of Spain called HoopsHype chronicled who broke it, but the time pressure wasn’t overbearing and up-to-the-second constant. Twitter wasn’t a thing, at least like it is now.

The next day, you’ll prep your Notes column on team news to run before the game, and later, your “gamer” on the game itself. Beyond the modest output asked of you, you’re exploring cities and enjoying basketball — often from courtside seats. 

It’s an improvement that writers weren’t punching each other over a lone phone line like back in the early 2000s, but new efficiencies tended to create more work faster than they relieved you of stressors. 

In the end, it’s the accumulation that kills. You go from simply having to file a Notes Column and a Game Column to whatever the hell Twitter is. Fast forward. Now you’re constantly watching the players and being watched yourself. You’d better keep checking your emails and your Slack channels; you’re expected to monitor both. Oh, and now welcome to the Zoom era, and all the digital meetings it can spawn. It’s a wonder your laptop doesn’t simply explode. 

Whether you’re a beat writer, national media, or a team blogger, you’re constantly looking into your phone and over your shoulder. There’s a paranoid sense of responsibility, a duty to get stories or to comment on whatever story just happened. And then there’s another aspect of the ennui, what my well wisher referred to when lamenting, “Working sources for months on end, doing honest, diligent reporting work during the process — only to see folks get handed layups and praised for it.”

In this era, many media members are highly incentivized to keep pace with Twitter’s demand for “breaking news,” but the game is rigged in a manner nobody can admit publicly. Certain big-time newsbreakers are represented by the same agencies as the players and GMs, so there’s a self-dealing aspect to how information gets out. Not that those premier newsbreakers are living the easy life, either. The ones at the top are often fighting one another, viciously, in a grand game of power and influence. The Athletic’s newsbreaker Shams Charania gave up pickup basketball, lest he miss a phone call. Marc Stein once mentioned to me that he hadn’t watched a movie in over a decade. I hope he’s found more balance since starting this Substack. When we were both at ESPN I knew the mandate was to live a life free of pauses. It’s probably only gotten worse for those who remain. 

How life on the road isn’t as glamorous as it might seem:

The road felt like something between Almost Famous and Primary Colors, but with acid-trip nightmarish qualities thrown in. Every day was an assault on the senses, a real-life walk through animalistic screaming hordes, followed by an evening of editors’ ravenous demands for more more more Warriors stories. Anything would do. What, Klay said he liked Harry Potter? Write it up goddammit how could you miss that?! And then the ESPN news editor would be on my ass. 

It’s well worth your time. -TOB

Source: Is Sportswriting a Fun Job?Ethan Strauss, House of Strauss (09/16/2021)

Video of the Week

Tweet of the Week

Song of the Week

Stevie Wonder – “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)”


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You know, with Hitler, the more I learn about that guy, the more I don’t care for him.

Norm Macdonald