The Nine Best Seasons Under 70 RBI

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

By now I’m sure you’ve seen our series explaining why RBI is not a good statistic for measuring individual value. The reasons are simple. RBI is simply too dependent on the quality of the team around you to be a good measure of individual value because the number of baserunners, location of baserunners, and number of outs are outside of a player’s control. To catch you up, we’ve already seen:

Now, let’s turn the question on its head. Below you’ll find the best seasons since 1920 (when RBI became an official stat) in which a player had fewer than 70 RBI while also having 600 or more plate appearances. In other words, these are players who had a full season of at bats, played great, and didn’t have many RBI. The ranking uses wRC+ (what’s wRC+?) which is an offensive rate statistic that compares a player to league average and park, meaning that you can use it to compare across eras. 100 is average and every number above or below is a percent better or worse than league average.

Rank Season Name Team PA RBI AVG OBP SLG wRC+
9 1938 Arky Vaughan Pirates 650 68 0.322 0.433 0.444 150
8 1993 Rickey Henderson – – – 610 59 0.289 0.432 0.474 151
7 1968 Pete Rose Reds 692 49 0.335 0.391 0.470 151
6 1975 Ken Singleton Orioles 714 55 0.300 0.415 0.454 152
5 1987 Tony Gwynn Padres 680 54 0.370 0.447 0.511 153
4 1974 Rod Carew Twins 690 55 0.364 0.433 0.446 153
3 1968 Jimmy Wynn Astros 646 67 0.269 0.376 0.474 159
2 1974 Joe Morgan Reds 641 67 0.293 0.427 0.494 162
1 1988 Wade Boggs Red Sox 719 58 0.366 0.476 0.490 167

What you can see from this list is that these are excellent seasons and none of them gathered more than 68 RBI. Let’s put this in the modern context. In 2012, only 8 players had a wRC+ of 150 or better. Cano, Encarnacion, Fielder, McCutchen, Braun, Posey, Cabrera, and Trout. On the other hand, 80 players had 70 or more RBI in 2012. Among them were Alexei Ramirez who had 73 RBI and a 71 wRC+ and Delmon Young who had 74 RBI and a 89 wRC+.

Usually big RBI numbers and high wRC+ go hand in hand, but there is a lot of variation that obscures the results. Good hitters usually have a lot of RBI, but not always. You’ve seen it in our previous posts on the subject and now you can see that great seasons don’t guarantee you anything in terms of RBI.

RBI isn’t the worst statistic in the world, but it just isn’t a good way to measure individual value when you consider how some players can have 100 RBI in a year and be 25% below average and some can have fewer than 70 RBI and be 50% better than league average. These numbers don’t even out over an entire career and you can’t use RBI to compare two players.

There isn’t a lot RBI can tell you about individual players. You can be good and not have them, you can be bad and have them, and this isn’t about small samples. RBI describe what happened on the field, but they are a blunt and unhelpful tool in measuring individuals. It’s time to move forward and stat lining up our valuations with better measures like wOBA, wRC+, and wRAA. If you use RBI to measure players, you going to end up thinking Ruben Sierra’s 1993 season in which he had 101 RBI is better than Rickey Henderson’s 1993 in which he had 59 RBI when in reality Sierra was 20% below average and Henderson was 50% below average. That’s way too big a mistake to make when there are much better alternatives.

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