Jamey Carroll and RBIs


There is no such thing as an MLB transaction that pleases all of a team’s fans. No matter how big or small a move is, you’ll find a contingent of angry people who absolutely hate it. The Twins could sign Albert Pujols for a Major League minimum deal, and internet commentors would still find something wrong with the move (he’s 31 years old and his OPS dropped 95 points last year… he’ll be worse than Nishioka!) .

So it isn’t surprising that there are plenty of people who do not like the Jamey Carroll signing. While I like the move overall, I understand that he is a 38 year old with declining range and absolutely no power who was signed for more money than most would expect. Those are legitimate crticisms, and I respect those opinions. But I was very surprised to see people complaining about something completely meaningless: Carroll’s RBI total.

As one on-line commentor put it “Really? Who? How much a year for 17 RBI’s in over 500 Ab’s? Who? Huh? Seriously?” (note: Carroll actually had 452 at bats last year, but he did have 510 PAs – we’ll forgive the commentor for that mistake).

I don’t mean to give the impression that this complaint is widespread, but it exists, so I want to go ahead and nip it in the bud. RBI is an incredibly misleading number for evaluating a player. It is a cherished stat, and we’ve been keeping track of runs batted in since time immemorial (or, according to Wikipedia, since the Buffalo Bisons started tallying them in the 1880s), so I know that people like to gawk over RBI totals (full disclosure: Hack Wilson’s 191 in 1930 still gets me a little excited sometimes). But it tells you more about the player’s team than it does about the player himself. If the Dodgers had put a ton of runners on second and third base when Carroll came up, his RBI total would have been a lot higher.

17 RBI in 510 plate appearances is a freakishly small total, but it can be explained. The biggest reason is Carroll’s place in the batting order. Carroll started 107 games last season. In more than a quarter of them (29), he was the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter. Leadoff hitters have trouble getting RBI in general. For one thing, they are guaranteed at least one at bat per game where nobody is on base. For another, when they are not leading off an inning, they’re batting right after their teams’ bottom of the order hitters, they guys who are statistically least likely to get on base. Since Carroll was on a National League team, the problem was even more acute, because he batted right after the pitcher.

In another 25 games, Carroll hit second in the order. This would in theory increase his RBI chances. Unfortunately, the guy who usually hit ahead of him was Tony Gwynn Jr. Gwynn had a paltry .308 on-base percentage, and just 20 extra base hits all year. So Carroll batted right after the pitcher and Gwynn, and in the rare occasions where Gwynn was on base, he was usually on first base, and not in scoring position.

Carroll’s most frequent spot in the order was eighth. He started 53 games in that slot. On a good team, the eighth slot hitter would have some RBI opportunities, but the Dodgers were not a good team. Aside from Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, the #3 and #4 hitters, the Dodgers didn’t really have any big on-base threats batting ahead of Carroll. Rod Barajas commonly hit in the #7 slot, and he had a wimpy .290 OBP. Such players as Juan Uribe (.264 OBP) and Aaron Miles (.314) also failed to clog the bases ahead of Carroll on a regular basis.

Finally, we the Twins never intended for Carroll to drive in runs. The Twins will use him out of the #2 hole in the lineup, and his job will be to get on base so that the team’s real run producers (Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, etc.) will have a chance to pad their own RBI stats (if they’re healthy, that is). Since Carroll has a career OBP of .356, he should be up to that task. Interestingly, his OBP rose to .388 last year when he hit second in the order. That is a beautiful number, and if he can repeat it in 2012, the Twins will have a lot more opportunity to score runs.

Who drives those runs in is completely irrelevant.