Where do Neil Walker’s RBIs come from?

Because Neil Walker’s first half performances has been such a hot topic in the comments and because there is a lot of local discussion about Walker’s big first half RBI total and how it compares to other second baseman, I want to take a bit to talk about Walker and his RBIs. I’m not breaking any new sabermetric ground here, nor am I pretending that I am (I’m mostly standing on the shoulders of Nate Silver’s chapter on clutch in Baseball Between the Numbers here), but I think that sometimes I superimpose the way that I think about things and the way that the most vocal commenters here think about things onto the blog’s entire audience. That’s not fair, so let’s pull the curtains back a bit on Walker, his RBI totals, and what they might possibly mean. As a starting point, the chart below shows how many times Walker has driven each of his teammates home in 2011. 

Neil Walker RBIs 071311
It’s important to note that besides home runs, Walker’s driven in Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen more than anyone else on the team. Walker’s played 88 games this year and by my count, McCutchen and his .390 OBP have batted in front of him 70 times, while Tabata and his .350 OBP have batted in front of him 67 times. The Pirates have many problems on offense, but getting the guys at the top of the order on base is generally not one of them and Walker, who usually bats in the middle of the lineup, often benefits.

That’s simply to say this: Walker has a ton of RBIs, but he’s also had more runners on base than you’d expect based on his plate appearances. He has 368 plate appearances and based on league averages, you’d expect him to have come to the plate with 222 runners on base and to have 38 RBIs. Thanks to McCutchen and Tabata, though, he’s seen 244 men on in front of him. I did some back of the envelop math adjusting up for Walker’s extra chances, the fact that Walker’s been slightly better than average at the plate this year (if you’d expect an average hitter to drive in 38 runs in 368 plate appearances, you’d expect a slightly above average hitter to drive in slightly more than that without having to be “clutch”), and the fact that almost everyone that bats in front of him is a good base runner. Taking all of those things into account, I’d say that a fair estimate of “expected RBIs” for Walker based on his performance at the plate this year, the opportunities that he’s been presented with by his teammates, and his teammates abilities to run the bases is probably around 45-47. 

That means that it’s true that Walker has done a good job hitting situationally in the first half and his clutch stat (I know people love to argue that there is no clutch, but it’s relatively easy to compare how a batter fares in high leverage situations to how he fares in normal situations and then spit out a number based on the relationship between the two performances, which is exactly what FanGraphs’ clutch stat does) bears this out. I’m willing to concede the point that Walker’s been a “clutch” hitter in the first half of the season for now, but I won’t do so without pointing out that there’s absolutely no evidence that clutch exists as a repeatable skill. Look, for example at Mr. Clutch David Ortiz’s clutch rating at FanGraphs over the last couple seasons; it flucuates wildly and since his insanely “clutch” season in 2005, he’s actually been a bit “unclutch.” Alex Rodriguez, meanwhile, who is notorious for supposedly coming through during the season but not when it counts, has a negative career clutch rating, but a positive score in the playoffs. Hitters can have clutch performances within the confines of a season, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to do the same thing the next year. 

When it comes to RBIs, context is everything. Without baserunners, Neil Walker would have eight RBIs this year. RBIs do describe something that’s useful when talking about an individual game, but as a predictive stat they’re absolutely worthless. When Andrew McCutchen gets on base at a clip of .390 in the first half and you see that he’s doing it by drawing more walks, you can predict that he’ll keep getting on base during the second half of the season. When Neil Walker drives in 57 runs in the first half, you can’t say anything else about it because you don’t know when Jose Tabata’s coming back or how long Alex Presley will continue to hit for or if Clint Hurdle will move Walker to the three-hole and bat Andrew McCutchen fourth for a big chunk of the second half. All of those things are out of Walker’s control, and they’re all going to affect his RBI total.

Walker’s had a decent but unspectacular first half at the plate. He’s drawing some more walks, he’s hit for a bit of power, but he’s really just barely above average with respect to the league. It definitely seems like he’s gotten more of those hits with runners on base than you might expect and as a result he’s piled up the RBIs thus far, but that in no way means he’s a lock to continue doing so in the next 76 games.  

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.