Find me someone who says Mickey Mantle isn’t one of the 20 best players of all time and I’ll show you a fool.
The Mick’s resume is impressive. It includes a triple crown, two 50-homer seasons, five seasons in which he scored the most runs in the American League, a .421 on-base percentage, eighteen postseason home runs, 521 long balls for his career. He was graceful in the field and swift on the basepaths.
But there is one thing he never did exceptionally well. Drive in runs.
Mickey Mantle drove in 1,509 runs in his career. In 2,401 games. The guys right above (Carlos Delgado) and below (Vlad Guerrero) him drove in 1,512 and 1,496 runs. They did so in 2,035 and 2,147 games respectively.
Mantle sits 53 on the all time runs batted in list. Of the 52 players in front of him on this list, 19 did it in fewer games: Delgado, Jeff Kent, Jake Beckley, Jeff Bagwell, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Stargell, Harry Heilman, Rogers Hornsby, Mike Schmidt, Goose Goslin, David Ortiz, Sammy Sosa, Albert Pujols*, Frank Thomas, Al Simmons, Manny Ramirez, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig,
Some of these guys have hundreds (!) more runs batted in than Mantle over careers that spanned fewer games than him.
Despite having a career .298 batting average and winning four home run crowns, he led his league in runs batted once – with 130 in 1956. To put that in perspective, Jeff Burroughs, George Scott, Larry Hisle and Preston Wilson also led the league in runs batted in once in their careers.
Mantle drove in 100 runs exactly four times. That’s fewer 100 RBI seasons than Andruw Jones and Dante Bichette.
But surely, the Mick regularly led the Yankees in runs batted in, right?
He led the Bombers in runs batted in four times (1956-1959).
Meanwhile Yogi Berra led the Yankees in runs batted in five times (1951-1955), Joe Pepitone did so four times (1963, 1965-1967), and Roger Maris did it three times (1960-1962). Tom Tresh (1964) and Roy White (1968) paced the team once apiece.
Why does this matter?
Be cause it’s exhibit A in why the RBI is the most overrated stat in baseball history.
Nothing’s really close. Not even the win.
You might think this is because I’m a new school guy who likes new stats, but that’s not what makes the RBI a bad stat. It’s that it’s bad among the old school stats.
Here’s the thing most baseball fans realize. All of those original stats — the win, the hit, the double, the triple, the home run and on and on — come from the box score. The box score, which Henry Chadwick is often credited with creating, was never put together to tell you how good a player is. It was put together to help you, as a fan, recreate the game that was played.
A baseball fan who knows how to keep score can look at any box score from any year and use it to break down the game that was played.
Most of the new stats were devised to tell you how good a player is; not what they did on a particular day. We can argue their merits another day.**
But the RBI is — with few exceptions*** — not just a bad stat at telling you how good a player is, it’s a bad stat at telling you what happened in a game. It’s the weak link in the box score. I’m convinced this is why you often see old box scores without it.
First of all, there’s the problem of so many ways a run can score without a corresponding RBI. You’ve got a passed ball (which does show up in some box scores), a run scoring on a double play (which does show up in some box scores), a run scoring on a groundout (which isn’t really designated in a box score). And there are others. Consider a batter who hits a double with a slow runner at first, but that runner gets into and escapes a run down between third and home to score a run. No RBI for the batter there. Despite the batter putting the ball in play in a way that gives the average runner a chance to score.
Meanwhile, an RBI can be awarded on an error. It is awarded on a sacrifice fly. It is awarded on a walk or a hit-by-pitch with the bases loaded. It is awarded on a missplayed ball that didn’t result in an error.
Think about what this means to the record books.
They have Mickey Mantle with 536 home runs. We know he drove 536 balls out of the ballpark in official games. Not 521. Not 548. The record books have him with 1,676 runs scored and we know he safely crossed the plate 1,676 times in a major league game.
The record books have him with 1,509 runs batted in, but we don’t know that that is how many runs he drove in.
So it’s a bad stat at telling us what happened in a game. It can even get in the way of recreating a game from a box score.
Now, if you need further proof that an RBI also doesn’t really tell us how good of a run producer a player is, go back to that list of 19 names above. Those guys drove in more runs than Mantle in fewer games.
Which of those guys would you want at the plate to bring in a run more than Mantle?
Ted Williams, right. Gehrig, right. Other than that, its safe to say you probably pick Mantle.
And you’d be right.
* He probably passes Mantle in games played this year.
** For the record (OPS+, BABIP for pitchers), I like some and can’t stand others (OPS, BAPIP for hitters).
*** For instance, Lou Gehrig drove in 173 in 1927. That’s the same year Babe Ruth, who hit in front of Lou Gehrig, hit 60 home runs. In other words, in at least 60 of his 584 at-bats that year, the Iron Horse came to the plate with no one on and still managed to drive in an insane amount of runs.
For more on Mantle, give this post by Steve Buttry a read.