RBIs and MVP

I’ve been thinking a lot about Pavlov and his dog lately, and it’s beginning to worry me.

All that salivating—sheesh! Aside from the sanitary issues, there’s something depressing about an ongoing knee-jerk reaction that continues even without the application of the doctor’s mallet.

This is what came to mind when I read Dave Studenmund’s intriguing and creative Season Leverage Index. Dave handles math the way I terrorize a dependent clause, and what he’s doing is extremely inventive.

There is an assumption underlying Dave’s work, however, that needs to be addressed. For nearly 30 years now, one of the primary tenets of sabermetrics has been the overrated nature of runs batted in (and please don’t call ‘em “ribbies,” makes me think of rib-eye, and that just involuntarily makes my mouth water).

Yes, they are overrated. And yes, there has been a tendency to award Most Valuable Player awards to hitters with league-leading RBI totals.

There has been enough hue and cry on this topic to travel through interstellar space and convince the Klingons that (a) there is life on earth and (b) that earthlings are a bunch of undifferentiated whiners.

While Dave doesn’t focus so much on RBIs in what he wrote, I think this issue has been ingrained enough that it has a kind of subliminal effect on “sabermetric discourse.”

As noted, Dave’s idea is exceptionally clever. He wants to use the method to create a dialogue with a group of baseball beat writers who made NL RBI leader Ryan Howard the second-place finisher in the 2008 NL MVP voting.

While that is a worthwhile strategy (and I’d love to read some of the transcripts of those interactions), two things here need to be pointed out.

First, the writers didn’t make Howard the MVP this year. He finished second. Even though there were certainly MVP candidates who deserved to place higher than Howard on the ballot, the fact is that the writers did get it right. They gave the award to Albert Pujols, who was the NL’s best player by almost every conceivable measure.

Second, lurking somewhere within Dave’s purpose is an echo of that long-standing squabble over RBIs and MVPs that assumes the problem is the same as it was 30, or even 20, years ago.

Then a bell rang in my head. As I reached for a napkin to wipe my mouth, I suddenly knew that it was time to crack open the reference books—er, rather, go to Sean Forman’s baseball-reference.com—and find out if this issue is still a matter of, er, “reflexive” truth.

But before I provide the results of the study, perhaps it would be appropriate if you took a “knee-jerk quiz” on the subject. Take a moment to answer these five questions before proceeding further:

1—What percentage of MVP winners (1931 to 2008) led the league in RBI?
2—Does this percentage vary much by league?
3—How many times did this MVP/RBI correlation happen in both leagues during the same year?
4—In what years did No. 3 occur?
5—Has this percentage varied over time or has it remained constant? Is it higher or lower in the last 20 years (let’s say 1990 to the present) than the overall average?

Yes, I realize that No. 4 is a question that only the “rain man” variant of stathead is going to rattle off, but take a crack at it anyway. The answers to all of these questions will be found in various places in the text below, along with a table of results and a few other related facts. Take the quiz first. When the bell rings, you can proceed…

***

Here are the numbers.

Since 1931, when the MVP award as we know it came into being, there have been 156 selections. Fifty-four of these, or just under 35 percent, have been awarded to the player leading the league in RBI.

The figures are very close for the two leagues: 36 percent in the AL (28), exactly one-third in the NL (26).

What’s most interesting, though, is how these percentages have changed over time.

Years           NL    Pct   AL    Pct
1931-55          5    20%    8    32%
1956-89         17    50%   16    47%
1990-present     4    21%    4    21%

As the chart shows, the first quarter-century of the MVP voting (1931-1955) gave the plaque to RBI leaders just over one-fourth of the time (13 out of 50, or 26 percent).

Over the next 34 years (1956-1989), however, the correlation of RBI/MVP that created the howling hounds of “stathead backlash” was, in fact, there for every sore eye to see.

Just under half of the MVP awards went to RBI leaders in that time span. Only twice do we find a gap greater than a year in which no RBI leader won in either league: 1962-63, and 1975-76.

Starting in 1990, however, all this changed. Since 1998, when RBI leaders Sammy Sosa and Juan Gonzalez were named MVPs, there have been only two MVP/RBI alignments: Ryan Howard in 2006 and Alex Rodriguez in 2007.

So that means that, over the past 10 years, the BBWAA has brought the percentage down to just 10 percent.

Overall since 1990, the MVP/RBI correlation is down to just a tad over 20 percent.

For some reason, however, this good news doesn’t seem to be either widely known or, for that matter, something that the number-crunching community wants to feel good about. Sure, it could simply a fluke—go ahead and throw that knee-jerk “small sample size” issue at me. Don’t forget, I was the first sabermetrician with an asbestos suit, and I’ll still—cough, cough—be here after every last one of you is floating in your own saliva.

OK, OK, sorry: all that ringing in my ears just got too much to take… anyway, odds are that the BBWAA may have learned something as a result of all this dogged effort to separate RBI from MVP. Both the AL and NL had the longest streak of years with no MVP/RBI connection in the last decade: eight years (AL: 1999-2006) and seven years (NL: 1999-2005). Both of these represent the longest span of “RBI/MVP separation” in either league over the history of the MVP award.

While continuing a dialogue is a good idea—and Dave’s method to capture the mindset of those with various types of “selection bias” entering into their modes of assessment is downright inspired—I think it’s worth considering that we simply look at these results and take a moment to bask in our success.

It’s a success we seem to have been denying ourselves, for reasons known only to the man behind the screen who keeps ringing that damned RBI/MVP bell.

***

A complete list of the RBI leaders and their MVP finishes can be seen in the table below. Look out, it’s a big one.

A few fun facts:
In nine years the MVP has gone to the RBI leader in both leagues: 1941, 1953, 1958, 1964, 1967, 1969, 1972, 1987 and 1998.

Seven players leading in RBI have finished 15th or lower in the MVP voting: Nick Etten (15th, 1945), Vern Stephens (24th, 1950), Gus Zernial (20th, 1951), Ray Boone (16th, 1955), Harmon Killebrew (21st, 1971), Preston Wilson (16th, 2003), Vinny Castilla (23rd, 2004).

The player in the MVP voting period (1931 to the present) with the highest league-leading RBI total not winning the MVP award: Lou Gehrig in 1931 (184 RBI, finished second). Hank Greenberg led with 183 RBI in 1935 and finished third. Highest total post-WWII: Manny Ramirez (165 RBI in 1999, finished third).

Twenty-eight hitters have led in RBI and finished second in the MVP voting, 16 in the NL (earliest: Chuck Klein, 1931; latest: Ryan Howard, 2008), and 12 in the AL (first: the aforementioned Gehrig; latest: David Ortiz, 2005).

References & Resources
Following is a complete list of all league RBI leaders during the MVP years, and how they finished in MVP voting:

 Year  National League          RBI  MVP
 2008  Ryan Howard* (PHI)       146   2
 2007  Matt Holliday (COL)      137   2
 2006  Ryan Howard* (PHI)       149   1
 2005  Andruw Jones (ATL)       128   2
 2004  Vinny Castilla (COL)     131  23
 2003  Preston Wilson (COL)     141  16
 2002  Lance Berkman# (HOU)     128   3
 2001  Sammy Sosa (CHC)         160   2
 2000  Todd Helton* (COL)       147   5
 1999  Mark McGwire (STL)       147   5
 1998  Sammy Sosa (CHC)         158   1
 1997  Andres Galarraga (COL)   140   7
 1996  Andres Galarraga (COL)   150   6
 1995  Dante Bichette (COL)     128   2
 1994  Jeff Bagwell (HOU)       116   1
 1993  Barry Bonds* (SFG)       123   1
 1992  Darren Daulton* (PHI)    109   6
 1991  Howard Johnson# (NYM)    117   5
 1990  Matt Williams (SFG)      122   6
 1989  Kevin Mitchell (SFG)     125   1
 1988  Will Clark* (SFG)        109   5
 1987  Andre Dawson (CHC)       137   1
 1986  Mike Schmidt+ (PHI)      119   1
 1985  Dave Parker* (CIN)       125   2
 1984  Gary Carter+ (MON)       106  14
       Mike Schmidt+ (PHI)      106   7
 1983  Dale Murphy (ATL)        121   1
 1982  Dale Murphy (ATL)        109   1
       Al Oliver* (MON)         109   3
 1981  Mike Schmidt+ (PHI)       91   1
 1980  Mike Schmidt+ (PHI)      121   1
 1979  Dave Winfield+ (SDP)     118   3
 1978  George Foster (CIN)      120   6
 1977  George Foster (CIN)      149   1
 1976  George Foster (CIN)      121   2
 1975  Greg Luzinski (PHI)      120   2
 1974  Johnny Bench+ (CIN)      129   4
 1973  Willie Stargell*+ (PIT   119   2
 1972  Johnny Bench+ (CIN)      125   1
 1971  Joe Torre (STL)          137   1
 1970  Johnny Bench+ (CIN)      148   1
 1969  Willie McCovey*+ (SFG)   126   1
 1968  Willie McCovey*+ (SFG)   105   3
 1967  Orlando Cepeda+ (STL)    111   1
 1966  Hank Aaron+ (ATL)        127   8
 1965  Deron Johnson (CIN)      130   4
 1964  Ken Boyer (STL)          119   1
 1963  Hank Aaron+ (MLN)        130   3
 1962  Tommy Davis (LAD)        153   3
 1961  Orlando Cepeda+ (SFG)    142   2
 1960  Hank Aaron+ (MLN)        126  11
 1959  Ernie Banks+ (CHC)       143   1
 1958  Ernie Banks+ (CHC)       129   1
 1957  Hank Aaron+ (MLN)        132   1
 1956  Stan Musial*+ (STL)      109   9
 1955  Duke Snider*+ (BRO)      136   2
 1954  Ted Kluszewski* (CIN)    141   2
 1953  Roy Campanella+ (BRO)    142   1
 1952  Hank Sauer (CHC)         121   1
 1951  Monte Irvin+ (NYG)       121   3
 1950  Del Ennis (PHI)          126   4
 1949  Ralph Kiner+ (PIT)       127   4
 1948  Stan Musial*+ (STL)      131   1
 1947  Johnny Mize*+ (NYG)      138   3
 1946  Enos Slaughter*+ (STL)   130   3
 1945  Dixie Walker* (BRO)      124   9
 1944  Bill Nicholson* (CHC)    122   2
 1943  Bill Nicholson* (CHC)    128   3
 1942  Johnny Mize*+ (NYG)      110   5
 1941  Dolph Camilli* (BRO)     120   1
 1940  Johnny Mize*+ (STL)      137   2
 1939  Frank McCormick (CIN)    128   4
 1938  Joe Medwick+ (STL)       122  11
 1937  Joe Medwick+ (STL)       154   1
 1936  Joe Medwick+ (STL)       138   4
 1935  Wally Berger (BSN)       130   6
 1934  Mel Ott*+ (NYG)          135   5
 1933  Chuck Klein*+ (PHI)      120   2
 1932  Don Hurst* (PHI)         143   7
 1931  Chuck Klein*+ (PHI)      121   2

 Year  American League          RBI  MVP
 2008  Josh Hamilton* (TEX)     130   7
 2007  Alex Rodriguez (NYY)     156   1
 2006  David Ortiz* (BOS)       137   3
 2005  David Ortiz* (BOS)       148   2
 2004  Miguel Tejada (BAL)      150   5
 2003  Carlos Delgado* (TOR)    145   2
 2002  Alex Rodriguez (TEX)     142   2
 2001  Bret Boone (SEA)         141   3
 2000  Edgar Martinez (SEA)     145   6
 1999  Manny Ramirez (CLE)      165   3
 1998  Juan Gonzalez (TEX)      157   1
 1997  Ken Griffey* (SEA)       147   1
 1996  Albert Belle (CLE)       148   3
 1995  Albert Belle (CLE)       126   2
       Mo Vaughn* (BOS)         126   1
 1994  Kirby Puckett+ (MIN)     112   7
 1993  Albert Belle (CLE)       129   7
 1992  Cecil Fielder (DET)      124   9
 1991  Cecil Fielder (DET)      133   2
 1990  Cecil Fielder (DET)      132   2
 1989  Ruben Sierra# (TEX)      119   2
 1988  Jose Canseco (OAK)       124   1
 1987  George Bell (TOR)        134   1
 1986  Joe Carter (CLE)         121   9
 1985  Don Mattingly* (NYY)     145   1
 1984  Tony Armas (BOS)         123   7
 1983  Cecil Cooper* (MIL)      126   5
       Jim Rice (BOS)           126   4
 1982  Hal McRae (KCR)          133   4
 1981  Eddie Murray#+ (BAL)      78   5
 1980  Cecil Cooper* (MIL)      122   5
 1979  Don Baylor (CAL)         139   1
 1978  Jim Rice (BOS)           139   1
 1977  Larry Hisle (MIN)        119  12
 1976  Lee May (BAL)            109   9
 1975  George Scott (MIL)       109   8
 1974  Jeff Burroughs (TEX)     118   1
 1973  Reggie Jackson*+ (OAK)   117   1
 1972  Dick Allen (CHW)         113   1
 1971  Harmon Killebrew+ (MIN   119  21
 1970  Frank Howard (WAS)       126   5
 1969  Harmon Killebrew+ (MIN   140   1
 1968  Ken Harrelson (BOS)      109   3
 1967  Carl Yastrzemski*+ (BO   121   1
 1966  Frank Robinson+ (BAL)    122   1
 1965  Rocky Colavito (CLE)     108   5
 1964  Brooks Robinson+ (BAL)   118   1
 1963  Dick Stuart (BOS)        118  13
 1962  Harmon Killebrew+ (MIN   126   3
 1961  Roger Maris* (NYY)       142   1
 1960  Roger Maris* (NYY)       112   1
 1959  Jackie Jensen (BOS)      112  10
 1958  Jackie Jensen (BOS)      122   1
 1957  Roy Sievers (WSH)        114   3
 1956  Mickey Mantle#+ (NYY)    130   1
 1955  Ray Boone (DET)          116  16
       Jackie Jensen (BOS)      116  10
 1954  Larry Doby*+ (CLE)       126   2
 1953  Al Rosen (CLE)           145   1
 1952  Al Rosen (CLE)           105  10
 1951  Gus Zernial (TOT)        129  20
 1950  Walt Dropo (BOS)         144   6
       Vern Stephens (BOS)      144  24
 1949  Vern Stephens (BOS)      159   7
       Ted Williams*+ (BOS)     159   1
 1948  Joe DiMaggio+ (NYY)      155   2
 1947  Ted Williams*+ (BOS)     114   2
 1946  Hank Greenberg+ (DET)    127   8
 1945  Nick Etten* (NYY)        111  15
 1944  Vern Stephens (SLB)      109   3
 1943  Rudy York (DET)          118   3
 1942  Ted Williams*+ (BOS)     137   2
 1941  Joe DiMaggio+ (NYY)      125   1
 1940  Hank Greenberg+ (DET)    150   1
 1939  Ted Williams*+ (BOS)     145   4
 1938  Jimmie Foxx+ (BOS)       175   1
 1937  Hank Greenberg+ (DET)    183   3
 1936  Hal Trosky* (CLE)        162  10
 1935  Hank Greenberg+ (DET)    170   1
 1934  Lou Gehrig*+ (NYY)       165   5
 1933  Jimmie Foxx+ (PHA)       163   1
 1932  Jimmie Foxx+ (PHA)       169   1
 1931  Lou Gehrig*+ (NYY)       184   2

* left-handed batter
# switch hitter
+ Hall of Fame

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