Saturday, October 3, 2009

Runs on a rate basis

The story of Theo Epstein's J.D. Drew rant is making the rounds this week -- and Joe Posnanski, perhaps the best baseball writer out there today, offered his take today on why the arguments Epstein made in defense of Drew make him wish Epstein was the general manager of his team.

Among the highlights that Posnanski pulled out:

"Based on his skill set, he’s always going to have underwhelming RBI totals," Epstein said. "I couldn’t care less. When you’re putting together a winning team, that honestly doesn’t matter. When you have a player who takes a ton of walks, who doesn’t put the ball in play at an above average rate, and is a certain type of hitter, he’s not going to drive in a lot of runs. Runs scored, you couldn’t be more wrong. If you look at a rate basis, J.D. scores a ton of runs.

“And the reason he scores a ton of runs is because he does the single most important thing you can do in baseball as an offensive player. And that’s not make outs. He doesn’t make outs. He’s always among our team leaders in on-base percentage, usually among the league leaders in on-base percentage. And he’s a really good baserunner. So when he doesn’t make outs, and he gets himself on base, he scores runs — and he has some good hitters hitting behind him. Look at his runs scored on a rate basis with the Red Sox or throughout his career. It’s outstanding."

Well, that's interesting. Runs scored on a rate basis.

Most forward-thinking baseball writers now are trying to advance the idea of measuring everything on a rate basis. Home-run totals don't matter nearly as much as home-run rates, for example: If a guy hits 20 home runs in 400 plate appearances and another hits 25 home runs in 600 plate appearances, who's the better home-run hitter? It seems obvious -- and, yet, many will look just at the 20 and the 25 and draw their conclusions that way.

Runs scored and runs batted in fall into that category. There's something magical about triple digits in both of those categories -- and J.D. Drew has scored 100 runs or driven in 100 runs just twice, total, in his entire career. He scored 118 runs with the Braves in 2004, and he drove in exactly 100 runs with the Dodgers in 2006, the year before he opted out of his contract.

Epstein, though, is talking about a rate basis. He didn't exactly elaborate or go into specifics the way he did with Drew's OPS numbers -- the right fielder has the second-best OPS among everyday outfielders in the American League this season, he said -- but he emphasized the idea that Drew produces runs consistently on a rate basis.

What does that even mean?

You have to start with the basics. Two things need to happen for a player to score a run: He has to get on base, and he has to advance around the bases. Unless he hits a home run, both of those things don't happen at the same time. Most often, a player scores because another player puts the ball in play, but as Jacoby Ellsbury demonstrated in the first inning on Friday, another player doesn't even have to swing the bat. Speed and base-running savvy, of course, come into play quite a bit.

If you want to look at it the old-fashioned way, Drew ranks 65th in the American League in runs scored, tied with Placido Polanco and Casey Blake. That doesn't seem like much.

But what if we look at runs on a rate basis?

Let's divide runs by plate appearances. That seems easy.

R/PA Leaders
1. Albert Pujols, .180
2. Johnny Damon, .182
3. Kevin Youkilis, .169
4. Raul Ibanez, .166
5. Chase Utley, .164
(skipping ahead)
7. Jason Bay, .161
13. Dustin Pedroia, .159
18. Joe Mauer, .154
19. Hanley Ramirez, .154
20. J.D. Drew, .153
(A tip of the cap to for the easily formatted and calculated stats.)

Well, then. That's interesting. Drew just jumped from 66th to 20th (out of 154 players who have qualified for the batting title) and is right in there with two players who will or could win their league's respective MVP awards this year.

What's even more interesting is that Drew has done that while primarily hitting in the bottom half of the Red Sox order. He's just a tick behind Dustin Pedroia -- he's closer to Pedroia than Pedroia is to Youkilis. He hasn't had Youkilis or Bay or Mike Lowell there to drive him in. He's usually hitting in front of Jason Varitek and either Nick Green or Alex Gonzalez, and those guys aren't exactly extra-base-hit machines.

But he's still scoring 15 percent of the time he comes to the plate -- and scoring at almost the same rate as Mauer, a player who hits right in the middle of the Minnesota Twins' lineup.

Let's go back a couple of seasons and run the same formula.

In 2008, Drew had just 456 plate appearances because of injury and scored just 79 runs, which ranked him in a tie for 77th in the major leagues.

But here are the R/PA leaders in 2008:
1. Hanley Ramirez, .180
2. Curtis Granderson, .178
3. Alex Rodriguez, .175
4. Ian Kinsler, .175
5. Mark DeRosa, .174
6. J.D. Drew, .173
13. Jason Bay, .166
17. Dustin Pedroia, .163
18. Jacoby Ellsbury, .161

That's even more interesting. Sixth-best in the majors.

If we go back further, the somewhat disappointing regular season Drew had in 2007 is born out in his R/PA numbers: He ranks 40th in the major leagues at .152, scoring just 84 runs in 552 plate appearances. In 2006, his final year with the Dodgers, Drew ranked 70th in the major leagues in R/PA.

But if we go back and look at 2004, the year he scored a career-best 118 runs hitting in front of future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, we come up with this R/PA leaderboard:
1. Barry Bonds, .209
2. Albert Pujols, .192
3. Scott Rolen, .184
4. J.D. Drew, .183
5. Vladimir Guerrero, .182

For his career, Drew has a R/PA rate of .160 -- .1598, to be exact -- which means he's scoring a run 16 percent of the time he comes to the plate.

For the sake of comparison, Jason Bay has a career R/PA rate of .149 -- .1485, actually -- but is generally considered by Red Sox fans to be a far superior offensive player.

It's not always about raw numbers.

If you look at the number of runs he generates as a percentage of plate appearances, well, he's right up there among the best in the game.


Johnny P said...

Where did you find R/PA stats on Fangraphs?

Brian MacPherson said...

Just did it out myself. What FanGraphs does is allow you export to Excel, so I did that with the basic stats and divided runs by plate appearances and sorted that way.