Fredi Gonzalez still thinks RBI is an important stat

AP Photo/David Goldman
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Talking up outfielder Hector Olivera, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez talked up the RBI stat while impugning fans of more advanced metrics. Via David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“And he’s driven in runs,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He leads the team in RBIs. I know in the stat-geek world RBI is not a big number, but it sure is. Because you can have all the on-base percentage you want, if you don’t have somebody driving anybody in, you’re not going to score runs.”

Olivera has 12 RBI, which does lead the Braves this spring. But it’s not a particularly elite number, as 32 hitters have more RBI than Olivera and 12 others are tied with him. Players with 12 RBI include such luminaries as Tyler Saladino, Pedro Florimon, and Bryan Holaday. Those with 13 or more include Jemile Weeks, Sam Travis, and Christian Walker.

We know spring training stats don’t mean a dang thing. Why is that? For one, the sample sizes are very small. The leader in at-bats so far this spring is Jarrett Parker with 69. That’s around one-tenth of a full season’s worth of at-bats. Todd Frazier, last year’s regular season leader in AB’s, got to 67 AB’s on April 22. It’s three weeks’ worth of playing time. Secondly, spring training stats are meaningless because pitchers often face subpar hitters and vice versa. Look at the at-bats and innings pitched leaderboards and look at how few names near the top are quality major leaguers. Teams are giving younger players and fringe players opportunities to prove themselves while taking it easy with the veterans. Or, as Giants manager Bruce Bochy calls it, “slow playing”.

Then there’s what’s wrong with the RBI stat itself: often, it tells you more about the quality of the hitters/runners in front of the player in question than about that player himself. A Red Sox lineup where Pablo Sandoval leads off and David Ortiz bats second will yield fewer RBI opportunities for Xander Bogaerts than a 1-2 of Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia because Sandoval and Ortiz run the bases extremely poorly and they don’t attempt to steal bases.

The Braves are hoping Olivera develops into a middle-of-the-order hitter, and that certainly may happen. They won’t be able to tell, though, just by looking at his spring training RBI total.

Gonzalez is signed with the Braves through 2016 and the club holds an option for the ’17 season.