September 14, 2017
100 The Hard Way
Albert Pujols is on pace for 106 RBIs. Albert Pujols has been one of the worst players in baseball this season.
I've already written about the deterioration of Pujols’ production at age 37 and with $125 million left on his contract, so I’ll try to avoid rehashing all of that now. However, the idea of a 100-RBI season being a bad season—not just mediocre or overrated, but truly bad—is interesting to me. The collective fight against RBI as a worthwhile measure of a hitter’s value has mostly been won at this point, but throughout the 1990s and even the early 2000s it remained a struggle. There are still plenty of holdouts, some of whom will perhaps get in touch with me regarding the claim that Pujols is having a bad season.
Pujols has hit .247 with a .290 on-base percentage and .393 slugging percentage in 131 games. He has also grounded into a league-leading 24 double plays and produced negative value defensively and on the bases while rating as the slowest player in baseball. Wins Above Replacement Player, which factors in all of those things to come up with all-around value, pegs the future inner-circle Hall of Famer at -1.4 WARP. That’s tied for the worst WARP in the league. WARP shows that Pujols has cost 1.4 wins compared to a replacement-level designated hitter, which is a lot when the Angels are 2.0 games out of a playoff spot.
Where would Pujols’ season rank among the worst 100-RBI seasons of all time? There are a couple ways to look at this. One way is to compare hitting only—what is the worst someone has been at the plate while also driving in 100 runs? Another is to look at all-around value—how much of a negative impact can someone have, as a hitter but also as a fielder and a baserunner, while driving in 100 runs? It turns out that Pujols shows up prominently in either case, so let's take a stroll through the numbers. Be warned: It isn't pretty.
Here are the hitters with the lowest on-base percentage in a 100-RBI season since 1950:
Also known as Joe Carter and Friends.
Carter represents an archetype, versions of which pack that list—right-handed hitters with lots of power and little interest in walks. That player type tends to be overrated—they make outs in bunches and often don’t add much defensively—but they’re set up perfectly to pile up RBI. There are exceptions, but in general if a hitter comes to the plate with runners on it helps the team if they’re willing to lay off borderline pitches to further put the pitcher in trouble. But strictly in terms of an individual’s RBI count, walks are the enemy and hacking away equals more chances to drive in runs compared to hitters with more patience.
It also helps to stay healthy and convince the team to play you every day, in the middle of the lineup, the latter of which has gotten tougher than it was in Carter’s heyday (although Pujols has managed). All of those hitters logged at least 600 plate appearances. Carter averaged 153 games and 659 plate appearances per season from 1986-1997. He drove in at least 100 runs in 10 of those 12 years and led MLB in RBI during that period by almost 200 over Barry Bonds, despite batting .259 with a lowly .308 OBP. He hunted RBI, outs (and setting up teammates for RBI chances of their own) be damned.
Tony Armas had a 100-RBI season in 1983 that would make Carter blush. He came to the plate 613 times and drew a grand total of 29 walks. He hit .218 with a ghastly .254 on-base percentage and grounded into a league-high 31 double plays. He was an out-machine. He also smacked 36 homers and, while it may not have really helped his team, he batted cleanup all season and drove in 107 runs hitting behind Wade Boggs’ league-leading .444 OBP. Armas wasn’t even especially good with runners on, hitting .226 with a .476 SLG, but he got the fifth-most RBI chances in baseball.
In his prime, Pujols topped 100 walks three times and often walked more than he struck out, but this year he’s drawn just 28 unintentional free passes in 565 trips to the plate. Pitchers no longer fear him as much and it seems likely that Pujols has also sacrificed patience in order to maintain some semblance of his old power. More and more, he’s looking to swing hard in case he hits one. His current .290 OBP would be the seventh-worst in a 100-RBI season, between Carter in 1990 and ... Carter in 1989. Pujols, like Carter, Armas, and nearly everyone else on that list, is a slow, double play-prone right-handed hitter.
Here are the hitters with the lowest slugging percentage in a 100-RBI season since 1950:
Joe Carter only appears on that list twice.
It makes plenty of sense that low-OBP sluggers would drive in a bunch of runs when given abundant chances, but how does a hitter go about knocking in 100 runs while slugging .390? First of all, you’ll notice that every hitter on the above list racked up at least 630 plate appearances, and most closer to 700. My assumption was that it would also require an out-of-nowhere elite performance with runners on base—and there are clear-cut examples of that, like Tom Herr in 1985—but more often than not they simply did it by quantity rather than quality.
Perhaps the biggest key is to bat in the middle of a lineup that features high-OBP bats directly in front of you, which Carter did masterfully in 1990 for the Padres. He hit .232/.290/.391, which is really bad. It was arguably his worst season, as he barely out-slugged the league as a whole, .391 to .381, and the league out-hit him by 25 points of AVG and 30 points of OBP. Yet he drove in 115 runs, third-most in the league. Carter was much better with men on base, but he still wasn’t very good. He slugged .442 with runners on and .432 with runners in scoring position.
Carter batted either fourth or fifth in the Padres’ lineup 150 times in 162 games. San Diego’s primary first three hitters were Bip Roberts (.375 OBP), Roberto Alomar (.340 OBP), and Tony Gwynn (.357 OBP). All three got on base a lot, all three had plus speed, and all three rarely drove themselves in, totaling just 19 homers in nearly 1,900 plate appearances. Jack Clark, who led the league in walks (104) and had the top OBP (.447) among hitters with 400 or more plate appearances, batted directly in front of Carter about half of the time.
Thanks to Roberts, Alomar, Gwynn, and Clark doing what Carter refused to do by drawing walks, avoiding outs, and getting on base, he came to the plate with 542 runners on. Not only did that easily lead MLB, it’s the 18th-highest total since 1950. Carter slugged just .442 with runners on, and his rate of driving them in 16.8 percent of the time ranked just 38th that year. There are times when hyper-aggression with runners on is smart—Mitch Williams could point to an at-bat a few years later where he wishes Carter was a little more passive—but his RBI machine recipe was usually tons of chances and always swinging away.
Pujols’ current .393 SLG would be the third-lowest in a 100-RBI season since 1950, one spot after Carter in 1990. He’s hit just .258/.301/.423 with runners on base, but he leads the league by coming to the plate with 408 runners on. On a related note: Mike Trout leads the league with a .460 OBP and, despite missing a big chunk of the season with an injury, Pujols has driven him in three times as often as any other runner. Trout plays the same part as Clark and Boggs, while Pujols plays the same part as Carter and Armas. It’s a relatively simple formula to crack, at least most of the time.
Accounting for OBP and SLG, and adjusting for leagues, eras, and ballparks, here are the hitters with the lowest True Average in a 100-RBI season since 1950:
Armas’ aforementioned 1983 campaign had been the worst of the 100-RBI bunch by a wide margin until Pujols came around. Now they’re running neck and neck, out for out. Then comes Carter’s final 100-RBI season, 1997, when he hit .234/.284/.399 for a Blue Jays team that batted him third or fourth every day. Carter appears again, with his legendary 1990 season, and then the remaining spots are filled with the usual right-handed hackers. Of the 30 total seasons listed—the 10 worst for OBP, SLG, and TAv—seven belong to Carter, who made a career—and five All-Star games—of never straying from his RBI hunting.
No one can compete with Carter as the career-long king of bad 100-RBI seasons, but Pujols has a real chance to kick Armas off the throne for the worst season offensively. He’s currently seventh-worst in OBP, third-worst in SLG, and dead last in TAv. Toss in Pujols’ complete lack of non-hitting value, and his -1.4 WARP passes Armas, as well as Carter’s back-to-back 1996 and 1997 seasons, for the second-worst WARP in a 100-RBI season. Fred McGriff holds the crown with -1.8 WARP in 2000, but that’s based largely on unfathomably bad fielding metrics that detract from above-average hitting. This is Pujols’ crown to lose.