Cincinnati Reds Fans Misrepresented: There Is No RBI vs. OBP Debate

If you haven’t heard, Cincinnati, USA has become the capital for baseball bigotry, or in more amicable terms, the focal point of a baffling hot topic regarding whether RBI are more or less important than OBP.

What a deep question, tantamount to pondering which arrived first between the chicken and egg. How can there be RBI without baserunners? Yet how can there be victory without RBI?

Sheesh, where do we even begin? Let’s start where Descartes did and go from there: “I think, therefore I am.” OK.

On second thought, let’s not do that. Three semesters in philosophy are adequate for a lifetime, and furthermore, they’re irrelevant. Because there is no debate—or at least no debate regarding what’s more important between OBP and RBI. 

It’s a distraction, one created by many professionals who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the Joey Votto discussion—a debate that is happening. For example, on Cincinnati.com, you’ll find popular columnist Paul Daugherty asking the following satirical question in his morning blog: “Can the Reds win without RBI?”

Of course, he doesn’t author the headlines. But he did pen this:

So, Brandon, my man, get with the program. Take a walk with runners in scoring position. You’re not making an out! Allow someone else to collect those worthless RBI, so he can take the crap you’re getting now. Pump that on-base, be a hero. When you score because someone drives you in, ask that guy for half his paycheck. He’s nothing without you. Allow me to elaborate.

Sophistry of this degree can be polarizing, and it’s intentional. Because prior to blogs like this and USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale’s infamous overnight descent into cognitive dissonance, people weren’t debating whether RBI were important or not, only if they were important to describing a player’s value.

And of course, they’re not, because as more than a million sources have probably noted, RBI are a statistic of pure opportunity.

I will skim the topic and move on, so apologies to readers who will find this redundant. 

Good hitters who constantly hit and reach base bat third or fourth for this very reason. But the RBI they garner from those spots don’t define their skill: their batting average, their OBP, their slugging—those are just a few things that can tell you about a hitter’s skill. RBI are more about who’s in front of him.

And while the topic surfaced back in 2013, very few fans were having this discussion beyond the scope of Votto, because very few people, especially fans of a professional baseball team, are going to complain about too many people reaching base or RBI. Both typically synonymous with winning.

I mean, the discussion was happening, but it was mainly relegated to obscure websites, blogs and my mother’s basement. Really, on a grand scale, no one cared. Baserunners are cool; runs are cool; everyone’s cool.

Joey Votto lies at the crux of this discussion. Let me reiterate: If there is indeed a debate happening in Cincinnati, it is not about whether RBI or OBP matters more. It is about whether Joey Votto is still just as valuable to the Reds now as he was when he was hitting 37 home runs in a year and driving in 100-plus RBI. 

If there’s any debate, that’s it. Some fans have said yes; some fans have said no. Some Hall of Fame broadcasters have been verbally scathing toward Votto’s unapologetic willingness to walk and not expand the zone, and others, such as Doug Gray from RedsMinorLeagues.com, have offered the following in response:

And that’s where the smoke and mirrors come in. Because professionals like Marty Brennaman, Paul Daugherty and, to a degree, Bob Nightengale (his BP interview was slanted and misleading—see this article by Wick Terrell of Red Reporter for more) have absolutely nothing to validate their rationale. And in the absence of any data that proves extending the strike zone and sacrificing outs for runs win more games, they’ve masterfully turned the topic on its head. 

If the fact that we’re discussing whether RBI or OBP is more important sounds silly, it’s because it’s meant to be. It’s the quintessential straw man. 

Today, it’s not about whether Votto’s still uber-valuable to the Reds, hitting .305 with an OBP in the high .400s without 25 home runs and 100 RBI—because of course he is. There’s nothing, nothing out there to suggest the opposite. So they change the discussion.

More from Paul Daugherty’s blog:

Nobody seems to want to answer the question, only to insult me: If no one drives you in, what does it matter that you get on base? If scoring runs is the object — and I believe it is — OBP is not the full answer. Is it? 

Simply visit the link and find numerous answers to his question. Whether he reads them is another matter.

But are those advocating for Votto’s approach really trying to tell us that OBP is more valuable than RBI? Or are they just trying to tell us that Votto’s production circa 2013, his last healthy season, is still pivotal to the Reds’ success? That it’s still extremely valuable and desirable? 

The point is, Votto doesn’t need to perform like he did in 2010 to validate his contract, because if runs are the objective—and like Daugherty, I too believe they are—then when Votto leads all of baseball in runs created like he did in 2013, a year he drove in only 73 RBI, it becomes alarmingly transparent that RBI are a weak measure of merit.

But if RBI are a weak measure of merit, how would Brennaman, Daugherty and Nightengale defend their convictions? 

That’s the point. Creating an OBP vs. RBI scenario deflects attention from what is simply misguided criticism on behalf of experts who have to know better. It’s a refusal to admit that Votto’s approach is stunningly satisfying and quite conducive to the Reds winning, without all the bells and whistles of RBI and home runs. 

It’s a refreshingly modern approach to judging a player and what he really brings to your team. A more honest approach to tell their story. Those who have nothing to hide embellish and welcome the new dialogue. Those who don’t do this.

And that’s why in Cincinnati, we’re currently talking about whether runs or guys getting on base win baseball games instead. 

*Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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