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TMI on RBIs?

May 9, 2022

Hugh Atkins

Last season Adam Duvall led the National League in runs batted in with 113 despite hitting just .228. That is the lowest batting average by a player who led his league in RBIs. In this age of extreme statistical analysis, I still place more value on the RBI than most sabermetricians do. I believe Duvall’s accomplishment lends credence to the argument that batting average may not be the best metric of how valuable a player is to his team.

Using Baseball Reference I checked the batting averages of players who led the league in RBIs back to 1901 and learned some surprising facts.

Napoleon Lajoie had the highest batting average by a player who led the league in RBIs; he hit .426 while driving in 125 runs for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901. Rogers Hornsby had the top average for an NL player who led the league in RBIs; he hit .403 for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1925 and drove in 143 runs.

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Duvall split last season between the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves. He is the third player to lead the league in RBIs while playing for two different teams in the same season. Gus Zernial led the American League in 1951 with 129. He drove in four runs for the Chicago White Sox and another 125 after the Sox traded him to the Athletics. Heinie Zimmerman led the NL with 83 RBIs back in 1916, the first 64 for the Chicago Cubs, with the final 19 coming after a trade to the New York Giants.

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig are the kings of leading the league in RBIs, each doing it five times. Ruth first led the AL in 1919, his final year with the Boston Red Sox and was also the leader in 1920, 1921, 1923, and 1926 while with the New York Yankees. Gehrig somehow managed to lead the league in 1927, 1928, 1929, 1931, and 1934 with Ruth batting in front of him in the order.

Five players led the NL in RBIs four times. Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates dominated the early years of the 20th Century, leading the league in 1901, 1902, 1908, and 1909. Sherry Magee led the league in 1907, 1910, and 1914 with the Philadelphia Phillies and then again in 1917 as a member of the Cincinnati Reds. Hornsby led the NL in 1920, 1021, 1922, and 1925.

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Henry Aaron of the Milwaukee Braves led the NL in 1957, 1960, and 1963; he led again in 1966, the Braves’ first season in Atlanta. Mike Schmidt of the Phillies led the NL in 1980, 1981, 1984, and 1986.

The mode for leading the league in RBIs is 126 by 15 different players. Wagner was the first to lead the league with that total when he did it in 1901. Anthony Rendon of the Washington Nationals was the most recent player whose 126 RBIs led the league; he did it in 2019.

One pair of brothers led their leagues in RBIs. Irish Meusel of the Giants led the NL in 1923 with 125, and brother Bob led the AL with 134 for the Yankees in 1925.

One notable absence from my list: despite hitting 660 home runs, Willie Mays never led the league in RBIs.

Duvall is off to a slow start this season, with a .192 average and 14 RBIs through the Braves’ first 30 games, but I would not be surprised if he ends up driving in a lot of important runs before the season is over. I hope he does. I really like that guy.

5 Lowest Batting Averages for Players Who Led the League in RBIs

YEAR PLAYER TEAM LEAGUE AVG RBIs
2021 Adam Duvall MIA/ATL NL .228 113
1962 Harmon Killebrew MIN AL .243 126
1992 Cecil Fielder DET AL .244 124
2008 Ryan Howard PHI NL .251 146
1971 Harmon Killebrew MIN AL .254 119
(All statistics are from Baseball Reference.)

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2022 12:19 am

    Duvall is an interesting/weird player because he had a very bad OBP (.281) and his OPS was good but not considered top-tier. He might be the best example of the anomalistic nature of baseball–and he also won a gold glove, (!) so he has value in that area besides his obvious power. The dude has proven throughout his career the ability to bring ’em home so I suppose that’s nothing to sniff at. Definitely an Earl Weaver type of player.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 10, 2022 2:24 pm

      “Earl Weaver type of player” is a fine assessment. As I said at the end, “I like that guy” (Duvall). He is no frills, no nonsense. His stance is nondescript, he slides feet first, and he isn’t constantly flopping all over the field. In the outfield, he always seems to be able to make the catch and then throw to the right base. I know he isn’t a superstar, but again, I just like him. Thanks for the feedback.

      Liked by 1 person

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