RPI for you and me…
there’s a better way, though you don’t always need it


A few years ago… in the early days of the Backpack… I set out to write an insightful column. (I generally set off with good intentions. Whether or not I finish by offering insight or confusion is another debate entirely.) As I recall, the particular article of note for today’s effort focused on relief pitching. I needed a hook… or more precisely, a different way of looking at things that might hit the mark for a reader. I needed a statistic to prove my opinion.

My dilemma was simple… the reliever I was looking at was horrendous. (That might be too strong. Not horrible or hideous, and he was the closer on a decent team. (Well, a winning-record team.) But horrendous in the way that every appearance seemed to involve runners on base even though he was on the mound to face the first hitter of the ninth.) I didn’t trust him… and never would have signed him… and the roller coaster rides he created were amazing. In fact, it was my position in the debate that, even though he came in to start the ninth inning clean, the first batter should be placed on first base to just save us all five-minutes or so. We all knew he was going to safely reach base… the only question was how… and I felt comfortable sacrificing the answer in order to move ahead and add those moments back to my life.

So I started my research by counting.

How many innings did he pitch… how often did a hitter reach base safely, with a walk or a hit… and I started to see some random thoughts blending together. I called the statistic RPI. Stood for runners-per-inning. Simple. Easy.

Since that time I have on several occasions learned that I’m an idiot. And, I have also learned about the very powerful (and strikingly similar) WHIP stat. It happens.

The major point remains though… I find that often the best efforts develop from the most basic of observations. (Stress the word develop. Because if I want to write articles and opinions and so on, then I need to try and bring something to the table other than simple, generic, (and often flawed) arguments.) The best arguments though… for me… come from moments that surprise me, startle me, or in some way seem like something that not everyone is picking up on. That can mean a very easy and obvious thought that gets twisted into a different way of observing it… but it still has to grow from something.

Recently I’ve been working on my 40-game review of the 2011 baseball season. And, as I was doing it, I ended up mentioning something that is part of a greater concept that has been on my mind to write about for some time. In a way, it’s my simple way of finding initial inspiration.

In that article, I mentioned the sniff test.

The sniff test is different for everyone, and can vary depending on the situation it is being applied to, but I imagine the basics hold true. And that’s just it… the basics. See I approach lots of material from quite a naïve viewpoint. And beyond developing an argument, I couldn’t exactly explain why… maybe I just see things differently… maybe I look for things that interest me, and disregard a ton of material on first sight… maybe a part of it is that I find I can give a more balanced understanding to different sides of an issue… maybe a part of it is the media focusing on the quick and easy details and not the depth of a story… maybe a part of it is just being lazy. What I do find though is that if the basic details get my attention, I move on and look at more… if they don’t, I keep my distance… and thinking a bit away from the major (and easy) central themes that most sources identify often adds perspective to the situation.

Examples? Sure…

You want steroids? I’ll give you steroids. But don’t lump all the problems on steroids and label it an era. Doesn’t work nice and neat and clean that way. There have to be considerations given to the new ballpark designs, expansion bringing in more players, equipment development, and a whole batch of other elements. And you need to account for the full history of baseball, with designated hitters and free agency and the height of the mound and the Negro Leagues and all sorts of other moments in time and significant adjustments to what happened on the field. It’s not just steroids… it’s not the only potential dark cloud on the history of the sport.

Seldom are answers simple. Often though, the best questions come from simple observations.

When it comes to professional baseball, I am absolutely aware that wins and losses for pitchers, or batting averages and RBIs for hitters, and all sorts of other statistics are in many ways meaningless. Well… meaningless is a bit strong. But a losing record doesn’t always tell you that a pitcher is bad… a decent batting average doesn’t always tell you a hitter is contributing. And yet…

Son of a gun… check out pitchers winning Cy Young awards… or just look at the careers of those pitchers you think are good… and in the majority of cases you’ll find them with winning records that approach or clear 20-wins… low ERAs… high strikeouts… maybe even playing for winning teams… and so on and on with those meaningless statistics.

And darn it all… look at the Most Valuable Player award winners and hitters you’d want wearing your team’s uniform. Batting average… RBIs… home runs… winning team… check, check, check, check… and you get the idea.

In short… you can tell me that those top and long-lived statistics are misleading… I agree that they can be misleading… and yet time and time again, the names at the top of the lists for these categories are the leading players.

It doesn’t mean that others can’t be good without topping the league in certain areas for a season (or a career). For me though… want to find out the best pitchers… let’s start with wins and strikeout totals and ERAs.

Notice the word “start” in that sentence. You don’t “only” use records or something that measures ratios of errors against walks allowed for pitches thrown. (That last one was meant to be confusing. Unless is motivates someone to develop something that’s genius. Then it was intentional. But really… don’t go measuring errors to pitches thrown. Ok?) You can “start” with those. My clarification being… don’t take it to mean I don’t appreciate deeper and more involved statistics. I do. But they aren’t the sniff test.

Anything involving time and research and questioning the normal way of doing things or viewing things or defining things by its very nature isn’t simple, basic or easy. Even if it does provide greater accuracy… even if it does find answers and reasons… even if it is worth the effort.

The sniff test is simple, basic and easy.

Adrian Gonzalez. As I began to write this… he was hitting .327… 9 home runs… 37 RBIs. Not too shabby. (He’s improved those stats since.)

We all know he’s a good player… so when the basic stats are good… is there much need to dig deeper? In general, no. Unless you have a need to find out whether or not he hits better late in games… when his team is trailing by a run… with runners on base… you’ve heard he was a good player and those basic stats tell you he’s playing good baseball.

If I asked you in March to tell me the top players in certain positions, there are names you would likely know right away. Say pitching… would Josh Johnson, Dan Haren, Roy Halladay and Jered Weaver possibly have been on your list? Ok… depends on how long you went… still, good. Would you then be stunned to find, again, same date I was writing this that I had Gonzalez’s stats, those are four of the best ERAs to date in 2011?

The sniff test won’t tell you that the Florida Marlins are having a much more interesting season than the St. Louis Cardinals or the Cincinnati Reds. That type of approach will tell you they’re having a good season so far. And… yeah… that’s about it.

The thing is… why? Other than history and some good players, which suggest a decent effort, falling off in September, and another year of promise for the future… why? Why are the Marlins hanging with the supposedly superior Phillies and Braves (and Reds and Cardinals and Giants and Rockies)?

The sniff test says something is up. And that’s when my interest comes into play and I look for more.

When the games ended on Sunday (May 15, 2011), the Marlins had won 8 series, lost 3, and split 2. They had won a series against Philadelphia, Atlanta and Cincinnati and had split one with St. Louis. (They had lost one to Philly as well.) They had winning records at home and on the road. They were playing .600 ball. About the only thing to be concerned by was a 10-10 record inside the NL East. (Certainly not bad… but Philly is leading the division and they were 16-10 against NL East opponents as of that same date.)

None of that material is what I would consider part of a sniff test. Neither is noticing that St. Louis and Cincinnati seems to be scoring a ton of runs for National League clubs. (Seriously, they are playing at a clip about 1 run per game better than anyone else.) This information is more than sniffing. And…

What it does tell me is that Florida may be hanging around all season long, because they are consistently winning games. They haven’t been streaky. And it’s happening against good teams… no matter where they play. The runs scored and other data serve up a picture that says they seem to be playing to their strengths. Is it a given? No. But it’s more than having won ten straight to start the year and then holding on over the next thirty.


What I am trying to say is that even the most routine and superficial of statistics have their place. They work. And the more detailed, more deeply researched, and even more confusing statistics have their place as well. They work too.

What I believe is so upsetting to many is how quickly people jump to one side or the other. You have one group that essentially claims their eyes can tell them the full story, and that they don’t need a fancy comparison to a replacement player to confirm that such-and-such is awesome. They see it. They know. And on the other, we get details that show how truly brilliant some players are, and factors that could be applied to judging talent and gauging how to invest payrolls, draft picks, and rosters.

For me there has to be a combination of the two.

We can go easily into this and say Gonzalez is a special player. We can go deeply into this and say Gonzalez is great fit for Fenway, at a point of his career that makes a long-term contract less of a gamble, and worthy of special considerations. We can compare San Diego to Boston as far as rosters and ballpark design and any other factor you could conceive of exploring. (And there are those that will explore.)

When I’m sitting down, watching a game with my wife, my Dad, my friends or even on my own, I don’t want to think about those factors much. At least not in a way that overshadows everything.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying those efforts spoil the enjoyment of the game. Instead I’m trying to say there is an elegance and nostalgia in the simplicity of things. As we learned in the movies… throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball… it’s not complicated. Savor the sweet moments… kick pillows during the bad… and occasionally scream at the television when the manager makes a stupid decision or the umpire blows a call.

I want those reporting on the game… the voices giving evidence and opinion, and in many ways, documenting the history made today for those looking back tomorrow… to respect the extra details. I want them to use them. In some ways, you could say that I don’t trust their eyes. I trust mine. What I want from them is the complicated stuff I don’t always have the time for.

Some things… they are just that simple.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com