Couching Cantu in context

No, this is not another piece in which I blatantly rain on the parade of Jorge Cantu fans and slap down comments about his clutch-itude. A lot has been made about Cantu’s impressive RBI streak; Cantu is the first major league player to have recorded a hit and RBI in his team’s first nine games. Now, we know how Cantu feels about the RBI.

“I think the most important stat offensively is the RBI. Having four guys in the lineup who can drive in 100 or 90 runs is super.”
- Florida Marlins first baseman Jorge Cantu

Nothing wrong with saying that, though I don’t believe it’s true, as most of you readers would probably agree. Don’t get me wrong, Cantu is hitting very well. Like .297/.341/.676 good. Like .418 wOBA good. Of course, it’s 34 PA, and a lot of players can pull off runs like this in that small a time period. But since the focus isn’t on just how good Cantu has been hitting (the man has 11 hits, five of them doubles and three others homers) but rather on the RBI/hit streak, let’s talk a little about his RBI.

Context is everything

In my first article on Call to the Pen, I told you that “context is everything” when analyzing baseball or anything else. Before we can say good things about a player, let’s keep in mind the context surrounding that player’s play. Cantu has always been considered an “RBI machine” by Marlins fans. Indeed, in 2008 and 2009, Cantu has 195 RBI total, the highest total for any Marlin. This year he already has 14.

But what is the RBI a function of? Two things:

1) Runners on base when a player bats

2) A player’s skillset involved in driving runners in, particularly contact and power

We already know that Cantu is hitting well, so #2 is covered. But in order to perform as well as he has in the RBI category to start the year, he had to have help from his buddies in front of him. And sure enough:

Hanley Ramirez: .455 OBP
Cameron Maybin: .346 OBP

Maybin isn’t setting the world on fire, but Hanley is on over 45% of the time. Both players are very fast as well, and Maybin in particular has been taking advantage of every opportunity to take an extra base that has been given to him. The combination of two players who, when combined, are getting on base a ton in front of Cantu and are speedy enough to take extra bases on things like singles have to be helping Cantu’s RBI streak.

In total, Cantu has had 36 men on base during his PA, tied for fifth in all of baseball alongside Curtis Granderson of the New York Yankees. That is largely a factor of batting fourth behind Ramirez. In addition, Cantu has also had 15 runners on at second base during his PA, tied with Granderson and Troy Glaus for the most in the game. As we would expect, runners on second provide a significantly better opportunity to be driven in than runners on first, and Cantu has certainly been taking advantage, driving five of those runners home. Cantu has also driven in three of five runners at third as well.

Again, this doesn’t mean that his good hitting is fake. Rather, it only means that we need to look at both sides of the RBI in order to determine how well Cantu is really playing. Yes, he’s hitting great, but he’s getting great opportunities to drive in runs because of his placement in the lineup. Do we want to give credit to a hitter for his place in the lineup? Does that even make sense? Probably not. So Marlins fans, let’s celebrate Cantu’s extremely hot start, but let’s not put him on a pedestal for his “record-breaking” performance in RBI, unless you also want to award Hanley and Maybin for being on base.

Topics: Cameron Maybin, Hanley Ramirez, Jorge Cantu, Miami Marlins

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  • http://marlinsdiehards.com David

    This was a nice corrective. An RBI streak is really just a hitting streak with some luck and home runs thrown in.

  • Michael Jong

    David,

    Exactly. This is what everyone needs to be thinking when they think of RBI, but it’s hard to do that when you grew up thinking “RBI = good, RBI = good” all your life.

    BP’s book “Baseball Between the Numbers” put it best (and I’m paraphrasing here):

    “The best players get the most RBI, but the players who get the most RBI aren’t necessarily the best players.”

  • Joe

    I’d also like to point out that Cantu’s hitting style is very much in favor of driving in runs. Of course you need runners on base to get rbi’s, but look at how cantu hits. With the exception of 2008 cantu has never struck out over 100 times. He also only walks about 40-50 times a year. That means he’s going to have a lot of plate appearances where he puts the ball in play. What I’m saying is he usually doesn’t beat himself with men on base. He will almost always put the ball in play.

    It actually wouldn’t surprise me either if Maybin had around a .350 on base percentage with hanley coming in around .420 (could be higher i think he will walk over 100 times this year). And if Coghlan gets going that could be a very intimidating top three for cantu to drive in all year.

    • Michael Jong

      Joe,

      You’re right in that Cantu does tend to put the ball in play a lot due to his lower strikeout and walk rates. The thing is that does not necessarily guarantee a good player, but this “record RBI streak” talk is making him sound like he’s a better hitter than he actually is. A good deal of his RBI total is HEAVILY based on Hanley Ramirez.

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