The magic of the 2-out RBI

I’ve been suspicious of claims that individuals or teams are extra special good with two outs ever since this episode in 2004, when the announcers on a random game I was watching talked up the Anaheim Angels’ two-out run-scoring prowess as a measure of their character. They never gave up on an inning and all that.

Marlon Byrd <div xmlns:cc="" about=""><a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=
Marlon Byrd / CC BY-SA 2.0

The talk sounded like hooey to me, and after digging into the numbers a very little, I discovered that hooey was praising with faint damnation. All the original, context-free graphic, the one that sent analyst Buck Martinez into paroxysms of praise for their scrappiness, had said was that the Angels that year were scoring 40 percent of their runs with two outs.

It turned out that 40 percent wasn’t much above league average or much better than the percentage of the team in the other dugout that day, the Chicago White Sox, who had been about a .500 team for a few years and were a year away from being thought of as scrappy.

I also found out that the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins, who were both leading their divisions, didn’t score many runs with two outs, percentage-wise, and the Kansas City Royals, who were last in the league, did.

Since then, whenever I’ve bothered to check on someone’s claims that some player or team is great at scoring with two outs, that claim has turned out to be hooey. It’s usually an anecdotal observation — the Monsters have scored five of their six runs tonight with two outs! — or a product of the fact that more than a third of all runs score with two outs, so most teams look pretty good as two-out run scorers if you think that the average team ought to score 33.3 percent of their runs with two outs.

League averages are pretty constant. It varies by a percent or two from year to year, but you can count on teams scoring about 23 percent of their runs with no outs, 39 percent with one out and 38 percent with two outs.

So Marlon Byrd of the Chicago Cubs has a blog on, and the other day he addressed his own extra special goodness at driving in runs with two outs. This is probably because, at the time he wrote the post, Byrd had 13 RBIs, and 11 of them had come with two down. That’s 85 percent! He now has 15 RBIs, 12 with two outs.

I have no clue why I have so many two-out RBI. Ron Washington pointed it out to me last year. He told me that with two outs, I drive in more runs than I do with less than two outs. He was trying to figure out what my approach was. I said, I’m just trying to bring them in, bottom line. I don’t know. When you see a guy out there, you have to try to keep your focus and try not to do too much and not change anything as far as trying to put the ball in play. I try to relax a little more and just touch the ball — I learned that from Bobby Abreu. He’s unbelievable driving guys in. Just hit it where it’s pitched and sort of flick at the ball and let it hit your bat instead of really trying to drive the ball into the gap.

I don’t think about the pitcher at all, not one bit. I try to stick to my game plan and try to keep it simple and clear my head as much as possible. The more you start thinking, the more you forget about the ball. I just try to see the ball and put it in a good spot and not try to do too much.

Now, before I go any farther, let me just say two things. One is that I like Marlon Byrd. I like how he pulled his career out of the scrap heap when he got to Texas after three terrible years in Philadelphia and Washington. I know his big numbers over the last three years were a product of the ballpark in Texas, but even on the road he was better than he’d been in his Lost Period.

Also, he plays on my Scoresheet team, the Lionhearts, so he’s my guy now. He’s put up a .524/.545/.714 line in limited action as a reserve.

The other thing I want to say is that that excerpt is pretty interesting. Big-picture analysis by current players is usually not compelling in the least, but when you get them talking about how they actually approach their jobs, what they’re thinking, you’ve got something, because these guys are the absolute best in the world at what they do. When they talk about it, you might want to listen.

Byrd doesn’t say anything groundbreaking here. Focus, don’t try to do too much, etc. But it’s interesting to me that when Byrd — or Bobby Abreu, we learn — is up there with two outs and runners in scoring position, he’s trying to “touch the ball,” not “drive the ball into the gap.” I didn’t know that.

That said, I couldn’t help myself. I fact-checked him.

Last year, Marlon Byrd got 39 percent of his RBIs with two outs and 44 percent with 1 out. That’s an odd definition of driving in more runs with two outs than with less than two outs — 61 percent with less than two outs — though maybe Washington, his manager at the time, spoke to him at some early point in the season when it was true.

Remember the usual league average is usually 38 percent with two outs, 39 percent with 1 out, and that’s what it was last year, so Byrd does not seem to be some kind of outlier as a two-out RBI guy. In 2008 he got 23 percent of his RBIs with two outs and 45 percent with one out. Where he really stood out was by getting 32 percent of them with no outs. In 2007, his first year in Texas, Byrd got 40 percent of his RBIs with two outs, 37 percent with one out and 23 percent with no outs, almost exactly league average.

This year, as noted, Byrd has 15 RBIs, 12 of them with two outs. Dumb luck and small sample sizes don’t make for good blog posts, I guess. It must be his extra special two-out voodoo powers. And of course at the end of the year Byrd will still have 80 percent of his RBIs with two outs. Because he’s extra special good that way.

Playing catch with my kid

I’ve been playing catch with my 7-year-old son a lot lately. He’s playing baseball for the first time, Pony League, machine-pitch, and while he’s done some hitting in the past, he never really learned to catch or throw until he started playing in the league.

He can do it now, in a beginner’s sort of way, and he likes practicing. He’s been bugging me a lot to play catch lately. He even wanted to stick around at the park after a practice the other night so he and I could throw the ball around a little. I asked him if that was because he wanted to practice and he said, “Yeah, and also because it’s fun.”

It is fun. I’d forgotten that. It’s been coming back to me as we toss the ball back and forth, usually from only 40 feet or so. I just love playing catch. I always have.

I haven’t done it much over the years. Warming up before softball games, mostly, which I also haven’t done much lately. But even that’s not quite what I mean by playing catch. Throwing the ball before a game serves a purpose. It’s a warmup exercise. It’s fun, but the best way to play catch is to play catch just to play catch.

Great stuffed pillows of prose have been written about games of catch, about fathers and sons and green pastures of spring and all that baloney. I don’t have much use for this kind of thing. Grass gets plenty green without baseball, you know, and fathers and sons who can only talk to each other by playing catch have problems that won’t be solved by playing catch.

As much as I love to play catch, I’ve never really felt that some great mystical communication was going on when I was playing with a friend, or with my dad. It’s fun to play catch with someone I hardly know too. I love the rhythm of it. The simplicity. I love the sound, the pop of the glove when there’s a little mustard on the throw and it’s caught square in the pocket. Catch is a little hypnotizing. It ought to be the most boring thing in the world, but I’ve never ended a game out of boredom. I’ve worn out my arm a few times, though.

I love playing catch with my son not because some magical, wordless discourse travels between us but because I love playing catch and I love that he enjoys playing it with me.

I have to be careful not to fall into the familiar patterns of a game of catch because he’s not ready for that yet. Wherever I’ve played catch and whoever I’ve played it with, at whatever age, catch has always been the same. It starts with simple tossing, a few backward steps every couple of throws to increase the distance. After a while, one or the other will spin a little curveball and invariably get one in return.

Then another curve, or maybe an amateurish split-finger or knuckleball. A screwball for those so inclined, with a question right behind it: “Did that do anything?” Those big-leaguers make a lot of money for a reason. The usual answer: “Not really.”

Soon, one will start winding up, maybe just a little at first, a leg kick. Then an imitation of some famous pitching motion. In my childhood it would have been Juan Marichal’s high leg kick or Luis Tiant’s full turn toward center field, though the windup that comes easiest to me is the rather nondescript one of the pitcher who was a hometown constant through my mid-teens, Don Sutton. It’s a rocking motion with a fluid kick, almost a swing toward home plate. Never mind. I’ll show you sometime.

I wonder if kids still do that as much. Pitchers’ windups seem more uniform now, not as idiosyncratic as they used to be. I think I’ll know the answer to this question within a year or two.

But no, not yet. I have to catch myself before letting loose my favorite pitch, my straight knuckler. No circle changes or palm balls. No dropping down sidearm. I’ve always wanted to invent a pitch, be the guy who figures out a way to configure those five fingers in some way that nobody’s thought of before. This will have to wait.

My son has become reasonably competent at catching balls thrown directly to him. He has trouble on his backhand side and tends not to reach quite high enough for balls higher than eye level. He’ll get there.

For now I concentrate on my mechanics, repeating my motion. I aim a straight, medium-speed ball at his left shoulder on every toss. It would be too easy for him if I could hit the target more consistently, but my shortcomings in this area give him plenty of practice reacting to different kinds of throws.

Each throw is just a throw. It doesn’t carry a message. I send those over with words. “Good!” Or “Whoops, sorry, bad throw!” I’ll tell him to turn the glove over when he forgets to backhand a ball to his right and he’ll tell me about something someone did at the last game. He’ll vow to catch the next 10. I’ll concentrate on laying that ball right on his shoulder so he can do it. He hardly ever does it. Not yet.

These games of catch might be formative moments that my son will take to his grave. I get that. They also might be forgotten and baseball abandoned by winter. I hope I’ll get to keep reprising them until long after my son — and, soon, I hope, my daughter — has had to start holding himself back to make allowances for my age.

But if not, then not. I’ll miss that familiar-again rhythm, that pop of the glove, that little flip to the bare hand, that back and forth. But I’ve missed it before. And whichever way it goes, if my kid and I need to talk to each other, we won’t go out and play catch. We’ll talk.

Then, maybe, if it’s light out and not raining, we’ll play catch. I hope so, because I love to play catch.