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.

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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.

The top-heaviest league of all time

A reader named Jack wondered if the 1954 American League, the year of my Near-miss league New York Yankees team, was the most top-heavy league year of all time.

“Indians won 111, Yankees 103 and the White Sox 94 … the same total as their ’59 pennant winners but 17 behind in ’54. Then it was about a 25-game drop to the other five,” he wrote.

Exactly 25 games, in fact, to the 69-win Boston Red Sox, who finished 42 games out.

I responded that it was a good question, and if I were ever laid up with a broken leg or something I’d research it. Well, I overestimated how difficult it would be to research that question, which means I underestimated the usefulness of, which at this point in history there’s no excuse for doing.

So I looked into it. Now, I don’t know how to define the most top-heavy league, but let’s use Jack’s rough definition, the best combined record of the top three teams. The ’54 Indians, Yankees and White Sox combined to go 308-154, which for the mathematically sharp-eyed among you is easy to spot as a .667 winning percentage.

According to my research — a word about the research: I was sober and reasonably careful, but let’s not go betting the house on the results, OK? — those 308 wins were the most by any three teams in one league in one year between 1901 and 1968, which covers the so-called modern period before the advent of divisions. Even when the schedule expanded from 154 games to 162, in 1961 in the American League and ’62 in the National, no three teams ever combined to win 308 games.

Dividing the league into divisions, which happened in 1969, presented a different enough picture that I didn’t include that period in this survey. I mean, if one team in each of the West, Central and East combined to win 315 games, it wouldn’t feel like a top-heavy league. It would just feel like a series of one-sided division races.

But while 308 wins was the most by any trio, by winning percentage, the 1954 A.L. was only the third most top-heavy league in the period. The most top-heavy by that reckoning was the 1909 National League. The top three teams that year were Pittsburgh, with 110 wins, the Cubs with 104 and the New York Giants with 92. That’s only 306 wins, but for some reason the league schedule was only 153 games that year, not 154. And the Pirates had a rained out game they never made up. So the overall record of those three teams was 306-152, a winning percentage of .668.

The drop from the third-place Giants to the fourth-place Cincinnati Reds was only 15 games. The lopsidedness wasn’t spread as evenly as it would be in the 1954 A.L. The bottom three teams, Brooklyn, St. Louis and Boston, lost 98, 98 and 108 games respectively.

The top three in the N.L. in 1906 also had a better combined winning percentage than the ’54 A.L.’s top three — barely. But that’s a little misleading — a little like saying that King Kelly and I are the highest-scoring pair of guys named King in history with a combined 1,357 runs.

There was nothing special about the second- and third-place teams that year. The Giants won 96 games and the Pirates 93. But the Cubs were the winningest regular-season team ever, going an astounding 116-36, the only major league team to ever win three-fourths of its games. They won the league by 20 games — over a team that won 96.

Anyway, the combined 305 wins in, again, a 153-game schedule, with both the Cubs and Giants having one unplayed game, meant an overall record of 305-152, a winning percentage of .667. But that was better than 1954, because it was .6673, while the ’54 A.L. teams combined to go .6666.

So, by this measure anyway, the combined winning percentage of the top three teams, the 1954 American League was the third most top-heavy league in history, behind only the 1909 and 1906 National League. It was certainly the most top-heavy that anyone now living can remember. But if you measured it a different way — say, the distance between third place and fourth — you’d get a different answer.

By the way, the best third-place team I found in my little survey — and it only might be the best I noticed, not the actual best — was the 1962 Reds, who won 98 games but trailed both the Giants and Dodgers. They both won 101, then the Giants won two of three in a playoff.

Meanwhile, my ’54 Yankees just lost two out of three to the ’25 Washington Senators. We’re 7-5, one game behind the 2008 Red Sox. Next up, three at the 1977 Kansas City Royals, then back home to the Bronx for a four-game weekend set — we’re up to the last weekend of April — against the 2007 Cleveland Indians.

1954 New York Yankees, owned by me

So I’m playing in this celebrity baseball simulation league, a third simulation team for me, though it doesn’t take up as much time as my two Scoresheet teams, which don’t take up as much time as the wife thinks they do.

And clearly the definition of celebrity is being stretched here.

I was invited by Jonah Keri to play in the Seamheads Near Miss League, which uses Out of the Park Baseball to simulate a season for a circuit made up of good teams that did not win the World Series. I chose the 1954 New York Yankees, ignoring my distaste for all things Yankee partly because I misunderstood the initial description, thinking the league would be made up only of second-place teams, and second-place teams don’t come any better than the ’54 Yanks, who went 103-51.

The 1993 San Francisco Giants went 103-59, but I witnessed that. I figured the ’54 Yankees would be a little more interesting and educational for me. I also just finished reading Allen Barra’s Yogi Berra bio, which of course covered 1954.

The league is run by Mike Lynch of, whose first celebrity league was the Seamheads Historical League, in which owners built a team using all of the players who ever played for a franchise. Joe Posnanski’s Cleveland Indians won it, winning the World Series over the Boston Red Sox when Tris Speaker threw out Reggie Smith trying to go from first to third on a single by Jimmie Foxx.

I’m pretty sure that precise play never happened in real life.

Here’s the owner’s directory so you can see the other big celebs involved.

I don’t really understand Out of the Park Baseball, though it looks pretty cool and if I had a spare few hours every night I could see really getting involved with it. What I did was set my lineups and pitching rotation and send them to Lynch, with a few very broad strategy instructions — no one runs but Mantle, no one bunts but Rizzuto — and sat back to wait for the results.

Filling out a lineup card for the 1954 Yankees isn’t too difficult. There aren’t that many choices. Berra’s going to catch, you know? This league isn’t using playing-time constraints, so I get a break there and I get to use Bill Skowron as my regular first baseman. In real life Skowron, a rookie that year, platooned with Joe Collins, starting 56 games at first while Collins started 75. But Collins hit .271/.365/.446 in 398 plate appearances while Skowron hit .340/.392/.577 in 237 PAs. The Moose it is.

Also, we’re using the designated hitter rule in the American League, so while in real life Casey Stengel used Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling and Irv Noren as a three-way platoon in left and right field, I get to use all three. Though in another playing-time trick, I’ve got the left-handed Noren sitting against lefties, replaced by … the left-handed Enos Slaughter!

We’ll see how that goes, but in real life Slaughter, who played in 69 games that year at the age of 38, had a crazy reverse platoon split, putting up a .700 OPS against righties and an .814 against lefties.

How it’s going so far is the Yankees are 6-3, on a five-game winning streak and tied for first in the A.L. East with Bill Simmons’ 2008 Boston Red Sox. Doesn’t seem like a fair fight to me. Bill’s guys are young and fit, plus David Ortiz, and mine are in their 80s, or dead.

Also in the division: Milo Kaminsky’s 1969 Baltimore Orioles, Jack Perconte’s 2007 Cleveland Indians, Gary Gillette’s 1961 Detroit Tigers, Jason Bova’s 1985 Toronto Blue Jays and Joe Dimino’s 1925 Washington Senators.

The Yanks got off to a rough start, losing two in a row before salvaging the third game against Joe Hamrahi and Craig Brown’s 1977 Kansas City Royals. Then they got pounded by the Senators 11-1 to fall to 1-3 before Eddie Lopat threw a shutout to launch New York on its winning streak, two wins over the Senators and a three-game road sweep over Perconte’s ’07 Indians.

Take that, former big-leaguer, who by the way has been blogging entertainingly at Seamheads about his career.

Next up, we go to Washington, Whitey Ford, still looking for his first win, against Tom Zachary in the opener.

Using Skowron over Collins is really paying off so far. Skowron’s 7-for-31 with no extra-base hits and a .520 OPS. Collins is 6-for-14 with a triple and a 1.071 OPS. Small sample size, but there might be some good reason why playing Skowron over Collins won’t work. Slaughter, by the way, is 4-for-15.

According to Baseball Almanac, my highest-paid player is Mickey Mantle, who made $21,000 that year. In today’s money, that’s $166,470. It’s good to be an owner.