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="http://creativecommons.org/ns#" about="http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/3481712079/"><a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=
Marlon Byrd http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/ / 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 MLBlogs.com, 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.

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