The RBIs stand out to me more than anything else. With the limited plate appearances that he has to stack that many up. It’s getting the big hit. Not everybody can do that.
No, not everyone can get the big hit. For one, guys who frequently bat without runners on base simply lack the opportunities. So Mike Matheny has committed a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy by batting his emerging star, Allen Craig, in favorable RBI spots. Check out the distribution of his batting order spots:
So 96% of Craig’s PAs have come in the 2nd, 4th and 5th spots, and 38% alone in the cleanup spot. (We might hasten to add that it’s called the cleanup spot for a reason.) For his part, Craig seems to understand this, either by way of modesty or wisdom (or both), crediting the “two Matts just for getting on base so much,” according to Derrick Goold.
Still, a batter hitting in a particular spot in the order doesn’t guarantee run production. Matheny could give us 100% of our PAs in the cleanup spot and never see a runner cross the plate. As usual, it’s important to quantify the rate at which success happens, not merely the quantity. Baseball Prospectus has a report on RBI opportunities, so let’s use it to see how the Cardinals shake out by others-batted-in percentage, which normalizes RBIs by opportunity:
Well, wouldn’t you know it!? Craig is tops this year. But this would only be news if Craig were a bad hitter and were making more of his RBI opportunities than we would expect. Instead, this is exactly what Matheny and other observers should expect. To see why, let’s add the players’ weighted On-Base Averages to see how hitting prowess corresponds with RBI rates:
The team’s top four hitters are also top four in OBI%, and for all of the team’s hitters with a minimum of 200 PAs, we see an 85% correlation between OBI% and wOBA. And Craig — far and away the club’s most-successful hitter this year — has an understandably big lead in both categories. (This was true last year, as well, when Craig led the team with a 19% OBI rate and was a close second to Lance Berkman with a .399 wOBA.) If anything is noteworthy, it’s that Jon Jay, who has excelled as a hitter this year, has a relatively low 12.8 OBI%. We’re comfortable chalking it up to the vagaries of small samples (which may also apply to Craig), but in any case, the point is that there’s nothing to see here.
Of course, the primary reason that Allen Craig so often gets the big hit is because he often gets hits. It’s a tautology but apparently not one that everyone understands.