Will the Twins' Single-Season RBI Record Ever Be Broken?
Image courtesy of © Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsIn 1969, Harmon Killebrew tied his career best with 49 home runs. He also topped 700 plate appearances, for the only time in his career. For most of the season, he batted cleanup, although Billy Martin flipped Killebrew and Tony Oliva when the Twins faced left-handed pitchers. All told, Killebrew drove in 140 runs, which was not only a career high, but the Senators-cum-Twins’ record. Forty years later, that record stands, and only Justin Morneau has gotten within 10 of it. Will anyone ever break Killebrew’s record?
The short answer, as Betteridge’s law of headlines would suggest, is a simple one: no. Some sequence of major changes to the game could result in that record becoming vulnerable, but based on the current composition of the game and its players, it’s well out of reach.
More interesting than the simple answer, though, is a more nuanced one. Let’s take the time to offer that answer—to wrestle not just with whether a player is likely to drive in 140 or more in some season to come, but with the questions of what changes have made that so unlikely, and of what would have to happen in order for that condition to change.
Since 2000, there have only been three seasons in which any player in MLB drove in 150 or more runs. Sammy Sosa drove in 160 in 2001, in his best season. Miguel Tejada pushed across 150 in 2006, and Alex Rodríguez pummeled his way to 156 RBI in 2007, when he won the MVP with the Yankees and opted out of his famous 10-year deal, eventually winning an even more lucrative one from the team. Eighteen player-seasons have eclipsed 140 RBI over the same span, but every one of those came before the 2010 campaign.
In the decade that just ended, Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown-winning 2012 total of 139 RBI was the top number. Since offense bottomed out, and then began to rebound, the highest individual total in any season was the 133 runs driven home by Rockies slugger Nolan Arenado, in 2016. In the first four seasons after the last expansion, beginning in 1998, there were 70 individual seasons of 120 or more RBI, and 34 of at least 130. Over the last four seasons, there have been just 13 and four such seasons, respectively.
There are two key reasons for this: the changing structure of the modern lineup, and the changing offensive profile of non-elite big-leaguers. As stat-savvy fans are well aware, sabermetric explorations have found that the ideal place for a lineup’s best hitter is not third or fourth, but second. Since about 2015, teams have embraced that fact, and the nature of the top segments of the batting order have transformed. Teams put their best hitters at the top of the order, even if those hitters have ample power—and they usually do.
Rank every season since 1904 by the league’s aggregate slugging average from the top two places in the order, and the leaderboard begins: 2019, 2017, 2018, 2016. The .460 slugging average from the top two slots in 2019, easily the highest ever, tells the story in concise fashion. Where tablesetters once batted, there are now big eaters.
More to the point, though, every hitter in baseball is becoming more run producer than table setter. As teams have become more sophisticated in their evaluations of hitters, they’ve stopped giving any real time to players without power—and in some cases, have even helped players who would never previously have been trained to slug to do just that. The player with a .360 or better on-base percentage, but little power, is nearly extinct, for a number of complementary reasons.
For the first time since the first expansion of the league in 1961, we’ve now gone more than two decades without any expansion at all. That’s eliminated a key driver of gaudy offensive numbers of all kinds: there just aren’t enough bad pitchers in baseball to facilitate them. That, far more than performance-enhancing drugs or even the fluctuating liveliness of the baseball, accounts for the fact that no one has seriously threatened a home-run record in over a decade. There aren’t easy marks against whom great hitters can rack up huge home-run totals, and there aren’t wild hurlers against whom non-dangerous hitters can rack up walks. Nor, with the ever-increasing average athleticism of players and the even more rapidly evolving intelligence of defensive alignments, are there places for such hitters to deposit singles.
Teams select for power, because a hitter bereft of power has never had less chance to be successful in the majors. As they cull the talent pool that way, and retrain certain players to hit more long balls, they reduce the number of baserunners any player is likely to have on when they bat, because their lesser teammates are more likely to have driven themselves or others in.
As the league drags its feet on potential expansion (navigating their way toward the best balance of demand in a new market and the ability to manipulate current cities when existing teams need new ballparks or tax breaks), great pitching also makes it harder for batters to run up huge individual numbers. It doesn’t help that these trends have also pushed strikeout rates higher, depressing batting average potential; great RBI seasons almost always involve a player batting at least .300, a wildly rare occurrence in the modern game.
All of that could change, someday. The ball could stay as lively as we saw it be in 2019, and two new teams could be added, and rule changes could force teams to reconceptualize their offenses and make it a plan, once again, to maximize OBP at the top of the order and save their sluggers for its heart. If that all happens while Luis Arráez is batting atop the Twins order, some Minnesota slugger could eclipse Killebrew. For now, however, his record seems very safe.
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