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Will the Twins' Single-Season RBI Record Ever Be Broken?

Anytime you’re asked whether a sports record will ever fall, it’s a good idea to bet that it will. In this case, though, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Image courtesy of © Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
In 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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19 Comments

No, in my estimation, for a few reasons:

1). Players don’t play everyday like they used to. Especially under managers like Baldelli.

2). Sacrificing is a thing of the past. It used to be that the lead off guy would get on base, and the two hitter would move them over to give the 3-4 hitters a chance with RISP. That’s not happening anymore. The best hitters are (or should be) hitting in the two hole now.

3). Similar to above, guys aren’t stealing themselves into scoring position anymore.

4). Hitting philosophies are different. With runners in scoring position and less than two outs, players aren’t merely trying to put the ball in play. They’re not shortening up to get one run....they’re going after multiple runs.

5). Again on hitting philosophies, the slap hitters aren’t there at the top of the lineup anymore. Everyone is trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark.

The bottom line is that lineups just don’t revolve around one or two guys in the heart of the order like they used to. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I just get the feeling that it’s less likely than it used to be for a single player to get the volume of opportunities. Could be way off base, here.

Case in point, the Twins just had one of most prolific offensive seasons in baseball history. They didn’t have a guy exceed 110 RBIs.
    • mikelink45 and Nine of twelve like this
If anyone on the current Twins team coukd accomplish the feat it might be Sano healthy for a full season.

While echoing some of your own points, I would just state that 3 prime principles of today's game would seem to make such a feat near impossible:

1] Relievers are no longer mop-up guys. Pitching velocity is WAY up over what it was 10yrs ago, 20yrs ago, etc. Now, except for those rare and special arms, the game is about 5-6IP by a SP and then turn it over to a talented bullpen.

2] Defensive shifts have definitely changed the game.

3] Combined with the first 2 points, hitting is about power, launch angle, etc. Call it the ESPN highlight mantra if you want. SO's are way up and part of the game now. Contact and OB aren't gone or frowned on, but the game has become all about power now.

What I can't wrap my head around is the theory of your best hitters moving up higher to the top of the order to be more productive. I get more AB for the best and most dangerous hitter on your team, in general, but who do they drive in unless you have a deep lineup. Otherwise, they are driving in themselves and maybe the leadoff hitter. Yes?

I would love someone to show me how Cruz, Donaldson or Sano...or anyone on any team... is more productive hitting in the 2 spot unless he is on a team with a very strong bottom of the order to be driven in. And I'm asking with sincerity.

I'm not necessarily talking about breaking the 140 RBI number, but basic logic tells me some combination of Kepler, Polanco and Arraez, (And possibly others), getting OB at a .350-.400 clip with XB power sets up Cruz, Donaldson, Sano, etc, to have multiple opportunities to drive in far more runs rather than hitting #2. Albeit, the Twins are definitely a team that DOES have a deep and productive bottom of the order. But I'm speaking in general terms here, and not necessarily the Twins as constructed currently.
    • mikelink45, JoshDungan1, gagu and 1 other like this
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Brock Beauchamp
Apr 06 2020 09:27 PM

 

If anyone on the current Twins team coukd accomplish the feat it might be Sano healthy for a full season.

Sano can't do it because he doesn't put the ball in play often enough and he draws a ton of walks. That cripples his ability to be a massive run-producer, though I should point out that's not a negative statement.

 

Joey Votto (I know, the Reds aren't a great example here for run-producing but bear with me) is a beastly hitter all around, posting a .300+ BA for his career but he has never driven in more than 110 RBI in his career because he puts the bat on his shoulder and spits on pitches if they're not the in zone. Sano, while not *quite* at that level, does the same a lot of the time. 

 

Any player who walks 10% of the time is at a serious disadvantage for RBI, while also being a huge boon to the team.

    • SgtSchmidt11, DocBauer, rghrbek and 2 others like this

Baseball reference has a really cool progressive listing of most statistical categories. It shows year by year the career leader of the stat, the active leader of the stat, the season record, and who led the league that year in the stat.

 

What is amazing is the number of records, season and career that will never be broken.

 

Wins:Season:60Old Hoss Radbourn set in 1883.Record has stood for 137 years.

 

Career:Cy Young passed Pudd Galvin's 365 win total up in 1903 and hit 511 wins in 1911.109 years ago.

 

Tim Keefe's season ERA record of 0.86 has stood for 140 years. Ed Walsh's career ERA is going on a century.

 

Hitting?Earl Webb's 67 doubles in a season has been the record since 1931.Tris Speaker became the career doubles leader in 1925, and ended his career in 1928 with 792 doubles. 

 

Triples:36 set in 1912 by Chief WIlson. Sam Crawford set the career triples mark in 1913 and ended up with 309 career triples. Since 1950 only 5 players have had 20 or more triples in a season, with Curtis Granderson's 23 triples in 2007 being the most triples since 1925.To put that in comparison to Crawford's triples record, during his career from 1899 through 1917 he had 10 or more triples from 1900-1916. He had 5 seasons with 20 or more.Thirteen seasons of 15 or more triples.

 

 

 

 

    • Brock Beauchamp, mikelink45, gagu and 3 others like this
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SgtSchmidt11
Apr 07 2020 06:51 AM

 

Sano can't do it because he doesn't put the ball in play often enough and he draws a ton of walks. That cripples his ability to be a massive run-producer, though I should point out that's not a negative statement.

 

Joey Votto (I know, the Reds aren't a great example here for run-producing but bear with me) is a beastly hitter all around, posting a .300+ BA for his career but he has never driven in more than 110 RBI in his career because he puts the bat on his shoulder and spits on pitches if they're not the in zone. Sano, while not *quite* at that level, does the same a lot of the time. 

 

Any player who walks 10% of the time is at a serious disadvantage for RBI, while also being a huge boon to the team.

Not that he ever will do it, because of playing time and consistency issues, but the player with the best profile to break that record is probably Astudillo.Again, he never will, but he undeniably puts the ball in play an AWFUL lot.

 

If you extrapolated out his 2018 season to 600 PA's, he would have had about 125 RBI's.Now imagine if he was hitting out of the 4-hole all season.  

Darius nailed it! Baseball is different now. Could we see a change if we had another Arraez type hitter sitting in the top 2 spots? Possibly, but that would be a big deviation from where we are at right now.

 

Baseball reference has a really cool progressive listing of most statistical categories. It shows year by year the career leader of the stat, the active leader of the stat, the season record, and who led the league that year in the stat.

 

What is amazing is the number of records, season and career that will never be broken.

 

Wins:Season:60Old Hoss Radbourn set in 1883.Record has stood for 137 years.

 

Career:Cy Young passed Pudd Galvin's 365 win total up in 1903 and hit 511 wins in 1911.109 years ago.

 

Tim Keefe's season ERA record of 0.86 has stood for 140 years. Ed Walsh's career ERA is going on a century.

 

Hitting?Earl Webb's 67 doubles in a season has been the record since 1931.Tris Speaker became the career doubles leader in 1925, and ended his career in 1928 with 792 doubles. 

 

Triples:36 set in 1912 by Chief WIlson. Sam Crawford set the career triples mark in 1913 and ended up with 309 career triples. Since 1950 only 5 players have had 20 or more triples in a season, with Curtis Granderson's 23 triples in 2007 being the most triples since 1925.To put that in comparison to Crawford's triples record, during his career from 1899 through 1917 he had 10 or more triples from 1900-1916. He had 5 seasons with 20 or more.Thirteen seasons of 15 or more triples.

I know your point is that some records will not be broken because evolution in baseball.Specifically the wins record, because pitchers will never get the chance to pitch in that many games in a season or a career to pick the amount of wins.Even if you go to the modern day break those records are now not reachable, so you need the new century record book for pitching.  

 

In terms of doubles and triples, they will never get passed because parks got smaller and now they are HR's.I am sure if teams were still playing in parks like polo grounds where down the line was little league field, but gaps and center were over 450 feet, doubles and triples would go back up.That again is why people look at the modern day records, but again think they should have the new century record book to look at.

    • h2oface likes this
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Nine of twelve
Apr 07 2020 09:56 AM

 

Sano can't do it because he doesn't put the ball in play often enough and he draws a ton of walks. That cripples his ability to be a massive run-producer, though I should point out that's not a negative statement.

 

Joey Votto (I know, the Reds aren't a great example here for run-producing but bear with me) is a beastly hitter all around, posting a .300+ BA for his career but he has never driven in more than 110 RBI in his career because he puts the bat on his shoulder and spits on pitches if they're not the in zone. Sano, while not *quite* at that level, does the same a lot of the time. 

 

Any player who walks 10% of the time is at a serious disadvantage for RBI, while also being a huge boon to the team.

Whether Sano could do it depends a heavily on the rest of the lineup. (Captain Obvious writing here.) Frequent plate appearances with a man on first base and a capable hitter on deck would reduce pitchers' tendency to walk him. He has the ability to hit 45-50 dingers in a full season, and if that happens with an average of one man on base that's 90-100 RBI right there. It would be no small feat to generate another 40-50 RBI but he would be much more likely to reach 140 compared to someone hitting "only" 30 HR.

The other thing to mention about his increasing tendency to draw walks is his apparent improvement in recognizing breaking balls outside the zone. The reason pitchers have thrown so many of those pitches in the past is to get swinging strikes as opposed to throwing waste pitches. If his pitch recognition improves he will still draw more walks but there won't be as many of those pitches thrown to him, especially earlier in the count. That means more hittable pitches and more balls hit very far.

 


What I can't wrap my head around is the theory of your best hitters moving up higher to the top of the order to be more productive. I get more AB for the best and most dangerous hitter on your team, in general, but who do they drive in unless you have a deep lineup. Otherwise, they are driving in themselves and maybe the leadoff hitter. Yes?

I would love someone to show me how Cruz, Donaldson or Sano...or anyone on any team... is more productive hitting in the 2 spot unless he is on a team with a very strong bottom of the order to be driven in. And I'm asking with sincerity.

I'm not necessarily talking about breaking the 140 RBI number, but basic logic tells me some combination of Kepler, Polanco and Arraez, (And possibly others), getting OB at a .350-.400 clip with XB power sets up Cruz, Donaldson, Sano, etc, to have multiple opportunities to drive in far more runs rather than hitting #2. Albeit, the Twins are definitely a team that DOES have a deep and productive bottom of the order. But I'm speaking in general terms here, and not necessarily the Twins as constructed currently.

Although, I cannot show you the numbers, the reason behind it is the change in philosophy of the 2 hole. In the past, the 2 hole was used to be a guy that could put ball in play well, normally for hit and run purpose or was a good bunter to put lead off guy in scoring position.However, with the philosophy of not giving up outs or risking stealing with missed hit and runs, that has changed.So really, the only thing that has changed is you take the 2 hole guy and drop him further down the lineup and moved everyone else up.Even lead off has changed from OBP+speed to just OBP, because stealing bases is mostly a thing of the past.  

 

In addition, if the lead off guy gets on, since the plan is now hit extra base hits by hitting ball in the air out, why not have the former 3 hitter move up to 2 hole and just hit a double or hr to drive in lead off guy.The day of trying to manufacture a run is over.That is why I think the new spot for best hitter is 2 hole.  

    • DocBauer likes this

Sano can't do it because he doesn't put the ball in play often enough and he draws a ton of walks. That cripples his ability to be a massive run-producer, though I should point out that's not a negative statement.

Joey Votto (I know, the Reds aren't a great example here for run-producing but bear with me) is a beastly hitter all around, posting a .300+ BA for his career but he has never driven in more than 110 RBI in his career because he puts the bat on his shoulder and spits on pitches if they're not the in zone. Sano, while not *quite* at that level, does the same a lot of the time.

Any player who walks 10% of the time is at a serious disadvantage for RBI, while also being a huge boon to the team.

Killebrew walked 145 times in 69,and led the AL with a .427 OBP.

It's not plate discipline that limits RBI.

Killer played 162 games that year, and got 709 PAs. That, coupled with 49 dingers and a .584 SLG got him the ribeyes.

In the year Sosa drove in 160, he walked 116 times, .437 OBP...with 711 PAs.

Its those 700-ish PAs that players today are unlikely to reach, more than walks.

Not putting the ball in play is an issue, but not as much as playing time. Sosa had 150 Ks in his 160 RBI season.
    • h2oface, DocBauer, gagu and 2 others like this
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Bill Brown69
Apr 07 2020 01:52 PM

Part of this conversation is why I think Kepler is a perfect #2 guy. Hit a ton of doubles from there and then someone with an eye like a  young Mauer to take a walk so they can have the DP set up but it also makes for 3 run homers

I think most of these arguments are over-stated. I don't see season RBI as being a record that is particularly 'impossible' to break going forward.

 

The arguments that hold the most water to me are...

-Players sitting too many games

-OBP's going too low

 

But big seasonal RBI numbers have often been simply a product of small-sample statistical anomalies experienced by good (and great) players. The player has a season where their BARISP, HR/FB, percentage of at-bats with runners in scoring positions, etc....all deviate from mean in a positive way. A little 'perfect storm' of RBI. No reason that won't still happen from time to time.

 

In 1994, Kirby Puckett would have needed 28 RBI in the final 49 games to break Killebrew's record. Problem was...those games weren't played due to the player's strike. Puckett had 112 RBI in the Twins first 113 games. On pace for 160 RBI. Can some Twin come along and do 21 RBI less than that? I wouldn't say never. I do like the chances better for you younger guys out there :).

 

    • DocBauer, gagu and Nine of twelve like this

If they keep the 2019 baseball, yes.

Although, I cannot show you the numbers, the reason behind it is the change in philosophy of the 2 hole. In the past, the 2 hole was used to be a guy that could put ball in play well, normally for hit and run purpose or was a good bunter to put lead off guy in scoring position.However, with the philosophy of not giving up outs or risking stealing with missed hit and runs, that has changed.So really, the only thing that has changed is you take the 2 hole guy and drop him further down the lineup and moved everyone else up.Even lead off has changed from OBP+speed to just OBP, because stealing bases is mostly a thing of the past.  
 
In addition, if the lead off guy gets on, since the plan is now hit extra base hits by hitting ball in the air out, why not have the former 3 hitter move up to 2 hole and just hit a double or hr to drive in lead off guy.The day of trying to manufacture a run is over.That is why I think the new spot for best hitter is 2 hole.


Fine points, Trov, and I agree the basic principal of manufacturing runs has lessened if not become endangered. (Somewhat to my chagrin as I love the excitement of a SB and enjoy a successful hit and run). And I wholeheartedly agree/understand a "better" hitter being in the #2 spot now. But aren't Kepler, Polanco, Garver when he's up top, and Arraez if he maintains, already "better" hitters and more dangerous than the traditional model types? Now, there is a part of me that really likes the idea of Kepler sliding down to break up our RH power, but regardless, I'm of the belief that a pair of dangerous/quality hitters in the top 2 spots should provide Cruz, Donaldson, Sano and either Kepler or Rosario TONS of RBI opportunities. Not to mention the fact that they themselves are pretty good OB guys for anyone hitting behind them.

Part of this conversation is why I think Kepler is a perfect #2 guy. Hit a ton of doubles from there and then someone with an eye like a  young Mauer to take a walk so they can have the DP set up but it also makes for 3 run homers


I have no problem with Kepler continuing to hit at the top of the order in either spot. His production was outstanding, and I believe there is still room for him to improve. And as good as his numbers were, he also mixed chunks of time at the end of the year due to injury. He could be a fine table setter. But as I stated above, with all due respect to Rosario, who I am a fan of, I'd almost rather see him slid to the 5 spot behind a pair of our RH power bats and in front of the third. Of course, that means Arraez has to keep doing what he did last year to pair with Polanco.

Damn 1994 strike, Kirby would've broke that team record going away.He had 112 in the 108 games he played with 49 left for the team.Could've hit poorly the last two months and still got 29 RBIs.Same with Knoblauch and the doubles record, he almost certainly gets 60 doubles if they finish the year.

 

Fine points, Trov, and I agree the basic principal of manufacturing runs has lessened if not become endangered. (Somewhat to my chagrin as I love the excitement of a SB and enjoy a successful hit and run). And I wholeheartedly agree/understand a "better" hitter being in the #2 spot now. But aren't Kepler, Polanco, Garver when he's up top, and Arraez if he maintains, already "better" hitters and more dangerous than the traditional model types? Now, there is a part of me that really likes the idea of Kepler sliding down to break up our RH power, but regardless, I'm of the belief that a pair of dangerous/quality hitters in the top 2 spots should provide Cruz, Donaldson, Sano and either Kepler or Rosario TONS of RBI opportunities. Not to mention the fact that they themselves are pretty good OB guys for anyone hitting behind them.

Doc, I agree with the Twins lineup for this year, if played, and most likely next they have a deep lineup and you can hardly go wrong with many different guys hitting second.Hard to pick who is the "best" as each can put up big offense.Fact that Donaldson hits more HR than Polonco does not mean he would need to hit second over Polonco or others.All I was pointing out was argument that they are taking the old number 2 guy and changing it up with old traditional number 3.Whoever that is for the Twins I do not know, guess that is good problem to have.  

 

I agree I miss the old style of stealing bases, hit and runs, ect.Personally, I think eventually there will be shifts to having some of the old style slap hitters that can steal bases, because teams will adjust to how things are being played now, then will make adjustments.Teams will see the flaws in the new defenses, new way of pitching to hitters, and adjustments will be made.As long as they do not institute rules to stop shifting, because shifting is nothing new, just being used to higher levels than before.  

    • DocBauer likes this

Doc, I agree with the Twins lineup for this year, if played, and most likely next they have a deep lineup and you can hardly go wrong with many different guys hitting second.Hard to pick who is the "best" as each can put up big offense.Fact that Donaldson hits more HR than Polonco does not mean he would need to hit second over Polonco or others.All I was pointing out was argument that they are taking the old number 2 guy and changing it up with old traditional number 3.Whoever that is for the Twins I do not know, guess that is good problem to have.  
 
I agree I miss the old style of stealing bases, hit and runs, ect.Personally, I think eventually there will be shifts to having some of the old style slap hitters that can steal bases, because teams will adjust to how things are being played now, then will make adjustments.Teams will see the flaws in the new defenses, new way of pitching to hitters, and adjustments will be made.As long as they do not institute rules to stop shifting, because shifting is nothing new, just being used to higher levels than before.


We are absolutely on the same page.

I've mentioned before in passing that often what is now old becomes new again. And I can see where a shift will begin again in baseball, no pun directly intended. Defense has lowered in expectation over the past few years, being replaced more by the shift than elite gloves, in favor of hitting and especially power hitting. And I love me some power. And even if guys like Cruz and Rosario may not be around much longer, there is plenty of power still on the team and arriving soon.

But how much fun would it be to see Buxton become healthy and learn to stay that way, while adding Lewis to the infield construction however it plays out. Add in Arraez, if he is for real, and I think he is. Now, with all that power, you have an elite hitter with contact and OB ability coupled with a pair of real speedsters who could make the SB relevant again.
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Brock Beauchamp
Apr 08 2020 09:38 PM

 

Killebrew walked 145 times in 69,and led the AL with a .427 OBP.

It's not plate discipline that limits RBI.

Killer played 162 games that year, and got 709 PAs. That, coupled with 49 dingers and a .584 SLG got him the ribeyes.

In the year Sosa drove in 160, he walked 116 times, .437 OBP...with 711 PAs.

Its those 700-ish PAs that players today are unlikely to reach, more than walks.

Not putting the ball in play is an issue, but not as much as playing time. Sosa had 150 Ks in his 160 RBI season.

It's a different game. Killebrew didn't spend the final four innings of almost every game facing a specialized reliever to get him out. Strikeouts were frowned upon, while now they're just a thing you suffer through for the greater good of offense.

 

And in that situation, walking more definitely hurts a player's ability to drive in runs as balls in play is RBI if you're a slugger.

 

Never mind all the good points brought up in the article itself; it's a lot harder to drive in runs if the entire lineup isn't built for 2-3 guys to drive in runs and instead favors 6-7 guys driving in runs.