Runs Produced, Ground Rule Doubles, and the Internet Hits a Homer

This is about baseball. It’s also about digital media, but it won’t make sense if you don’t understand baseball.

In the early to mid 1990s, USA Today had this weekly paper called Baseball Weekly. Now it’s Sports Weekly and irrelevant, but at the time, it was groundbreaking — a must-have for a baseball fan. Fantasy baseball was picking up steam at the time and they had ad after ad for the call in, pay-for-transactions leagues which I don’t think exist anymore.

Baseball Weekly, for a time, had a stat called “Runs Produced.” Runs scored (RS) plus Runs Batted In (RBI) minus Home Runs (HR). Runs Produced wasn’t new. Bill James, a forefather of advanced baseball stats (“sabermetrics,” usually), mentioned it in his 1987 annual, and considered it old and wrong. But it stuck around for decades. I recall hearing Mike and the Mad Dog (back when they were still a team) on WFAN discussing it as recently as ten years ago. In 2007, Tom Tango, a guy in the upper echelons of the advanced baseball stats world, wrote this article discussing Runs Produced. The stat, though, is junk, and you’ll have a hard time trying to find anyone who still uses it.

Runs Produced assumes that the batter’s only job is to produce runs. That makes sense — and even modern, advanced metrics make that assumption. But at the time Runs Produced was conceived, two of the core stats collected were “runs scored” and “RBI.” Both spoke to the idea of a player producing a run, either by crossing home plate (RS) or by getting the hit that allowed the runner to do that (RBI). But a home run did both of those, so to avoid double-counting, Runs Produced sums RS and RBI and subtracts out HR. The narrative, on its face, makes sense. Especially when Mike and the Mad Dog take up a dozen minutes of air time to explain it.

But imagine the following two situations:

1) A batter hits a home run. One RS, one RBI, one HR — that’s 1+1-1 = 1 Run Produced.

2) The first batter of the inning walks. The next one, we’ll call him ScoringGuy, hits into a fielder’s choice — the guy who was on first is out at second, and ScoringGuy is safe at first. The guy after him hits a ground rule double, moving ScoringGuy to third. The next batter, BattingInGuy, hits a weak grounder up the first base line, grounding out — but ScoringGuy (and the runner on second) advance in the process. That’s a run for ScoringGuy and an RBI for BattingInGuy. Both ScoringGuy and BattingInGuy “earned” one Run Produced.

The first obvious flaw here is that both ScoringGuy and BattingInGuy did very little to produce that run. ScoringGuy ended up on first base by fluke, replacing the guy before him; BattingInGuy’s weak dribbler only ended up scoring a run because of another fluke — there happened to be a guy on third with fewer than two outs. Both get a Run Produced, but the person who did the yeoman’s work in the inning — the guy who hit the ground rule double — gets nothing.

The other obvious flaw is that the batter who hit a home run in situation one did a lot more than BattingInGuy and ScoringGuy, but all three get the same +1 Run Produced.

The third flaw, which is less obvious, is that situation #1 gave us +1 Run Produced and one run on the scoreboard, which is right. But situation #2 gave us +2 Runs Produced… and, also, only one run on the scoreboard.

In total, we end up with a stat which really makes no sense. So why didn’t Runs Produced die for decades?

My guess is that the proponents of the stat were media people who used it for some reason or another, and they had the power of the last word. Mike and the Mad Dog, for example, were never going to debate some caller about, well, anything. The hosts talk with the random caller for a few minutes, hang up, and then continue on. It’s not a fair fight. The Internet, of course, changed that, as those who objected to Runs Produced finally had a way to repeatedly and constantly push back. Sure, they couldn’t argue on WFAN, but they no longer had to, because the audience was everywhere, and not just tuned into the radio.

Now: imagine someone from media’s old guard tried to come up with a modern, ridiculous replacement for Runs Produced. (It isn’t hard to imagine.) In order for it to be adopted, the contrarians who killed Runs Produced — the Internet riffraff — now have to adopt it. We all know it’s a new world, at least insofar as the marketplace of ideas is concerned. But do we realize how new, yet?

Originally published on May 1, 2013