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In praise of scoring
Rafael Devers and Lou Gehrig — yes, Lou Gehrig — deserve more credit than they get
J.D. Martinez didn’t waste any time, singling the first pitch he saw from the Rangers’ Ian Gibaut into right field. Rafael Devers trotted in from third base to give the Red Sox a 10-3 lead.
Not that it mattered very much. Boston and Texas were playing out the string on the evening of September 25, 2019, only four games away from a long offseason. Neither team would be going to the playoffs.
Yet this supposedly meaningless ninth-inning play deserved greater attention than it received. Devers’s run pushed his seasonal total to 210 points, clinching the major league scoring championship for 2019. He would end the year with 212, three points ahead of runnerup Anthony Rendon of the Nationals.
There is just one flaw in this scenario, of course. There is no major league scoring championship — not officially, at least.
And that’s strange, don’t you think? The aim of the game is to pile up runs, so it seems logical that the greatest praise would flow to the players who put the most points on the board.
Other sports acknowledge the importance of scoring. Every National Basketball Association fan knows PPG, the abbreviation for points per game. The National Football League updates separate weekly lists of points scored by kickers and all other players. The National Hockey League awards the gaudy Art Ross Trophy to each season’s top scorer.
And baseball? It tends to ignore the subject. Newspapers and websites lavish statistical love on the batters with the most home runs or the highest batting averages. If you look hard enough, you can find the leaders in runs scored or runs batted in, but they’re definitely an afterthought.
It’s time to shift the emphasis.
The obvious model is the NHL, which combines a player's goals and assists to determine his number of points. The corresponding equation for baseball would add runs scored (goals) and runs batted in (assists), then subtract home runs.
The need for that last adjustment is obvious. It's impossible for a hockey player to be awarded a goal and an assist on the same play. But a batter who blasts a solo home run is credited with both a run scored and a run batted in, even though his team adds just a single run on the scoreboard.
Sabermetricians will hate this entire concept. They will say — correctly — that it doesn’t give credit to everybody who helps to produce a run. Consider this hypothetical example, again using last year’s Red Sox: Devers reaches on an error, Xander Bogaerts doubles him to third base, and Martinez drives in the run with a broken-bat squib. Both Devers and Martinez are awarded a point in the scoring column, despite their relatively meager efforts, while Bogaerts, the man who made the key hit, gets nothing.
There are parallels in other sports. No statistical credit is given to the football lineman who makes a key block for a touchdown, or the basketball forward who zips an effective outlet pass, or the hockey goalie who triggers a breakaway.
That may be unfortunate, but let’s not ignore the strengths of this new statistic. The scoring column, over the long haul, is an effective way to track a player’s direct involvement in run production. It’s also easy to understand, and frankly, it’s kind of fun. Shouldn’t that be sufficient to earn official status?
2019 scoring leaders
Let’s wrap up with four top-10 lists, beginning with Devers and the other scoring leaders from last season. He and Rendon were the only batters to exceed 200 points, which could be considered the benchmark for a magical season. Three others did better than 190:
1. Rafael Devers (Red Sox): 129 R + 115 RBI - 32 HR = 212 points
2. Anthony Rendon (Nationals): 117 R + 126 RBI - 34 HR = 209 points
3. Freddie Freeman (Braves): 113 R + 121 RBI - 38 HR = 196 points
4. Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox): 110 R + 117 RBI - 33 HR = 194 points
5. Alex Bregman (Astros): 122 R + 112 RBI - 41 HR = 193 points
6. Cody Bellinger (Dodgers): 121 R + 115 RBI - 47 HR = 189 points
7. Ronald Acuna Jr. (Braves): 127 R + 101 RBI - 41 HR = 187 points
8. Mookie Betts (Red Sox): 135 R + 80 RBI - 29 HR = 186 points
8. Juan Soto (Nationals): 110 R + 110 RBI - 34 HR = 186 points
10. DJ LeMahieu (Yankees): 109 R + 102 RBI - 26 HR = 185 points
2010-2019 scoring leaders
Devers’s season was exceptional not only by 2019’s standards, but it was the second-best scoring performance by anybody during the past decade. The only batter to surpass him was Curtis Granderson, who racked up 214 points for the Yankees in 2011:
1. Curtis Granderson (Yankees, 2011): 136 R + 119 RBI - 41 HR = 214 points
2. Rafael Devers (Red Sox, 2019): 129 R + 115 RBI - 32 HR = 212 points
3. Anthony Rendon (Nationals, 2019): 117 R + 126 RBI - 34 HR = 209 points
4. Nolan Arenado (Rockies, 2016): 116 R + 133 RBI - 41 HR = 208 points
5. Mookie Betts (Red Sox, 2016): 122 R + 113 RBI - 31 HR = 204 points
5. Charlie Blackmon (Rockies, 2017): 137 R + 104 RBI - 37 HR = 204 points
5. Miguel Cabrera (Tigers, 2012): 109 R + 139 RBI - 44 HR = 204 points
5. Josh Donaldson (Blue Jays, 2015): 122 R + 123 RBI - 41 HR = 204 points
9. Matt Kemp (Dodgers, 2011): 115 R + 126 RBI - 39 HR = 202 points
10. Paul Goldschmidt (Diamondbacks, 2017): 117 R + 120 RBI - 36 HR = 201 points
Expansion Era scoring leaders
The Expansion Era dawned in 1961, when the new Los Angeles Angels and the second version of the Washington Senators joined the American League. A total of 153 batters have generated at least 200 runs in a single season since then, led by Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez, who enjoyed seven of those exceptional years apiece. The very best season, however, belonged to Manny Ramirez, who racked up 252 points for Cleveland in 1999:
1. Manny Ramirez (Indians, 1999): 131 R + 165 RBI - 44 HR = 252 points
2. Tommy Davis (Dodgers, 1962): 120 R + 153 RBI - 27 HR = 246 points
3. Alex Rodriguez (Yankees, 2007): 143 R + 156 RBI - 54 HR = 245 points
4. Todd Helton (Rockies, 2000): 138 R + 147 RBI - 42 HR = 243 points
5. Sammy Sosa (Cubs, 2001): 146 R + 160 RBI - 64 HR = 242 points
6. Jeff Bagwell (Astros, 2000): 152 R + 132 RBI - 47 HR = 237 points
7. Roberto Alomar (Indians, 1999): 138 R + 120 RBI - 24 HR = 234 points
8. Frank Robinson (Reds, 1962): 134 R + 136 RBI - 39 HR = 231 points
9. Ellis Burks (Rockies, 1996): 142 R + 128 RBI - 40 HR = 230 points
10. Todd Helton (Rockies, 2001): 132 R + 146 RBI - 49 HR = 229 points
Modern Era scoring leaders
Let’s give today’s final word to the old-timers. Baseball’s Modern Era, strange as it may seem, actually dates back to the creation of the American League in 1901. (We’ll debate the merits of that name on another occasion.) The 26 best scoring performances in the Modern Era all occurred before 1950, topped by Lou Gehrig’s amazing total of 302 points for the Yankees in 1931. If scoring received the attention it truly deserves, 302 would be recognized as one of immortal numbers of the game:
1. Lou Gehrig (Yankees, 1931): 163 R + 185 RBI - 46 HR = 302 points
2. Chuck Klein (Phillies, 1930): 158 R + 170 RBI - 40 HR = 288 points
3. Babe Ruth (Yankees, 1921): 177 R + 168 RBI - 59 HR = 286 points
4. Hank Greenberg (Tigers, 1937): 137 R + 184 RBI - 40 HR = 281 points
4. Al Simmons (Athletics, 1930): 152 R + 165 RBI - 36 HR = 281 points
4. Hack Wilson (Cubs, 1930): 146 R + 191 RBI - 56 HR = 281 points
7. Kiki Cuyler (Cubs, 1930): 155 R + 134 RBI - 13 HR = 276 points
8. Lou Gehrig (Yankees, 1927): 149 R + 173 RBI - 47 HR = 275 points
8. Lou Gehrig (Yankees, 1930): 143 R + 173 RBI - 41 HR = 275 points
10. Joe DiMaggio (Yankees, 1937): 151 R + 167 RBI - 46 HR = 272 points