It's likely that sometime in the next week Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt will knock home his 100th RBI of the season. That might not seem particularly impressive for the more stat-inclined, but it holds a similar historical pull that 20 wins does for a pitcher.
Both the win and the runs batted in stats have taken quite a beating amongst the baseball intelligentsia over the past few decades. Both stats rely on the success of others, and at best are team or sections of lineups values. A pitcher won't get a win if the rest of the team doesn't score runs, and a batter won't get anyone batted in if no one gets on base in front of him.
Some still hang onto the old-timey ways, however (see the Triple Crown), and that doesn't mean they're completely wrong. As I argued previously in regards to Ian Kennedy reaching 20 wins, there's a certain historical allusion to the plateau. Looking at the list of players that have nabbed 100 or more RBIs in a season, and it's largely pretty nice company.
The top of the list, led by Hack Wilson's 191 in 1930, is a veritable who's who of hitters. Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, and Joe DiMaggio all hit over 160 RBIs in a season at least once. And of the players that hit 150 or more RBI in a season, only one had an OPS less than .900 that same year (Miguel Tejada in 2004).
It's easy to see how RBIs are merely derivatives of the real building blocks, where a player with a high RBI probably has a decent batting average, but more likely has a ton of power. Of the top 200 single season RBI leaders, only 9 had less than 20 home runs in that season. The lowest total on that list belongs to Paul Waner, who popped only 9 home runs while hitting 131 RBIs in 1927 for the Pirates. He made up for that by hitting 42 doubles, 18 triples, and having a batting average of .380 for the season.
Of course, not every player who hits 100 RBIs in a season had a particularly great hitting year. In 1993 Ruben Sierra managed an OPS of .678 on the way to driving in 101. His year wasn't the worst of all time, however. In 1999 Dante Bichette managed -2.3 bWAR while getting 133 RBI. But this was mainly from his atrocious fielding, where he had a dWAR of -3.9. Yikes. If we limit it down to just a stat that quantifies offensive output only, however, we come up with Tony Armas' 1983 season, in which he knocked in 107 runs, yet was only created 55 runs by Runs Created.
Goldschmidt won't be in very unique company, though. The Baseball-Reference Play Index times out at 1600 results, so the club is somewhere north of that figure. In the past 10 years, 250 players have hit 100 RBI in a season. For the Diamondbacks as a club, the group is much smaller.
Only 6 Diamondbacks have hit 100 RBI or more in a season. The full list is Luis Gonzalez, Mark Reynolds, Jay Bell, Matt Williams, Steve Finley, and Adam LaRoche. Gonzalez is the only one with multiple seasons for Arizona, doing it 5 times during his regenerative time here.
That Goldschmidt has a very real chance of hitting the margin is interesting, but will probably relegated to marginalia. It's not a feat that deserves parades and cakes. That's the neat thing about baseball, though: we track so much information that even the normally inane can be kind of interesting, because we can compare it to the game's history.
That we've paid attention to the RBI for so long perpetuates its importance. Even if we now know that it's not a great value stat, and we know we have better options, the RBI still remains. Because the ghosts of baseball were partially measured by the RBI, we measure our current players to some of the those standards. People might not get riled up about total RBIs anymore, but you bet if anyone managed to sniff old Hack Wilson's record, then we'd all be watching.
Personally, my bet is on Paul Goldschmidt breaking the record.
All statistics provided by Baseball Reference.