Baseball Heresies: When an Error is Not an Error [Part 1]

Joel Kupfersmid, PhD

Since 10 years old I have been an avid baseball fan. At this age my worst baseball memory occurred when my mother allowed me to skip school to watch on TV the 1956 World Series. Back then these games were played during the day.

I lived in a suburb of Detroit. Like all true Tiger fans, I despised the Yankees. That year the Evil Empire played my favorite National League team, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I thought this game would be an easy win for the Dodgers because the Yankees’ starting pitcher, Don Larson, was of mediocre caliber. There was no way, I thought, this guy could tame the hitting of the Dodger line up with Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, and Roy Campanella.

As any baseball aficionado knows, Don Larson made baseball immortality that day by pitching the only perfect game in World Series history. This achievement still stands over 60 years later.

Also at this age I began questioning the official scoring in baseball. Baseball is a game of statistics. Ask any active player negotiating for a higher salary; ask any ex-player desiring nomination into the Hall of Fame; or, consult with any sabermetrician. All will confirm that statistics matter. Yet, I have several concerns about how many aspects of this game are scored. I used the 2015 edition of the Official Rules of Baseball as my guide.

The Rules [i.e., Official Rules of Baseball] do not provide a formal definition of an “error.” Rather, the Rules describe the conditions under which an error is tallied. However, a general sense of what is meant by an error can be gleaned. Section 9.12 notes an error occurs when a fielder misplays a ball (i.e., fumbles, muffs, or wild throws) that “prolongs the time at bat of a batter, prolongs the presence on the bases of a runner or permits a runner to advance one or more bases…” [p. 119]. Not counted as an error are walks or a player who deliberately does not catch a foul ball to prevent a runner on third from tagging up.

The Rules add that on a ground ball [or fly ball] an error is recorder when “in the official scorer’s judgment, a fielder at that position making ordinary effort would have fielded such a ground ball [or fly ball] and retired a runner.” [p. 120] The Rules also state that “mental mistakes,” such as a pitcher failing to cover first base on a ground ball are not recorder as errors.

So, the general idea is that an error occurs when a player’s “ordinary effort” results in: (1) a batter continuing to bat when he should be out, (2) a batter making it safely to a base when he should have been out, or (3) a runner advancing safely to a base rather than remaining at his current base or being called out at his current base.

The first concern is the “ordinary effort” criterion. Is the fielder being compared to the average player at his position making ordinary effort or is he being compared to himself making his typical effort to field a ball? The way the rule is written suggests to me that he is compared to the effort of the average player at his position. In watching thousands of baseball games, however, this is not what happens. Very slow players, or those with minimal range, are not given errors when they fail to reach a grounder or fly that an average fielder at their position catches with ease.

Comparing a player’s ordinary effort to himself, and not others, is illustrated in examining the fielding of two Cleveland Indians’ shortstops, Omar Vizquel and Jhonny Peralta. I saw each play several times at the stadium and hundreds of times on TV. Any knowledgeable baseball fan quickly sees the difference in play of these two men. Vizquel had great range and often fielded for outs ground balls that would go for hits against even better than average shortstops. Peralta was the antithesis of Vizquel — his range was extremely limited resulting in normal grounders to his right or left going untouched for base hits.

Playing in 147 games for Cleveland in 2005 Vizquel’s fielding percent was .982. Playing in 146 games for Cleveland in 2008 Peralta’s fielding percent was .979 — very comparable to Vizquel’s. This is only possible if official scorers compared Peralta’s ordinary anemic effort relative to himself and only charged him with an error after he made contact with a ball and then misplayed it. Because errors are determined by comparing a player with himself (“intrasubject” is the scientific term), fielding percents are often a useless statistic for comparing the fielding competency between players.

Perhaps the most glaring occurrences of errors that are not scored as such are in the play of the pitcher and catcher. I discuss pitching first.

Scenario 1a: With a runner on first, the pitcher tries a pick off and throws the ball wide of the first baseman such that he is unable to catch the throw with ordinary effort. The runner advances to second base. An error is charged to the pitcher.

Scenario 1b: With a runner on first, the pitcher throws a pitch that, with ordinary effort, the catcher is unable to stop. The ball goes to the backstop and the runner advances to second. No error is charged to the pitcher. Rather, a new category is created termed the “wild pitch.” A wild pitch is an error by the general sense of this term as outlined above. Why this “error” becomes a special non-error category is difficult to justify.

Scenario 1c: With a runner on first, the pitcher tries a pick off and balks. The runner is awarded second base. Clearly the pitcher has misplayed a legal windup/stretch and is charged with an error. But, wait! Another new category is invented and, as in Scenario 1b, he is not charged with an error.

Thus two opposing pitcher can have very different error rates in the same game. Pitcher A could have fumbled one bunt and made one wild throw to a base resulting in two errors. Pitcher B could have thrown 3 wild pitches and balked twice but made no fielding misplays resulting in being charged with no errors.

On to the catcher where no errors are charged for poor play.

Scenario 2a: A batter bunts the ball in front of home plate. The catcher goes to field the ball and it dribbles threw his legs. The batter is safe at first. The catcher is charged with an error.

Scenario 2b: The ball is pitched. “Strike three!” calls the umpire. The ball goes threw the catcher’s legs and the batter runs safely to first base. Like the wild pitch, a new category is made especially for this situation termed the ‘passed ball.” Again, why is this not an error? It fulfills the general criteria of an error. Also, like the example of pitcher A and pitcher B above, catcher A can be charged with two errors for misplaying two bunts but catcher B is charged with no errors yet can have five passed balls (as when catching for a knuckle ball pitcher). Whose fielding is more detrimental to the team? Which player will most likely contribute to the opposition scoring more runs?

My proposal is simple. Let’s have consistency in the official scoring. There is no need to create special categories of balks, wild pitches, and passed balls. Let’s record all these as errors.

Some may argue that there is an inherent unfairness to my proposal. Critics may content that pitchers throw many pitches during a game and have a greater chance of making an error if wild pitches are recorded in this way. Similarly, catchers have far more opportunities to have an error recorded if the passed ball is categorized as an error.

While both pitchers and catchers have greater opportunities to make an error if my proposal is instituted, this argument of creating special categories based on greater opportunity for errors is flawed. In essence this criticism suggests fielders having a greater opportunity to make errors should get some type of special non-error category for their misplays.

Extending this argument to other fielders, shortstops should get a special category for misplays on ground balls. This position fields more ground balls than all other position, thus having a greater opportunity to make errors. How about first basemen? Should there be a special category for their misplay of balls thrown to their base by other fielders? They regularly field more throws in a game than all other fielders combined. Then there is the center fielder. He certainly catches more fly balls in a season than the corner outfielders. Should he, too, have a special category when he misplays a fly ball?

The transformations of balks, wild pitches, and passed balls from special categories to errors will result in pitchers and catchers having more recorded errors than the current system. Note, however, that error rates are not compared across all fielders by those who understand the game. The number of errors made by a shortstop is compared with other shortstops, not with third basemen who field far less ground balls during a season. Similarly, a fielder’s range and strength of arm are also considered when assessing a player’s defensive qualities. This would also be true for pitchers and catchers. One would not consider a pitcher who recorded 10 wild pitches over 200 innings comparable to another pitcher with 10 wild pitches over 100 innings. Catchers, likewise, would not only be compared with other catchers playing similar numbers of innings but, also, with the type of pitchers he caught. Those in baseball realize it is much more difficult to catch pitchers who throw many knuckles balls and sinkers than those primarily throwing fastballs, curves, and sliders.

So, let’s score an error as an error and do away with unnecessary non-error categories.

Note: This article is Part 1 of three parts. Here I discussed when an error is not an error for the defense. In Part 2 I address the number of misplays the offense creates that results in an out when, under ordinary effort or lack of misplay, no out would have occurred. In none of these situations is an error charged to anyone. In Part 3 I argue there is no good reason not to charge a player with an error when, what is commonly termed, “mental mistakes,” occur.

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