Error on the official scorer

On May 8, Howie Kendrick hit a home run off Gil Meche in a 4-1 Angels victory over the Royals — only, he really didn’t hit a homer.  Rather, he circled the bases on a poor fielding play by Kansas City right fielder Jose Guillen, a play that should have been ruled a four-base error.  You can see the play here.  (The Royals have appealed the ruling.)

This is just another example of the long trend in official scoring (at seemingly all levels) to avoid giving errors whenever possible.  It’s most noticeable at the major league level, but you see it in the minors and in college games as well.  A couple of weeks ago I was watching a game between Davidson and The Citadel.  Davidson’s shortstop failed to make two plays that should have been ruled errors, but both were ruled hits by the scorer.  Those were two of the seven hits the Bulldogs had.  There are a number of good hitters in The Citadel’s lineup, but it’s certainly easier to maintain high batting averages when the home scorer is overly generous.

It wasn’t always like this.  Years ago scorers seemingly didn’t hesitate to give errors.  Rabbit Maranville was the best defensive shortstop of his day; it’s one of the main reasons he’s in the Hall of Fame.  Maranville also committed 711 errors in his career (the most by a player whose entire career was played in the 20th century; Bill Dahlen, another outstanding defender, had 1080).

Of course, conditions have improved over time for defenders, which naturally has reduced errors.  Players in Maranville’s day didn’t have the modern gloves of today, and also played on less-than-perfect playing fields.  The original Comiskey Park, for example, was built on a city garbage dump.   Pieces of garbage would regularly rise to the surface.  Luke Appling once tripped over a piece of protruding metal near second base; the grounds crew came out and dug up the rest of a copper tea kettle.

You don’t have to worry about things like that when you play on artificial turf, and/or in domes.  When the Twins moved to Minnesota, they played home games outdoors at Metropolitan Stadium, and in those years never had a team season fielding percentage higher than .980 — but since moving to the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the team has never had a fielding percentage lower than .980 over a season.

As a result, great defensive players have committed fewer and fewer errors as time has gone by, with or without the help of friendly scoring decisions.  Luis Aparicio (who played from 1956 to 1973) had 366 errors in his career.  Ozzie Smith (1978-1996) committed 281 errors as a major leaguer.  Omar Vizquel has been in the majors since 1989.  In 100+ more games than Smith, he has only committed 183 errors.

The amount of money now in the game at the major league level has certainly had an impact on scoring decisions; I suspect that a lot of official scorers would deny that, but there is an importance to statistics in this era of baseball that wasn’t there 50 years ago.  I think it’s a key reason errors aren’t given more often.  Along those lines, another consideration for a scorer is to trying to offend the fewest number of players.

For instance, on the Howie Kendrick “homer” not giving an error is great for Kendrick, and probably doesn’t hurt Guillen’s feelings (even if he later said he should have been charged with an error).  The only player negatively affected from a statistical perspective is Meche.  Two happy players versus one not-so-happy player.  It’s an easy call for a scorer, especially when the batter is on the home team.

Of course, there are other things that come into play…

Many years ago I was scoring a minor league game.  During the game there was a pickoff at first base; the runner completely fell asleep, as he wasn’t even trying to steal a base.  He made no move to second (or first, for that matter) until the ball was in the first baseman’s glove.  The first baseman and shortstop (who was covering second base) completely botched the rundown, though, and the baserunner wound up at second.  It’s the kind of play you aren’t surprised to see in the low minors, to be honest.

Now, I didn’t believe in making things too difficult for myself, but I had no option but to rule a pickoff and then an error allowing the runner to take second base (given to the shortstop, in this case).  If the runner had been on the move to second, I could have awarded him a stolen base; heck, if he had been leaning that way I may have done so.  That’s not the easiest play in the scorebook to illustrate.  I wrote a short note in the margin for the folks at Howe Sportsdata, outlining what had happened.

After the game I was about to fax the scoresheet to Howe when the telephone rang.  It was the manager of the club for which I was scoring.  He had noticed the “E” flash up on the board and wanted to know what the ruling was (the runner was one of his players).  I explained it to him, and he then argued with me for about five minutes.  He wasn’t nasty about it, but he was very assertive.  I told him I would consider his argument (he wanted the player credited with a steal).

After I hung up, the assistant GM came over to me and told me that the front office had a pre-existing agreement with the manager that any “questionable” scoring decisions were his call, and to change it to what he wanted…

The player got a steal.  Perhaps that steal was noted from above by the powers-that-be (“hey, this kid’s aggressive”) and eventually led to a promotion.  Somehow, I doubt it.  Of course, the shortstop was presumably happy not to be charged with an error.  The pitcher and catcher were charged with allowing a steal, which was ludicrous, of course, but you can’t fight city hall.

I think about that night almost every time I see a error that is scored a hit.  It’s just another reason why basing a player’s defensive value on fielding percentage is myopic.

Postscript:   On Thursday, Major League Baseball reversed the official scorer’s ruling on the Kendrick-Guillen play, taking the homer away from Kendrick and charging Guillen with a four-base error.  This was an excellent decision by the MLB panel making the call (and apparently a fairly easy one; all five members of the panel voted to overturn the original ruling).

One Response

  1. Great post. Also demonstrates the some of the fallacy of fielding percentage in general.

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