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Papi’s popup, Yu’s missed no-no and the stupidity of errors

May 10, 2014, 1:15 PM EDT

Darvish Odor Rios AP AP

Let’s stop for a moment. Let’s stop for a moment a think about how stupid this thing we are arguing about really is. Friday night in Texas, Yu Darvish had a no-hitter going. In the seventh inning, David Ortiz popped up the ball to short right field. Routine as it gets. But the Rangers had on the shift, so fielders were in somewhat unfamiliar places. Rangers’ rookie second baseman Rougned Odor was sort of in the vicinity of where the ball was going to land. This seemed to confuse him and it also seemed to confuse right fielder Alex Rios who should have stepped in to catch it. Instead, the ball dropped between them.

Here is my best guess.

1. Ninety-nine percent of baseball fans believe that ball absolutely should have been caught.

And …

2. Ninety-nine percent of baseball fans believe it should not be ruled an error because neither guy touched the ball.

This is the stupidity of errors in 21st Century America.

You will sometimes hear baseball people mock the concept of Defense Independent Pitching Statistics or DIPS. The idea behind DIPS is a fairly new one — last decade or so — and it is meant to separate the contribution of the pitcher from the contribution of fielders. DIPS does this based on the theory that there are only three things that a pitcher has demonstrable control over (strikeouts, walks and home runs) and everything else is some foggy mix of luck and defense and whatever ambiguous ability a pitcher has of controlling how well a ball is hit.

Many of the critics I’ve heard of DIPS do not rip specific details but the whole idea. How can you say pitchers don’t have control on balls hit in play? Madness! Baseball has a rich history of giving way too much credit to pitchers. Heck, people used to say pitching is 90% of baseball. NINETY PERCENT. No other player can get credited with a victory. More to the point, no other player can have his stats boosted by a benevolent scorekeeper who sits up in a press box and says, “Oh, hey, don’t worry about it, that run wasn’t your fault.” It troubles many people that DIPS does not give pitchers credit for preventing hits on balls in play. It doesn’t seem to trouble as many that baseball has long given pitchers credit for amazing plays that fielders made behind them.

But then … the counting of errors and the calculation of ERA are just a prehistoric form of DIPS. Very early in the game’s history, when pitchers would actually pitch the ball like horseshoes and were only responsible for starting the action (kind of like slow-pitch softball pitchers today), defense was everything. To determine the best fielders, newspapers began to put “Errors of Fielding” into their early box scores. According to Alan Schwartz’s fascinating “The Numbers Game,” the father of baseball statistics Henry Chadwick — who basically framed the way baseball games would be quantified for more than a century — did not like the error concept and wanted instead to judge fielders by the number of successful plays they made. That was one of the few statistical battles Chadwick lost. Errors became the dominant way to judge fielding and, in a less visible way, judge pitchers.

As pitching developed into the most important part of run prevention, the error stayed in the game — the general motivation being the same as DIPS. They wanted to separate defense from pitching. Only these statisticians came at it from a different angle. They came at it assuming that pitchers have COMPLETE control of balls hit in play. They deserve 100% of the blame when the player gets a hit. But if they compel a batter to hit a ball right at a fielder and the fielder doesn’t do his job (turn it into an out) then, well, that’s the fielder’s fault and not the pitcher’s fault. The fielder would get an error. And the pitcher, through the dominant ERA statistic, would get the assumption the out was made. It’s like pitchers — alone among all athletes in sports — have been allowed to live in this alternate universe.

And this is how baseball has been scored ever since, to very little disagreement, even though it is a logical nightmare. Why were pitchers CREDITED when fielders made dazzling plays that should have been hits (even home runs) but NOT DEBITED when fielders missed plays that should have been outs? Why were people in press boxes making determinations about what should have happened? (This kind of scorekeeping does not happen in any other sport). Why were official scorers going through the craziest hoops to figure out what the pitcher DESERVES (“OK, so let’s see here, if that error hadn’t happened, there would have only been a runner on first, and he probably would not have scored on that double, so that’s not a run, and then the second error would have been the third out of the inning so all the runs that scored after that are unearned and …).

As Bill James wrote long ago, an error is a “moral judgment, really, in the peculiar quasi-morality of the locker room.”

I really think the crazy, illogical error concept has lasted all these years because we as baseball fans are desperate to credit pitchers rather than crediting entire teams. We like that pitcher-hitter matchup; like bloodless boxing. We want to credit pitchers for victories, for no-hitters, for perfect games even though they don’t do these things alone. We have spent more than a century thinking of defenders as Pips to the pitchers’ Gladys Knight. We have spent more than a century thinking of fielders as automatons who should ALWAYS make plays that look routine. If they happen to make a dazzling play now and again that keeps runs from scoring, OK, that’s nice. We’ll give you a gold glove at the end of the year, like the gold watch after working for 25 years. Nice work. Now, go support your pitcher.

The Darvish-Papi play shows you just how ridiculous this has become. Defenders as a group have never made fewer errors. Last year, teams made 2,747 errors in almost 5,000 games; that error-per-game percentage (56%) is the lowest in baseball history. Compare that with the 10,000 errors made in 3,000 games back in 1890, when the error was being formed as a concept.

Why are errors so far down? I think it comes down to a couple of things. One, fielding has advanced. Gloves are way better, defensive positioning is way better, field conditions are way better and so on. But two, we still give errors based on some antiquated system that barely made sense 100 years ago. Here are grownups arguing FURIOUSLY whether the pop-up that dropped between Odor and Rios should be called an error? Do we realize how stupid that sounds? We know Rios should have caught it. We KNOW Rios should have caught it. We KNOW KNOW KNOW Rios should have caught it.

But should it be called an error? Hmm. We never called it an error before. Hmm.

This is just plain dumb and it really comes down to the basic fact that Yu Darvish was going for a no-hitter. That’s the key — we see it as an individual achievement. It wasn’t the Rangers going for a no-hitter. No. It was Yu Darvish going for a no-hitter. There has never been a pitcher in baseball history who threw a no-hitter by himself, but if you look up the list of no-hitters you find only pitcher’s names.

Our insistence on trying to give too much credit to pitchers has blinded us to how daft all of this has become. A no-hitter should be what it sounds like … it should mean no batter reached base after hitting the ball. It should be credited to a team, with the pitcher playing the starring role. These are obvious things. But we don’t see them, in the same way we don’t see how absurd it is to argue about whether that Rios-Odor drop is officially an “error” or simply a “play that should have been made but wasn’t an error by the silly 19th Century standard we still use.”

We don’t see these things because we have been conditioned not to see them. We grew up with the error and so it makes sense to us, even if it doesn’t make sense at all. I think the error is an outdated concept. I know what we consider an error is an outdated concept. The goofy little ground ball David Ortiz hit to break up Darvish’s no hitter in the ninth was no more deserving of a hit, off the bat, than the routine fly ball that Ortiz hit that was called an error. One bled through. Another plopped untouched. The fact we are still arguing about stuff like this tells you just how powerful even the most ridiculous sports statistics can be.

  1. renaado - May 10, 2014 at 1:27 PM

    I’m one of the 99 percent of people who agrees that ball should’ve been caught, however I’m probably one of that 1 percent left that “THAT” was an error.

    • American of African Descent - May 10, 2014 at 3:16 PM

      You and me both.

  2. ezthinking - May 10, 2014 at 1:29 PM

    Only think outdated is your writing effort, Joe. The whining in this piece sounds like Andy Rooney.

    If you can’t get your head around an error, your mind must be blown by the block/charge/flop rule in basketball.

    • jimeejohnson - May 10, 2014 at 1:41 PM

      Dope.

    • paperlions - May 10, 2014 at 2:08 PM

      An error is only a useful stat if what it defines and measures is useful for understanding and measuring performance.

      As currently defined, errors are a dumb concept. The argument that a ball that everyone thinks should have been caught and was a routine play should be called a hit because no one touched is not constructive or consistent with the concept that errors are trying to measure.

      It is your lack of ability to understand that statistics are only useful if they are good at measuring a concept that is lacking.

      • hittfamily - May 10, 2014 at 2:29 PM

        I disagree. An error is useful for understanding performance. It doens’t go far enough, but a lot further than any other sport.

        “Why were people in press boxes making determinations about what should have happened? (This kind of scorekeeping does not happen in any other sport)”

        Perhaps it should. Peyton Manning threw for 27/40 for 300 yards. Great game right? However, 5 balls should have been picked, and his recievers made 7 great catches on terrible throws, which isn’t in the boxscore.

        Lebron shot 13/20 for 27 points. What the stats don’t say is that the opposing team was playing a zone and he posted up on the shortest guy on the court 18 times.

        I’d rather have earned runs / unearned runs (attempting to quanitfy a players individual performance), than what other sports do, which is nothing at all.

      • gibbyfan - May 10, 2014 at 3:11 PM

        Paper—the rule clearly states that touching the ball s not disposotive. If a ball goes between an infielders legs and he doesn’t touch it –it’s likely an error.
        They went over this this ad nauseum last nght on MLB with utter nonsense being incessantly spewed from Reynolds despite his colleagues painfully explainig why he was wrong. Honestly, I believe he was having a mental lapse, is just that stupid or was trying to be fired.

    • hammyofdoom - May 10, 2014 at 4:51 PM

      Its not exactly like errors are an easy thing. How many times have you seen an outfielder make a stupid move diving or misplaying a ball giving up a double or triple that OBVIOUSLY wasnt the pitcher’s fault get ruled a double or a triple, not an error or single and an error? Its stupid and needs to be ruled as errors more often

  3. Conner012367 - May 10, 2014 at 1:29 PM

    Omg Thank you, i strongly agree that the ball should have been caught and that it shouldn’t be ruled an error. I saw the game and was disappointed and upset.

    • abaird2012 - May 10, 2014 at 1:43 PM

      Umm … irony?

      • Conner012367 - May 10, 2014 at 1:48 PM

        Uhhh…. i guess?

    • paperlions - May 10, 2014 at 2:09 PM

      You might want to reread the column. I’m not sure who you are agreeing with, but it isn’t the author.

      • Conner012367 - May 10, 2014 at 2:13 PM

        i am just agreeing with the part that the ball should have been caught and not ruled as an error but Rios should have called for it.

  4. lewp - May 10, 2014 at 1:45 PM

    I was at the game. I’m sure there is video of the pop-up as well.

    There is no way in Hades this was a hit. It was an ERROR.

    It was a pretty routine fly ball. Rios should have called off the 2nd baseman….it was a comedy of errors, not a hit.

    • hittfamily - May 10, 2014 at 2:31 PM

      That article up at the top….you should read it.

    • chunkala - May 10, 2014 at 3:03 PM

      Absolute agree that it was an error.
      But the point is that the official scorer can’t suddenly call this play an error because the pitcher has a no-hitter and call it a hit 99 other times.

  5. lewp - May 10, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    http://www.lewpblog.com/2014/05/10/ohhhhhhhhh-so-close/

  6. miguelcairo - May 10, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    That’s a long-ass article.

    • renaado - May 10, 2014 at 2:24 PM

      Lmao! It really is, truly a long article I’ve red so far here in HBT.

      • jwbiii - May 10, 2014 at 4:47 PM

        ren, You’re new here, so let me explain a bit. This is mostly a news aggregator site. Authors here read things written by other people and post. The general form is introduction/link/quote/commentary. Joe Posnanski is different. He’s a columnist and writes original work. If he was not employed by the same company that owns this website, no doubt many of his columns would be linked here. Here’s his wiki page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Posnanski

      • renaado - May 10, 2014 at 9:22 PM

        This is the first time I knew of this about Joe, truly thankful for showin me this jwbiii. And yeah I’ve been here for exactly a month and a half now so guess I’m kind of new.

    • 1943mrmojorisin1971 - May 10, 2014 at 3:08 PM

      Sad what’s becoming of our attention spans.

    • Conner012367 - May 10, 2014 at 3:17 PM

      yea it is wow

    • mrwillie - May 10, 2014 at 7:36 PM

      When he wrote for SI his columns were called “Curiously Long Posts”

  7. deweyks - May 10, 2014 at 2:52 PM

    Isn’t the rule that failure to catch a ball under “ordinary effort” should be ruled an error. Regardless of anyone touching the ball. Bill Buckner never touched Mookie Wilson’s ground ball but was charged with an error.

    • jkcalhoun - May 10, 2014 at 3:47 PM

      Yes. The scorer applied the scoring rules correctly in this case.

      Years ago an exception to the “ordinary effort” principle became common when scorers began to score fly balls and pop flies lost in the sun or in the lights that fell to the ground untouched as hits, whenever in their judgment the fielder couldn’t see the ball. No amount of effort, they reasoned, can help a fielder catch a ball if the ball can’t be seen.

      But this turns out to be a difficult judgment to make: how can the scorer know whether the ball was visible to the fielder or not? Or whether it would have been visible if the fielder had made an ordinary effort using common techniques to block out the glare of the sun or the lights? The scorer can talk to the fielder or a team representative in order to get more information in order to change his call within 24 hours of the game, but what player or team representative is going to say that the reason the play wasn’t made was something other than some form of preternatural glare against which humans have no known defense?

      Scorers seems to have given up trying; now they typically assume that if no fielder arrives in a position to catch a fly ball or a popup, it must have been impossible to do so with ordinary effort. This, of course, is balderdash, but it keeps the scorer from having to make difficult judgments that may require uncomfortable discussions to reach, so that’s the way it normally gets called these days.

  8. chunkala - May 10, 2014 at 3:09 PM

    A lot of good points, Joe.
    I for one never look at a pitcher’s ERS or the DIPS BS; I always look at RA instead because fielders always make many more great plays than bad plays, thus helping the pitchers ERA.
    I also don’t understand why an error by the pitcher doesn’t count towards his ERA. Last night, Fister purposefully threw the ball over 1B to make sure the play was scored an error instead of a hit. To the same point, I don’t know why knuckleballers like Dickey get preferential treatment in terms of passed balls not affecting their ERA. Normally I would agree with this but passed balls are so frequent with knuckleballers, it just doesn’t make sense. No one is forcing him to throw this pitch, therefore he can’t benefit more than other pitchers.

  9. American of African Descent - May 10, 2014 at 3:25 PM

    How can a pitcher have control over a home run but no control over a double off the top of the wall? Makes absolutely no sense.

    • jwbiii - May 10, 2014 at 5:26 PM

      You just defined the difference between FIP and xFIP.

    • American of African Descent - May 10, 2014 at 10:41 PM

      They’re both stupid.

  10. mikhelb - May 10, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    Well… most writers salivate at the mere sightinig of a pitchers low ERA, so, the outdated error concept is in play right there.

    Whenever you hear/read a debate on who was a good pitcher and who was not, and somebody mentions Nolan Ryan, most people quickly mention his ERA as non worthy of being in the conversation with, say, Koufax, Maddux and Pedro. Some will even point to… wins…

    That could be a reason why official scorers go to great lenghts to manipulate wheter a ball was an error or not.

    Case in point: April 22, NYY at Boston, the official scorer changed a HIT to an ERROR to help Lester who had been tagged for 8 Runs. Now Lester instead of 18 Earned Runs has 14 Earned Runs in the year for that change in the official scoring.

    Lester instead of having a 3.33 ERA now has a 2.59 ERA.

    And we could use FIP, one of the Voros DIP oriented stats, but, FIP is meaningful and useful predicting the future and not as a evaluation of the present. xFIP is the same.

    And that is why Lester and his 2.59 ERA can be mentioned as being extraordinary, and Kershaw’s ERAs are taken into account to dub him as the best pitcher nowadays (I prefer Yu).

    And thats why even if Tanaka vs Lester have similar stats:
    49 inn vs 48 2/3 inn, 194 batters faced vs 193, 42 hits vs 43, 14 ER to 14 ER

    FIP helps Lester (2.11) more than Tanaka (3.06), a leftie who uses the inside corner of the plate with lefties, the outside vs righties to make them fly to the deepest part of a deep park and receives less homeruns, than Tanaka, who has received more homeruns and pitches in a more hr friendly park.

    And thats why xFIP tells us: Tanaka 2.15 if he received HRs at league average (10.5% of flys), 2.58 for lester because he is more or less in line with league averages.

    And on the same subject: that is why defensive stats that depend on human intervention to categorize them visually are so flawed, people judging what SHOULD have been caught, and stuff like that, is what until Fieldfx becomes available, turns a lot of defensive metrics, moot (i find the concepts of “amount of balls fielded”, “percentage of success at recording an out on balls fielded”, rather amusing, specially taking into account how well above/below league average a player is, and how his pitching staff is compared to league average in inducing grounders towards specific defenders).

  11. moogro - May 10, 2014 at 4:14 PM

    Great points in the article. The weird valorizing of the Lone Pitcher also explains why everyone seems so let down when there is a combined no-hitter, which seems just as awesome to me. Maybe it’s an unwelcome reminder that no-hitters are really a team stat with starring pitcher(s).

  12. sportsfan18 - May 10, 2014 at 4:27 PM

    Mr. Posnanski,

    In your article, you stated the following:

    “DIPS does this based on the theory that there are only three things that a pitcher has demonstrable control over (strikeouts, walks and home runs) and everything else is some foggy mix of luck and defense and whatever ambiguous ability a pitcher has of controlling how well a ball is hit.”

    I know this is DIPS and not you.

    Food for thought though as many studies have been done on how many balls and strikes calls umpires get wrong show that they miss around 14 to 15 percent of pitches give or take (call them incorrectly).

    Yes, that still means that the pitcher has “demonstrable” control but that is a very LARGE percentage of incorrect calls.

    Errors affect a pitcher less as so few errors are made. The 2014 MLB team fielding stats as of the time I wrote this (MLB average) was that 24 errors were made by teams out of a total of 1332 chances.

    14.5% of 1332 is 193 and that is a lot more than 24.

    Now I realize that calling a pitch ball two instead of strike one doesn’t let a man on base and that not all missed calls are on ball 4 or strike 3, there are still so many MORE pitches that there are more missed strike three and ball four calls than errors.

    Also, a pitcher will make a different pitch most of the time when he has a 3 ball count than when he has a 2 ball count. First, the batter should have been out (just like an error, the runner should NOT be on base but in the dugout just like the batter should be in the dugout when the ump blows the strike three call).

    People talk about replay so much, taking so much time. I wish they’d use that electronic system that shows if a ball was a ball or strike or not. It’s fast enough that it could be used for each pitch.

    Doing this ALONE, would do MORE to get a larger amount of calls correct than all other replay reviews do in baseball without any of the time being taken…

    Baseball spends all the money and time on only a small handful of calls each game. Many games have no replay reviews.

    Yet, each game will have at least 200 pitches throw between both teams combined and that means that with 14 to 15 percent of those calls being made wrong, baseball is letting around 29 calls be made each game incorrectly with nothing being done about it, while having technology that shows whether it went over the plate or not exists and it’s fast.

    The 80/20 rule should be used… they are spending so much time and money on 20% of the wrong calls… and letting the 80 portion of the 80/20 rule go by with nothing being done about it..

    • moogro - May 10, 2014 at 5:18 PM

      Yep. Humans calling the balls and strikes is pretty weird now.

  13. halfthemoney - May 10, 2014 at 5:30 PM

    This is one of those cases where it’s starting to feel as if the pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction. A hundred yrs ago the pitcher got all the credit; today it feels as if the goal of statisticians is to take away any and all credit. As Joe said when he mentioned the slow pitch pitcher simply starting the play, maybe that’s how we should look at the baseball pitcher.

    I say this because I even disagree with a pitcher having control over strikeouts. The only true control in a KO is if he throws one belt high right down the middle. And even that is subject to the umpire making the correct call. Otherwise a swing and a miss is no different than a fielder missing the ball. It’s an error on someone else. The hitter made the mistake. Even the homerun is bunk until MLB standardizes fences because how can we hold pitchers responsible. We’re looking for norms and averages here, right?

    The ONLY thing a pitcher has control over is walks and balks. (and fielding his own position)

    Sorry for the rant but it just seems silly. Would we characterize a performance where the pitcher struck out 27 batters on 81 pitches that no batter swung at and hit a homerun as a perfect game for the only run or would we say it’s a team effort because someone had to catch the ball behind the plate?

  14. racksie - May 10, 2014 at 9:07 PM

    If a pitcher makes a fielding error it is recorded as an unearned run. See, that’s wrong.

  15. hojo20 - May 10, 2014 at 10:44 PM

    TL/DR

    • DJ MC - May 11, 2014 at 1:18 AM

      I guess quoting Mark Twain would be lost on you.

  16. RickyB - May 11, 2014 at 12:13 AM

    Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

  17. whatacrocker - May 12, 2014 at 5:37 AM

    This article is unreadable. Posnanski used to be very, very good, but he has fallen very far, very fast.

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