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

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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.

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 11, Twins 3: The Twins took a 3-0 lead, but after that it was all Yankees. Aaron Judge hit his AL-leading 45th home run and crossed the 100 RBI mark. Gary Sanchez went back-to-back with him in the third. Didi Gregorius hit a three-run shot. The Yankees are rolling at just the right time. Or at least that’s what I’m reading everywhere, despite the fact that momentum is a false construct. And despite the fact that, hey, the world is probably going to end on Saturday.

Athletics 3, Tigers 2: Daniel Mengden tossed seven scoreless innings and continued to test my theory that, if they wanted to, sports writers could totally make up names for Oakland A’s players and most of us would nod and say “hmm, OK . . . Mengden.” Marcus Semien homered and drove in three as the A’s swept the Tigers. Who, after a decade or so of being a team full of famous players, is about to enter a period when we could play the same game with their relatively anonymous players as we’ve played with teams like the A’s for so long.

Marlins 9, Mets 2: Giancarlo Stanton hit his 56th homer and drove in three. In keeping with the silly trend of people pretending that passing Roger Maris at 61 would somehow be a significant record as opposed to merely a neat accomplishment, I am going to officially proclaim that Stanton NOW has the home run record. Hey, if subjectivity matters for things like this, so too does my personal subjectivity. The rundown:

  • Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56 twice, but he once used a Bed Bath and Beyond coupon that was expired, sullying it;
  • Luis Gonzalez and A-Rod at 57? They were Freemasons;
  • Four players hit 58 in a season once — Foxx, Greenberg, Howard and McGwire — but that sounds like a law firm, undermining the purity of the accomplishment;
  • Babe Ruth hit 59 and 60, but he purchased alcohol during prohibition, setting a terrible example for lack of temperance;
  • Roger Maris’ 61 was hit in front of a half-empty Yankee Stadium crowd. The Yankees were amazing in 1961 and everyone was talking about him passing Ruth, so something fishy was going on. I’m going to guess radiation contamination on site scared people away and, in turn, powered Maris artificially, like someone in a comic book;
  • That just leaves Sosa, McGwire and Bonds and they murdered all of those people so it’d be wrong to honor them.

Congratulations, Giancarlo Stanton: The Single Season Home Run Champ!

Giants 4, Rockies 0: The Rockies lose their third in a row. Thanks to the Brewers losing too they keep their one-game lead for the second Wild Card, but they really need to cut this out. Brandon Crawford hit a solo homer and Matt Moore and four relievers combined to shut Colorado out.

Red Sox 9, Orioles 0: Chris Sale tossed eight shutout innings and struck out 13. In so doing he became just the second pitcher to strikeout 300-plus batters in a season in the last 15 years, joining Clayton Kershaw. Before that Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson accomplished the feat in 2002 (Johnson also did it in 2001 and 2000 as well). Sale is just the second Red Sox pitcher to do it, following Pedro Martinez, who did it in 1999. Mookie Betts and Deven Marrero went deep for Boston. The Red Sox have clinched a playoff spot.

Phillies 7, Dodgers 5Aaron Altherr hit a tying, two-run homer in the seventh. The Dodgers added a run, so Altherr hit a tiebreaking, two-run single in the eighth. That’s three in a row over the Dodgers for Philly. They go for the sweep this afternoon. The Dodgers have lost four straight and 20 of 25. Their magic number for the NL West remains at two.

Pirates 6, Brewers 4Adam Frazier hit a two-out, two-run, walkoff homer off of Corey Knebel, averting extra innings and giving the game to the Buccos. Knebel’s streak of 21 consecutive save chances converted ended just before that when his own throwing error allowed the Pirates to tie it. We all have a bad day sometimes.

Royals 15, Blue Jays 5: Mike Moustakas broke the single-season home run record for the Royals. But, like I said above, this is all apparently subjective now, so I’m gonna stick with Steve Balboni’s 36 as the true mark, because this:

Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield also went deep as the Royals victimized Brett Anderson for eight runs on seven hits in an inning and a third and rattled off 18 hits on the night.

Cardinals 9, Reds 2Dexter Fowler homered for the third straight game. Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong also went deep, Tommy Pham had three hits and two RBI and Yadier Molina added a two-run double. Luke Weaver allowed two runs in five innings to win his seventh straight start, making him the current active leader in consecutive wins.

Rays 8, Cubs 1: The Cubs seven-game winning streak comes to an end thanks to Blake Snell‘s two-hit, seven shutout inning performance. The Cubs now open a four-game series in Milwaukee. They have a three and a half game lead over the Brewers and can either put them away or give us an exciting last week of the season. So, nothing personal Cubs fans, but let’s go Brewers.

Nationals 7, Braves 3: The Braves had a 2-1 lead heading into the eighth and then the Nats went and put up an eight-spot. Three of those runs came on bases loaded walks from Arodys Vizcaino. Maybe Brandon Snitker is a fan of the movie “Tin Cup” or something. I don’t know. I’m just glad I wasn’t feeling well last night and took a NyQuil at 9:30 and missed it.

Astros 4, White Sox 3: That’s six straight wins for Houston. Yuli Gurriel had three hits, including a two-run double, Brad Peacock allowed two runs on only one hit in six innings.

Diamondbacks 13, Padres 7: Hunter Renfroe hit three homers. Wasn’t enough, though, as the Dbacks overcame a 6-2 deficit and scored 11 runs in the final four innings. J.D Martinez, A.J. Pollock, David Peralta and Jake Lamb all went deep for the Snakes.

Indians 6, Angels 5: Four wins in a row for Cleveland who is now 26-1 over their past 27 games. They haven’t lost a road game since August 20. This is just crazy stuff. Francisco Lindor snapped a seventh-inning tie with a two-run homer and  Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Ramirez added RBI singles. The Angels remain one and a half back of the Twins for the second Wild Card.

Rangers 8, Mariners 6Rougned Odor hit a grand slam to cap a seven-run fourth inning and the Rangers held off Seattle. Alex Claudio earned a six-out save. The Puerto Rican native was distracted and worried about his family and homeland in the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria. I have no idea how anyone could concentrate under such circumstances, but he did.

Mike Moustakas sets Royals single-season record with 37th home run

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Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas belted his 37th home run on Wednesday evening, setting a new club record for homers in a single season. Moustakas had been tied with Steve Balboni, who hit 36 home runs in 1985.

The home run came on a 2-0, 82 MPH slider from Blue Jays reliever Carlos Ramirez, boosting the Royals’ lead to 13-0 in the top of the sixth inning.

Moustakas, 29, entered the night batting .271/.313/.523 with 82 RBI and 71 runs scored in 560 plate appearances.