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.

Ryan Braun heads to the disabled list after injuring his calf again

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Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun had been off the disabled list for four whole days. Now he’s going back on it after re-aggravating his calf injury yesterday against the Diamondbacks. It’s the same injury that put him on the DL earlier this month.

Braun has been productive when he’s been able to play, hitting .262 with seven homers, 19 RBI and stealing four bases in 30 games, but calf injuries tend to be nagging things, especially for dudes over 30. He’ll have an MRI to determine how much time he’ll miss.

In the meantime, left field duties will be shared between Hernan Perez, Nick Franklin and Eric Thames.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Mariners 4, Nationals 2: Nelson Cruz‘s three-run homer in the sixth gave the M’s their first game with more than one run scored in a week and snapped their five-game losing streak. Five M’s relievers held the Nats scoreless over the final four frames. I know the game changes over time and stuff, but I really would like to go back in time and see the reaction of some pitcher from the 1920s if you told him that it wasn’t all that unusual for a 4-2 game to feature 12 pitchers.

Pirates 9, Braves 4: Bartolo Colon got shelled again — the Buccos lit him up for seven runs — and Adam Frazier hit a three-run homer. Ivan Nova cruised for eight, going into the ninth with a 9-2 lead, but he ran out of gas, gave up three hits and had to be lifted. He was mad after the game for not getting the CG. That pitcher from the 1920s would understand that much better, I assume. At least if he could get past the part about two men from the Dominican Republic pitching in a major league game.

Phillies 2, Rockies 1: Tommy Joseph homered in the seventh to tie things up at one and then singled in the winning run in the bottom of the 11th to give Philly a walkoff win. Odubel Herrera, meanwhile, wore a platinum sombrero, which is always worth noting.

Rays 4, Angels 0Matt Andriese scattered six hits over eight shutout innings. Colby Rasmus knocked in all four of the Rays runs with a two run single, driving in Evan Longoria and Steven Souza and a ground rule double, driving in Evan Longoria and Steven Souza.

Cubs 5, Giants 1: The Cubs got dingers from Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist and took their third game in a row. That was three of four from the Giants overall as they finish a 7-2 home stand. The champs, who moved into first place with this win and the Cardinals and Brewers’ losses, may finally be shaking off those early season cobwebs.

Red Sox 6, Rangers 2: The Bosox likewise seem to be turning things around. They take their fourth straight. Here, five Boston pitchers combined to rack up 20 strikeouts with starter Drew Pomeranz getting 11 in six innings. Closer Craig Kimbrel got four in the ninth thanks to a batter reaching on a wild pitch strike three. Did you ever stop to think how random that rule is by the way? I’m not sure what the logic is of a batter being able to run to first due to a dropped strike three. There has to be some — most baseball rules are based in some utility as opposed to mere gamesmanship — but I’m not sure I’ve ever read or been told why that is. If I have, I forgot. Time to go Googling.

Padres 4, Mets 3: Dinelson Lamet made his big league debut and held the Mets to one run over five and five relievers had his back after that. Michael Conforto was 1-for-5 with four strikeouts. He also did this:

 

The conditions were terrible — fog and mist and stuff, so it’s not really his fault – but I can’t recall ever seeing a guy do the hands-over-head move to protect himself for a lost ball that fell THAT far away from him.

Diamondbacks 4, Brewers 0: Are you Johnny Ray?
Are you Slim Ray?
Are you Paid Ray?
Are you Sting Ray?
Are you Nick Ray?
Are you Jimmy Ray?
Who wants to know? Who wants to know?

 

Astros 7, Tigers 6Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez and Juan Centeno all homered off Justin Verlander in Houston’s five-run fourth inning, but the Tigers clawed back to tie it, thanks in large part to Justin Upton who hit an RBI single and homered. Jake Marisnick hit a go-ahead homer in the eighth, however, and that held up. Based on Marisnick’s reaction it seems like he thought it was the ninth and that he just hit a walkoff:

After the game his teammates were ribbing him about it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Marisnick said with a grin when asked about it. “No comment.” Heh.

Dodgers 7, Cardinals 3: Down 3-2 in the fourth, Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda singled in two to help his own cause. Hyun-Jin Ryu, meanwhile, made his first major league relief appearance and tossed four scoreless innings to earn the save. After the game Ryu said that he wasn’t really comfortable with the role and feels, in his heart, he’s a starter. Manager Dave Roberts, meanwhile, talked up how “lethal” Ryu was in long relief with Maeda and it was revealed that he and the front office had been talking about this for a while. Stay tuned for some drama over this.

Royals vs. Yankees; Reds vs. Indians — POSTPONED:

All at sea again
And now my hurricanes
Have brought down
This ocean rain
To bathe me again
My ship’s a sail
Can you hear its tender frame
Screaming from beneath the waves
Screaming from beneath the waves
All hands on deck at dawn
Sailing to sadder shores
Your port in my heavy storms
Harbours the blackest thoughts
I’m at sea again
And now your hurricanes
Have brought down
This ocean rain
To bathe me again