Papi's Popup and Yu's No No
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.
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.