… and should anything be an error?
— MLB (@MLB) March 31, 2018
Jeff J. Snider on Twitter retweeted this Pillar steal of home to grump that this is clearly an error. To be clear, he was not saying that it should have been RULED an error — he understands that baseball tradition credits players who attempt to steal with the stolen base even when the throw is terrible — but he still believes it’s an obvious error.
First the rule 9.12(a): The official scorer shall charge an error against any fielder:
5. whose wild throw permits a runner to reach a base safely, when in the scorer’s judgment a good throw would have put out the runner unless such wild throw is made attempting to prevent a stolen base.
But you can see Jeff’s point which is that while this error definition might make sense on a stolen base of second or third where it is likely to be a very close play, the Pillar steal was different. You or I likely could have thrown out Pillar given enough advance warning and certainly, any college baseball player would be expected to make this throw.
And this is another glorious opportunity, as a marvelous new baseball season begins, to write about why errors are a pox upon the game.
Before doing that, I’d like to clarify: I am not for eliminating errors from baseball. They are a part of the tradition and history of the game. We have come to know the game through the error prism, through the general silliness of unearned runs and batters being recorded as out when they are safe and so on. To get rid of errors is to walk away from 1.12 (Bob Gibson’s run average in 1968 was 1.45) and .406 (Ted Williams reached on error six times in 1941, which would have made his average .419). and all sorts of other things.
In total, it would not make the game better to get rid of errors.
But you can never say this enough times: Errors are illogical and goofy and provide little value … and as this Pillar play suggests, they miss a fundamental part of what makes baseball great.
I think it’s cool for me to tell you this now — my friend Jonathan Hock and I co-wrote and co-developed the new movie that will be shown multiple times every day at the Baseball Hall oF Fame starting this spring. It has been one of the coolest projects of my life; It’s not quite done so I probably shouldn’t go into too many details about it but let’s just say I get goosebumps every time I watch it, and I’ve watched some version of it roughly 150 times.
In any case, one thing that we could not squeeze in there — simply because we didn’t have the time for it* — was an interview I did with Kansas City’s Eric Hosmer about his now legendary dash home in the 2015 World Series.
*I never fully appreciated how oppressive time can be until Jon and I started trying to squeeze all of baseball’s glory into a short film that the Hall of Fame could show multiple times every hour.
Hosmer has a great bit about what was going through his head when he took off for home on Salvador Perez’s groundout to third. That play has been examined and reexamined, there has been so much talk about how the Royals prepared just that scenario, a ground ball to David Wright, wait for him to throw, how they scouted the arm of Mets (now Royals) first baseman Lucas Duda and so on.
But Hosmer admits that absolutely none of that was in his mind — or if it was, it was somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind. His instinct told him to go. And once his body started, his mind blared — and I quote — “OK, I guess we’re doing this!”
A good throw from Duda gets him. An average throw from Duda probably gets him. An off-target throw that still gives the catcher a chance to whirl and tag might have gotten him. Duda threw wildly so there was no play at the plate. Duda was not charged with an error but in the Snider theory of errors, it might have been one.
But here’s the thing: Any discussion about it being an error or not an error is silly and pointless because we will never have THAT EXACT SITUATION again, not ever. Decisive game of the World Series, ninth inning, tying run on third, ground ball to third, it will never be like that again. Hosmer, on instinct and pure chutzpah, made a hard-core baseball decision. He challenged the Mets to throw him out. He knew, like everyone knew, that if the Mets did everything right, they would throw him out. He took the chance that they would not do everything right. He bet big. And he won big.
This is one of the wonderful conflicts at the very heart of sports: You do stuff to force your opponent into blundering. This is what strategy is about. This is what playcalling is about. This is what blitzing is about, what zone defenses are about, what chess openings are about, what tennis tactics are about. Even in golf, where you have no actual control of your oppponent, you would like to post a score to force them into making mistakes. Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus just getting on the leaderboard could do this.
It’s a central piece of competition.
Baseball errors just ignore this tension. Marking down errors — and taking those hits away from hitters and taking blame away from pitchers — suggests that defense is easy and players should NEVER make mistakes, and that when they do make mistakes it has nothing at all to do with the flow of the game or the pressure that the hitter and/or baserunner put on them.
In 1998, Derek Jeter reached on error 21 times. That, best I can tell, is the most in baseball history — tied with Mel Ott in 1935. Now, we’ve certainly had our fun with Derek Jeter here on the blog (having invented the term Jeterate) but one other point that I’ve made is this: It’s absolutely stunning that he did not win an MVP award in his career. It’s stunning considering his fame, the respect he garnered around the game, his Yankeeness and the MVP type seasons he unquestionably put up. In 1998, the Yankees won 114 games, breezed to the World Series title, and Jeter was their best player — how in the WORLD did he not win the MVP award?
Well, he hit .324/..384/.481, hit 19 homers, stole 30 bases, led the league in runs.
Juan Gonzalez hit .318/.366/..630 with 45 homers and a startling 157 RBIs. The voters were impressed.
But now, let’s add those 21 reached on errors that were not only hidden in Jeter’s record but were actually COUNTED AGAINST HIM. That .324 average is suddenly .357, which would have been good enough to give him the batting title. Add 30 points to the on-base percentage. Add 35 points to his slugging.
Who’s your MVP now?
You say: Well, errors are a fluke. But are they? Nine times in Jeter’s career, he reached on error 10 times or more in a season. One hundred ninety-four times in his career, Jeter reached base on error — that’s enough to jump his career batting average from .310 to .327.*
*If you want to talk about the greatest error stat — in 1980, George Brett hit .390. He reached on error five times. With those five, his average would have been .401.
Then you say: But Derek Jeter and George Brett didn’t EARN those bases.; they were given those bases by mistakes. That’s the fundamental statement that errors say. And that’s why the concept of errors are so fundamentally flawed.
Sports are all about taking advantage of your opponent’s mistake. If a pitcher hangs a curveball and you hit it out, you have taken advantage of a mistake. If your opponent lowers his left and you knock him out with an overhand right, you have taken advantage of a mistake. If your opponent stupidly goes for the steal, leaving you with a breakaway, you have taken advantage of a mistake.
Kevin Pillar took off for home. He was certainly aware in the moment, as Hosmer was aware, that a good throw would have him easily. It was a bold play, and it forced the bad throw. You might call that a “forced error.” But that’s the thing. They’re ALL forced errors.*
*Absolutely none of this should be taken as an argument to send Alex Gordon home in the 2014 World Series — he would have been out by 30 feet and no amount of revisionist history will change that.