Errors in Judgment

As Rob Neyer brought to your attention yesterday, a five-member panel appointed by MLB granted the Royals’ appeal, overturning the Angels’ official scorer’s decision granting Howie Kendrick an inside-the-park home run on what was really a routine popup down the right field line that was completely misplayed by Jose Guillen.

I happened to be watching that game live, and, I mean, this was a terrible decision by the scorer. No two ways about it. You can click on the second link above and watch the video clip for yourself. If that’s a home run, we should go back to ’86 and give Mookie an RBI single.

So, I’m glad they overturned it. And Rob’s post and some of the comments beneath it raise some good questions about the quality and motivations of (team-employed) official scorers.

But I think this touches on an even bigger issue. The only reason this was any kind of controversy is that the ball just barely grazed Guillen’s glove on the way by. Consider this same result in a couple alternate universes:

  1. Guillen gets a great jump on the ball and camps under it, but he pulls his eye off it too early and it pops right out of his waiting glove, and then he kind of head-butts it all the way to the fence, resulting in Guillen being featured prominently in blooper reels for the rest of the year.
  2. Guillen takes his eye off of it on his way over, so he takes a slightly wrong angle whereby he comes too far in on the ball, and then watches helplessly as it bounces six feet beyond his reach.
Is there any question in the world that (1) is scored an error, (2) a home run? Yet, isn’t Guillen exactly equally culpable in both scenarios? And in the third scenario, the one that happened back in reality? In all three cases, he should’ve made the play, but didn’t. Why (at least for purposes of fielding and pitching analysis) treat the three cases any differently?

If you can watch the play and read the accompanying story and not come to the conclusion that “errors” and “fielding percentage” are utterly useless as tools for measuring defense, I’d really love to hear your argument in their favor. (Well, read the rest of this, then let me have it in the comments.)

Properly evaluating defense, at its core, requires you to ask one question, and it has nothing to do with whether or not the guy got a glove on the ball. Whether the fielder caught the ball, or dropped the ball, or ended up thirty feet away from the ball, the question should be exactly the same: should we have expected a dude in that position to make the play that that dude just made (or didn’t make)?

The Twins provide another convenient vehicle for making this point. Most days, as I’ve discussed here before, they start one of the worst left fielders in baseball (Delmon Young, or occasionally Jason Kubel); on the other days, they start one of the best (Denard Span sliding over from CF when Carlos Gomez plays). Now, Young and Span may end up with essentially the same number of “errors” over the course of the season, but if you watch them every day, you’ll routinely see Young come up ten feet or more short on fly balls hit at the exact same angle and speed as balls that Span catches with no difficulty. And when Span does make an “error,” odds are it’ll be on a ball just like that: one that Delmon could have been expected to play into a double. See, this works both ways. If Span’s legs and instincts get him to a ball that only one or two other guys in baseball could’ve hoped to, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to punish him if he bobbles it.

Turns out, most MLB clubs already have, internally, done away with fielding percentage and errors. Most teams (not the Twins, clearly; get Go-Go back in the damn game already!) employ some kind of sophisticated system of defensive analysis using tools — like my oft-cited favorite, UZR — that really do nothing but attempt to answer that one simple question (albeit in a slightly more sophisticated way than the way I just posed it).

But how long do you think it’ll take before this straight-forward, common-sense, weirdly counterintuitive idea takes hold among the media and public at large?

Or, to pose the same question in a different way: how many times must the author hear Joe Q. Colorcommentator cite errors made or fielding percentage as evidence that a team is first or last or sixth in “team defense” before he experiences some sort of cataclysmic psychic event?
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4 Responses to “Errors in Judgment”

  1. Bill Says:

    It’s a little ironic that I wrote this a couple hours before Denard Span made one of the most inept non-plays I’ve ever seen in left field and turned it into…an inside-the-park home run!

    Oh well. It happens…

  2. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    The only problem I have with this is the subjectivity. Otherwise, I completely agree, especially with the Guillen scenarios. It drives me crazy when, on a pop up, a guy misses it and the hitter gets a hit. In those scenarios, it’s easy to see it was an error.

    But how do you draw the line? How do you decide that a guy “should” have caught the ball? The ones you name are pretty easy, but the others aren’t, necessarily.

    I applaud the guys undertaking the attempts to quantify defense, but I’m not sure Dewan or UZR are there yet.

  3. Bill Says:

    Thanks for the comment(s), Mark. And you’re very right. But, wherever you draw the line, doesn’t it have to be something that makes more sense than “it’s an error if you touch it and it’s a hit if you don’t”? That’s the thing about UZR — not that it’s perfect, but that at least it starts out by asking the right question. The fact that it might have flaws (and does) isn’t a good reason not to use it (or metrics like it) when the only alternatives are methods that are nothing but flaws.

  4. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    That’s a good point, and I didn’t want to imply that we shouldn’t use them. I just wanted to say that this is a very difficult road to go down. Defense is really hard to evaluate quantitatively. But you are definitely right that the questions have to be asked and that teams need to understand that FP% and errors are a terrible way to look at defense. Still, let’s not just throw them completely away, but we should treat them just as one piece of our evaluation.

    But yes, I have, many times, stated that the definition for errors is a bad one, but it’s one that is very concrete and easy for scorekeeping.

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