SIOUX CITY -- It was back in 1686, shortly before I started writing about sports, when a 43-year-old Englishman named Isaac Newton advanced the three laws of motion that are not necessary, thank heaven, for a sports writer to know anything about.
For every action in nature, you may have heard, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If stuff like that had been easy for me to grasp, I’d have made a lot more money.
I’m barely able to process Sir Isaac’s earliest epiphanies, like the one he came up with in 1666, at age 23, alerting mankind on something they surely must have noticed many centuries or even millenniums before.
That, of course, would be Newton’s “discovery” of gravity. What goes up, he deduced, must also come down.
So, I’m keeping this in mind as I suggest what may be the worst scorekeeping rule in baseball. This would be the ridiculous notion that a fly ball that simply falls to earth without being touched by a fielder is not to be ruled an error.
Having watched this happen twice within a very short amount of time the other night, I felt compelled to do a little digging. The Sioux City Explorers were already last in fielding in the 12-team American Association without making more than three errors in any previous game this season.
This night, one of those nightmarish anomalies that are bound to happen to even the best of teams, the X’s were on their way to a season-high five errors. And, if I had my way, it would have been at least seven.
After all, this is a policy that essentially rewards a fielder for misplaying a pop fly so badly that his glove doesn’t even graze the incoming projectile before it reaches terra firma. If that happens to be in fair territory, a batter is undeservedly credited with a hit. A missed pop-up in foul territory, meanwhile, gives a team an extra out. And, either way, this can mangle a pitcher’s performance numbers.
Que sera? Not necessarily.
I’ve always been a stickler for scoring baseball games in the manner they’re meant to be scored. The operative words a scorekeeper needs to remember are “ordinary effort.” The rules of the game, you see, insist an error should be charged when ordinary effort would have gotten the job done.
Furthermore, ordinary effort is defined as the level of competence ascribed to “a fielder of average skill at a position in that league or classification of leagues.”
There is also the caveat that recommends “due consideration (be) given to the condition of the field and weather conditions.’’ Which means wet and slippery fields or excessive winds, for example, shouldn’t be disregarded in what are often quite subjective rulings.
My observation is that too many fans lean toward believing scorekeepers are overly generous where hitters are concerned. Pitchers and pitching coaches see things this way, as well.
Nonetheless, just because it’s possible for a gifted player to making diving catches that rob batters of extra-base hits, they’re only expected to succeed when “ordinary effort” is what a play requires. The lion’s share of the time, this should dictate these decisions.
Back to pop flies, though, it is true that even seasoned major league scorekeepers will withhold an error almost every time no defender makes contact with the ball.
I said “almost.”
On May 9, 2014, Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish retired the first 20 Boston Red Sox batters he faced before David Ortiz lifted a pop fly to right field with two outs in the seventh inning. Converging on the incoming missile were Alex Rios, a veteran outfielder, and Rougned Odor, a 20-year-old second baseman playing in his second major league game.
Both players were in position to make the catch, but Rios slowed down and Odor, whose name still baffles me, also failed to do so with a late lunge.
Up in the press box, Steve Weller, serving his 20th season as the Rangers’ official scorer, turned many heads, charging Rios with an error that for the moment, at least, kept Darvish’s no-hitter alive.
Ortiz, perhaps fittingly, perhaps not, wound up wrecking the no-no on a clean single with two outs in the ninth inning. Meanwhile, Weller contacted the Elias Sports Bureau, baseball’s longtime record-keepers, and had his decision backed up quite convincingly.
The gatekeepers pointed to a couple of entries in the rulebook.
One of them states “It is not necessary that the fielder touch the ball to be charged with an error.’’
The other says, “The official scorer shall charge an outfielder with an error if such outfielder allows a fly ball to drop to the ground if, in the official scorer’s judgment, an outfielder at that position making ordinary effort would have caught such fly ball.’’
A “wherefore” or “whereas” might have nailed it down even better than a sentence that uses the word “if” two times. To me, that’s an error on the rules-makers.
Still, it throws open the door to scorekeeping I think makes more sense.