Since fielding skills have always been difficult to quantify by statistical means, the error has been the fallback for many prognosticators when judging a player's defensive merits. Statisticians have begun developing superior metrics for measuring defense, and, though most remain flawed on their own, are certainly preferable to errors.
There's a lot of ground to cover here, so I'll just dive right in. The goal here is to understand what errors are good for, and what they aren't good for.
The MLB rulebook's definition of an error is kind of sarcastic, but refreshingly true.
An error is a statistic charged against a fielder whose action has assisted the team on offense.
The first words of rule 10.12(a) tell us most of what we need to know about errors: "The official scorer shall charge..."
Let's stop right there. The official scorer. That's just a person. A flawed human being. Yes, I'm sure 100% of the official scorers out there have watched a million more hours of baseball than I have and are perfectly qualified to handle the job. However, this is still one individual human making a ton of difficult, subjective choices. While MLB allows for rule changes after the fact, which happen every few days during the regular season, these are subjective decisions made by, at best, a very small group of people.
The rulebook's entry on errors is a giant wall of text full of conjunctions, hedging, prepositions and modifiers. It's a headache. I'll pare it down as much as possible so you get the full picture without missing anything.
When is an Error Charged?
The Judger of Baseball Plays shall strike his gavel and charge a defender with an error when:
- A defender's misplay extends the batter's at bat, their time on base, or permits a runner to advance. ***Read below for more on MLB's qualifiers for this rule—10.12(a)(1)*** With one exception: when a player allows a ball to fall into foul territory to avoid a run scoring on a sacrifice fly.
- A fielder muffs a foul fly ball.
- A defender fields a thrown or ground ball in time to put out the batter/runner but fails to tag the base or runner, or make a force play.
- A fielder makes a wild throw allowing a runner to reach safely, when, in the opinion of The Judger, a good throw would have gotten an out. One exception: when a player (catcher, usually) throws wildly when attempting to prevent a stolen base. This is only an error if a runner advances because of the wild throw.
- A fielder's throw takes an "unnatural bounce," touches a base or pitcher's mound, a runner, fielder or umpire, permitting a runner to advance. Even if a fielder makes an absolutely perfect throw but gets a bad stroke of luck, it's still an error.
- If a player fails to stop or try to stop an accurately thrown ball, permitting a runner to advance. If the fielder has "no occasion for the throw," meaning he can't reasonably be expected to field it in the opinion of The Judger, the error goes to the thrower.
What's NOT an Error?
The Judger shall stay his gavel and not charge an error when:
- A fielder makes a wild throw when a runner couldn't have been put out with ordinary effort, unless the runner advances on the wild throw. Completing a double or triple play does not count as ordinary effort, although a player who muffs an accurate throw to complete a double or triple play does get charged with an error.
- A defender bobbles/fumbles a ball, but recovers to make the force out in time.
- A wild pitch or passed ball is scored.
- A batter reaches base via a walk, HBP, wild pitch or passed ball.
- When a runner advances due to a wild pitch, passed ball, or balk.
- A fourth ball is a wild pitch or passed ball and runners advance beyond their awarded base.
- If a runner advances on a dropped third strike.
- There's only ever one error charged for any wild throw or single instance of interference, no matter how many bases a player(s) advances.
You could poke holes in just about every one of these.
Addenda to MLB Rule 10.12(a)(1)
There are a couple comments in the MLB rulebook under 10.12(a)(1) that are worth mentioning.
First of all, there's a lot of rhetoric about "ordinary effort" in relation to a ball in play a fielder never touches. This isn't much of a mystery. Basically, if The Judger thinks a fielder could've made the play with ordinary effort, but he didn't, missing the ball completely, it's an error.
However, MLB states that in the case of the following two occurrences, no error will be charged:
- Slow handling of a ball not involving a "mechanical misplay" is not considered an error.
- Mental mistakes or misjudgments are not errors unless a runner(s) advances because a fielder mistakenly thinks there's three outs.
- A pitcher fails to cover first base and a runner reaches because of it.
- A fielder throws to the wrong base.
- If a defender fields a ball cleanly but does not throw to first in time to get the out.
- If a second baseman fields a grounder and immediately throws it back to the pitcher.
- If a shortstop fields a grounder, but doesn't make a throw because the first baseman ran into right field.
- If a third baseman fields a hot grounder, winks at a fan in the front row, pumps, hops and struts, and throws late to first base.
Milwaukee Brewers Facts
|Brewers' most all-time||Robin Yount: 272|
|Brewers' worst year||Robin Yount (1975): 44|
|Brewers' worst per game in a season||Dale Sveum (1986): 0.4|
Ryan Braun's miserable rookie season at 3B stands out as one of the worst error-ridden seasons in recent years, but he's certainly not the worst the Brewers have put on the left side of the infield.
Jose Valentin has had a few of the worst seasons in Brewers history in terms of errors at SS, committing an error approximately once every 4 games in 1994, '96 and '99. Wes Helms' 2004 season at 3B was about as bad.
But, Dale Sveum's effort in 65 games at 3B in 1986 really is the worst in Brewers history error-wise. He committed an error nearly every two games.
What Errors are Good For
An "error" works as a purely rhetorical word for quickly describing a play in baseball, like "screwed up," "blew it," "choked," "booted it," etc. It makes writing headlines easier.
In terms of player evaluation? They're good for almost nothing.
The Problem(s) with Errors
Errors are Subjective
Putouts and assists can at least be credited as legitimate, albeit archaic, tools for recordkeeping. Logging errors is a recordkeeping of sorts, but a clearly subjective kind of recordkeeping. The shortstop had an assist on that play is virtually irrefutable. The shortstop made an error on that play could be outright wrong based on the context.
Errors are Team Dependent
A team with an excellent defensive first baseman will have many errors erased by slick picking at first base. This doesn't guarantee the 3B, SS or 2B are any good. And vice-versa: inaccurate throwing arms from the left side of the infield can make an average 1B look awful in the error column. A team heavy in ground ball pitchers may mean infielders get many more opportunities than average, and the errors may pile up.
Errors Count Against Hitters
A batter who reaches on an error does not get credit for a hit. This goes as a negative towards his BA, OBP, OPS, etc. Why should the hitter be punished? The batter must have done something to contribute to the play for it to have not been an out. He jogged down to first, at the least. Sometimes that's all it takes.
In what sport does a player get punished when the opposition mucks it up? If a receiver catches a pass because a defender fell over, do you take away the catch? If a golfer triple bogeys the 72nd hole and loses by a stroke, is the winner penalized? Of course not.
Errors Punish Good Fielders
You can't decide if a player should have been able to make the play unless the fielder can get to the ball. You'll rarely, if ever, see a player get charged with an error because he didn't get to the ball. The "ordinary effort" provision in the rules means it's technically a possibility, but it's rarely enforced.
Let's say two shortstops field 100 identical ground balls. Shortstop A reaches 60 of them and makes 5 total errors. Shortstop B reached 80 of them, but makes 10 errors. Which shortstop is better? Shortstop B made 15 more outs than Shortstop A in the same sample.
Errors are Only a Subset of Misplays
"...errors are a subset of misplays. Even if official scorers got the rule book definition exactly right and perfectly uniform, we would still be ignoring a huge portion of bad defensive plays. Think back to a moment when you watched a player get a horrible jump on an easy ball. Think about the time an infielder took too long to get the ball out of their glove. Picture an easy pop fly falling four feet from the second baseman. None of those are errors even though they are relatively easy plays."
Neil Weinberg, The Beginner's Guide to Measuring Defense
Want to avoid errors? Forget taking more grounders, participating in more infield drills, or dropping a few pounds to get an extra spring in your step. A better solution? Stop trying. Stay away from the ball. Brewers fans understand this better than most.
The best way to avoid making errors is to willingly make yourself a worse defender. This is not a strong endorsement for the error as a measure of a player's skill. The error, no exaggeration, may be the very worst statistic in all of sports.
Next time, we'll use our knowledge of putouts, assists, and errors to tackle fielding percentage. Hint: fielding percentage is calculated using only putouts, assists, and errors. You know where this is going.
Links for Further Reading
Joe Posnanski, "Judgmental Baseball Stats"
Matt Klaassen, "The Error of the Reached on Error"
Derek Zumsteg, "Getting Defensive: The Basics"
Michael Wolverton, "Why the 'Earned' Run Needs to Go"
Neil Weinberg, "The Beginner's Guide to Measuring Defense"