Tuesday, April 22, 2008

To err is human, but to make a fielder's choice can also be divine

You're covering a game, taking notes and faced with the following scenario: A runner is on second with no outs. The batter slaps an easy grounder to the pitcher, who, instead of firing the ball to first for the easy out, turns and starts to throw to third, where the base runner is headed. However, the third baseman does not get back to the base in time so the pitcher turns back to first. But she does not throw the ball since the hitter is only a few steps from the base. So now runners stand on first and third. How do you score this?

I faced this scenario last weekend during a girls softball game. At the time, our scorekeeper asked: "How the heck do you score that one?" He immediately received two conflicting answers. I said: "E-1," denoting that this play should be scored an error on the pitcher. The other coach said, "Fielder's choice. You can't score this an error if she didn't throw the ball." Both of us have played and watched baseball for more than 30 years, yet we were at odds on this play. So where does one turn for answers? That's always a challenge, especially when you are covering a game held in a small town, far from an official scorer.

I've carried rules books to games in the past, although not as frequently as I should have. Now, I carry the National Softball Association's official rule book in my car, but it does not address this scoring scenario. Instead,this book focuses more on equipment, base running, and other clearly stated rules of the game. Keeping score is not a priority within this text. Zack Hample's Watching Baseball Smarter is another excellent resource, explaining the context, lingo and strategy of baseball; however, this book does not focus on scoring plays like the one noted above.

You might want to purchase an official major league baseball or NCAA rules book. If you have access to the Internet, you can also go to sites that outline rules for major league baseball, NCAA softball, NCAA baseball, and youth softball. Some state high school associations, like Florida and Illinois, post their rules manuals online that can be downloaded, printed, and stashed in a briefcase or backpack. (The NCAA has even posted a video outlining rules changes for baseball this season.)

Still, some plays are harder to define than others. In cases like this, I usually try to delete what the play isn't or cross-reference several resources to find an answer. For example, one online resource confirmed my call, indicating the pitcher should be assessed an error since 'ordinary effort' would have led to the team getting at least one out. But what is 'ordinary effort'? Judgment plays a part in many scorekeeping calls. On this play, this player could have easily thrown out the hitter, so this definition works. Still, this website could be wrong, so I went to several others, looking for similar scenarios and additional definitions for fielder's choice and error. The Baseball Almanac defined fielder's choice:

FIELDER'S CHOICE is the act of a fielder who handles a fair grounder and, instead of throwing to first base to put out the batter runner, throws to another base in an attempt to put out a preceding runner. The term is also used by scorers
(a) to account for the advance of the batter runner who takes one or more extra bases when the fielder who handles his safe hit attempts to put out a preceding runner;
(b) to account for the advance of a runner (other than by stolen base or error) while a fielder is attempting to put out another runner; and
(c) to account for the advance of a runner made solely because of the defensive team's indifference (undefended steal). That's the same definition cited in MLB's official rules section.

By this definition, this play could not be scored a fielder's choice because the pitcher did not attempt to put out the lead runner. But could this play also be called 'indifference'? Probably not, because the team did want to get at least one out. So fielder's choice does not appear to be the correct call.

I next checked my favorite book about baseball rules, Baseball Field Guide, a book that illustrates the rules of the game like no other. The authors, Dan Formosa and Paul Hamburger, rely on illustrations and clear writing to clarify and define rules of the game, such as when a batted ball landing near home plate is fair or foul, the rules vs. the reality of where umpires will call a strike, and the 16 ways a batter is out. The 240-page book, which is about the size of a reporter's notebook, can fit nicely into any satchel or back pocket. The book is also indexed, my favorite feature of all.

The authors define fielder's choice as a play in which a fielder must choose between at least two runners -- "putting one of them out instead of the other." Since this pitcher did not attempt to put out a different runner, this definition appears to work. But my scenario is not clearly defined as an error in this book, either. Physical miscues, like dropped balls and errant throws, are typically judged as errors, not mental lapses.

So what is an error? According to MLB rule 10.12, an error is assessed when a fielder's actions assist the team at bat. Errors include misplays, wild throws, and muffs. This rules does not apply to mental errors, misjudgments and bad hops: "The official scorer shall not charge an error to a fielder who incorrectly throws to the wrong base on a play." This would probably apply to a player who intended to throw to the wrong base. Fielder's choice? Perhaps.

So why spend so much time trying to determine a call that did not affect the winner of a game? Two reasons -- one, we want to offer correct information; and, two, because researching plays like this makes us more knowledgeable about the games we cover. On deadline, we may not be able to thoroughly research plays, but we can revisit plays like this in second-day game stories, notebooks, or features. To do nothing at all is clearly an error on our part.

-30-

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