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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Quick Takes

In the middle of a week it's always a good time to put in a few quick takes.

  • First, there was this I received from my father-in-law. It's a story on the front of the sports page of the Chicago Tribune for Wednesday, July 1st 1959. The previous day was the infamous "2 balls in play" game between the Cubs and Cardinals.

    As related in the aricle, with Stan Musial up with one out in the fourth and the count 3-1 the pitch from Bobby Anderson got away from the catcher Sammy Taylor and bounced back towards the screen. Taylor, instead of retrieving the ball, started arguing with home plate umpire Vic Delmore over whether the pitch was actually fouled. Musial of course had trotted to first and when he noticed that neither Anderson nor Taylor was seemed interested in the ball, he took off for second. In the meantime Alvin Dark, playing third, raced for the ball which was picked up by the bat boy. Dark intercepted the ball however as the bat boy was tossing it to the field announcer. About this same time Anderson was given a new ball by Delmore and when he saw Musial almost at second, he threw to to second as did Dark. Luckily for the Cubs Anderson's throw sailed well over the bag and Musial, seeing this rounded the bag while Dark's throw was a one hopper that Ernie Banks, covering from short, caught and used to apply the tag to Musial for the out. The Cardinals of course argued and ultimately played the game under protest. The Retrosheet game log desscribed it thusly:

    CARDINALS 4TH: Cimoli grounded out (shortstop to first); Musial walked; The fourth ball to Musial rolled to the stands. Dark chased it down and threw to secondbase to Banks who tagged Musial.Meanwhile umpire Delmore at the plate handed a new ball to Sammy Taylor who threw it into CF as Musial continued to third. After a long argument the umps decided the original ball was in play and that Musial was out. The Cardinals then played the game under protest; H. Smith singled to shortstop; Gray struck out; 0 R, 1 H, 0 E, 1 LOB. Cardinals 2, Cubs 1.

  • What I found even more interesting however was a second article on the front page titled "That Was a No Hitter Sobs Jones" that describes the one-hitter he threw the night before against the Giants in a 2-0 Dodgers win.

    What was most interesting was this excerpt:

    "Puffing compulsuively on a cigarette and with tears streaming down his face, he brushed aside the hand of the official scorer Charlie Park of the Los Angeles Mirror-News, when the baseball writer tried to explain why he called Jim Gilliam's roller to short in the eighth a hit."

    "'I don't think it was a hit whatever you may have called it,' sobbed Jones as he literally pushed aside Park....Park said he called the ball, which went to shortstop Andre Rogers, a hit because he thought the fleet Gilliam would have beaten it out even on a perfect play. Park said: 'I'm sorry Sam, but if I had to call it again I'd have called it a hit'"

    As I mentioned in a column a few weeks back on scorers, the practice of having reporters act as scorers was stopped in 1980 and in this case it seems pretty clear that Park, in trying also to write a story about the game, has a bit of a conflict on his hands if he wants to maintain a good relationship with the players. One wonders whether Park is saying that on second thought in his judgement it really was a hit or if under the circumstances he would call it an error to preserve the no-hitter.

    This story raises the question of just when it was determined that scoring decisions could be changed up to 24 hours after the game. In this case it looks as if the decision was final.

    This also gives us the opportunity to mention a recent study published in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports called Baseball Errors by David Kalist and Stephen Spurr. This paper was also briefly reviewed by Phil Birnbaum on his sabermetric research blog. Although they also investigate the issue of scorer bias, the authors find not surprisingly, that the error rate per game has steadily decreased over time likely owing to better equipment and better field conditions (they also considered rule changes in 1955 and 1967 related to slow handling and mental mistakes but didn't consider them relevant) and also that the error rate is statistically significantly higher in the National League than the American League. This they assumed could be attributed to speedier players in the NL historically that force fielders to rush their throws etc. resulting in more errors. That didn't turn out to be the case when they used stolen bases per game as a proxy for steals and so instead chalk it up to "lower standards" by official scorers in the AL, a conclusion that to me anyway seems implausible. Of course, off the top of the my head I can't think of a better reason and would have at first thought that the DH in the AL meant that the NL had fewer quality fielders as older players (Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza) are forced into the field. However, their study of rates both before and after the introduction of the DH indicates that this is not the case.

    When they then analyzed the data for bias they also found that error rates are significantly (statistically) higher in March and April and then settle down and that an opposing team's speed is also significant although again it doesn't explain the differences between the leagues. Finally, they did in fact find some evidence for home team bias but that the effect has declined since 1976 and attribute this to the removal of reporters from the position of official scorer and the advent of arbitration and free agency which has increased the stakes for the players.

    Now it seems to me that this analysis, as the authors admit, doesn't really tell us much in regards to scorer bias since if there is bias it would typically result in fewer errors called on the visiting team (since the scorer would be more likely to award hits to the home team and the opposing forces of not attributing errors to home team fielders and not wishing to charge a home team pitcher with earned runs would to some extent cancel each other out). Unfortunately, it's probably also the case that players field better at home and so it would be difficult with this methodology to determine which factor has more potency.

    For my money a more fruitful approach is to look at individual scorers assuming you have enough data since it's likely that if there is bias it will be much easier to spot in individuals than in the entire group. The data I showed in my column is a first attempt this.
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