Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Chin Music: Keeping Score

With the prices of programs at Major League parks more expensive than they need to be, one aspect of fandom has gone by the wayside over the last few years, or decades: keeping score. Every once in a while you’ll hear a play-by-play man say “that was a 6-4-3 double play” but beyond that, I’m not so sure that the up and coming generation of baseball fans will ever know how to keep score of a baseball game.

Keeping score tells a story and believe it or not, tells of trends among batters and pitchers much more easily than weaving through the play-by-play you could read on an internet box score or game recap. What’s the best way to learn how to score? By trying it out. I’m sure most of you know the basics, for example, each defensive position has a number from 1 through 9. I think most people already know the number of each position and can get most of them on your own, but be sure to not get tripped up on which corner outfielder is 7 and which is 9. (7 is the left fielder.)

What experience do I have scoring? Since 2007 I have been an official scorer for the Cape Cod Baseball League, the top collegiate summer baseball league. In a sport where statistics tell so much about a player, the official scorer is how Major League scouts get wooden bat information about baseball’s top prospects without having to send a scout to every game. (For example, my scorecard above includes three top ten picks from the 2008 draft: Buster Posey, Gordon Beckham, and Jason Castro.)

Now, back to the basics of scoring. You have you groundball outs, which include an assist and a put out. For example a grounder to third would be transcribed as “5-3.” You have your fly ball outs, which depending on how specific you want to get can be transcribed as “8” meaning the center fielder made the put out, or “F8” for a fly ball to center field, or “L8” for a line out to center field. You have your strikeouts, frontward K for swinging and backwards K for looking. You can have bizarre plays, like a pickle, where every assist needs to be transcribed. For example, for a player who takes off too early for second and is caught stealing by the pitcher before throwing a pitch: “1-3-6-1-4-3-6” with the shortstop finally getting the put out. (It would also go down as “CS” for caught stealing since the runner did take off for second.)

One of the toughest decisions for scoring, particularly for the official scorer, whose call it is, is deciding whether a play is a hit or an error. The basic rule is whether or not ordinary effort would have retired the batter, and that is a judgment call by the scorer that really depends on the level of play. This judgment call is not taken lightly, especially at higher levels where players, coaches, or managers demand explanations or request changes in scoring decisions, sometimes rightly, but inquiries are oftentimes ridiculous.

There are a few things to remember when it comes to scoring a play as an error. One is that you can never assume a double play. There are only two was to give an error on the second half of a double play (that is, after one put out is already complete). Those are if the first baseman muffs (drops) the ball on a clear putout of the second runner, or if the second basemen/shortstop (whoever’s making the second throw) throws the ball away and allows the runner to advance a base that he otherwise would not have. Also, wild pitches and pass balls are not recorded as errors, but pass balls do play a part in the making of an unearned run. How do you calculate unearned runs? It requires restructuring the inning without errors (even those by a pitcher, who can commit an error and the run is still unearned) and pass balls. Examples work best:

There’s one out and no one on. A batter reaches on fielding error. The next batter walks. It’s first and second with one out when the following batter hits a home run. The pitcher then retires the side on the following two batters. How many of the runs scored in that inning are earned?

Now let’s look at similar situation. There’s one out and no one on. A batter reaches on a fielding error. The next batter walks. It’s first and second with one out when the following batter strikes out. The batter after him hits a home run. The pitcher then retires the side. How many of the runs scored are earned?

The answer to the first question is two of the runs are earned. The batter who reached on an error can never be an earned run, no matter what. Had he been retired as he should have, there would have been two outs when the home run was hit. It would have been a two run home run after the walk, so there two earned runs.

In the second scenario, none of the runs are earned. The batter who reached on the error would have been the second out. The next batter would have walked with two outs, but the following batter, the strike out victim, would have been the third out. The batter who hit the home run would have never come to the plate and no runs would have scored. See how that works?

There are always fun and bizarre plays that happen during baseball games. For example, in 2007 I scored a game where current Rockies farmhand Christian Friedrich struck out ten batters in three innings. A wild pitch on a swinging strike three allowed one strikeout victim to reach first base. Despite not recording an out on the play, it still goes down as a strikeout for Friedrich. That allowed him to have four strikeouts in an inning, and ten through three innings.

In another scenario, I had a batter get an RBI and score a run in his first at bat of a game, but he was still considered 0-1 on the day after the play. With a runner on third and no one out, a batter hit a groundball to third base. With the infield at normal depth, the run was conceded, but the third baseman threw the ball over the first basemen’s head and down the right field line. The runner from third scored, as he would have even if the batter had been thrown out. With the ball halfway down the right field, the batter advanced to second. The right fielder picked up the ball and attempted to throw out the batter at second, with his errant, and late, throw ending up down the left field line. The batter ended up scoring while the ball was down the left field line. In what amounted to a little league style play among college players ended with the batter getting an RBI (he would have had he been thrown out at first), scoring a run, and technically is 0-1 since he should have been put out. He essentially scored on two two-base errors, one by the third baseman, the other by the right fielder.

An even more bizarre scenario too place when I was scoring a game in 2008. With Team A at the plate and two outs and a runner on third, in a 3-1 count, the runner on third took off for home. The pitch was outside to the left handed batter, landing right in the path of the oncoming runner, who was tagged out to end the inning. The following inning the same batter from Team A, who happened to be one of the team’s top hitters, was in the on deck circle waiting to lead off the inning. The team was about to bat out of order, much like how Michael Bourn batted out of order for the Astros last month. But it’s not the scorer’s duty to point this out to anyone, it’s up to the opposing team (Team B) to point it out so that the proper penalty (the batter who bats in the wrong spot is called out).

But why was this batter about to bat out of order when he was at the plate when the previous inning ended? Because technically he wasn’t the batter when the runner stealing home was tagged out. The pitch was outside, ball four, the batter had walked, but because his teammate was tagged out a millisecond later, the walk didn’t register with everyone. The manager from Team B noticed that the batter was coming back to the plate the next inning and said something before he stepped to the plate. An argument ensued between the two managers and the umpire over the count at the time of the last pitch of the previous inning. The umpire had 3-1, I had 3-1, it was pretty clear cut. It just so happens that Team A ended up better off because they didn’t bat out of order and have an out recorded no matter the outcome, while Team B should have waited until after the at bat to say anything.

So there it is, the basic primer for scoring with a few fun examples thrown in. Now go get a scorecard, or get a ruler and pencil and make your own, and give it a shot tonight with your favorite MLB team. For everything that I didn’t cover, like substitutions and how to show how runners advance, check out The Baseball Scorecard.

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Marc Edelman said...


I loved this article and am going to pass it around to some friends that are not yet part of the Internet world.

My first game ever was in September 1985 between the Mets and the Pirates, and my dad was teaching me how to score the game at the ballpark. However, in the bottom of my very first inning something funny happened. Thanks to a lot of timely hitting by the Mets including a three run home run by pitcher Dwight Gooden, the Mets ended up sending ten men to the plate. So, when Mookie Wilson came up to bat for the second time in the bottom of the first inning, there was no room for his information?

How's that for the start to scoring baseball games?

Oh, and by the way, 24 years later--I'm still not sure how exactly to resolve this kind of problem.

Brian Doyle said...


That's quite a way to start out scoring. You mention something that I meant to touch on, and it is one of the most annoying things for a scorer to deal with (to the point of inwardly cheering for the pitcher to get out of the inning before the tenth batter).

There's really only one way to deal with it, and that's to continue scoring the inning in the next column while pushing each of the following innings over a column on your scorecard. Just cross out and relabel the innings at the top. It's not the most aesthetically pleasing thing, but you can see an example of it here in the 6th inning. (Hopefully your score sheet already has a column or two set aside for extra innings.)

It's funny, on the ninth batter of the inning I hope he makes the third out. But if there's a tenth batter, I prefer for him to get on base so that I'm not pushing all of my inning columns over for the sake of one batter.

Chris said...

How do you feel when the broadcaster gets the call before you can figure out what to rule on the play, hit or error? Or have you ever got mad at a broadcaster for asking you if that was a hit or an error?

Brian Doyle said...

Generally speaking broadcasters will pull the old "we'll have to wait and see how that one's scored" which is a good way to go. Some of the unprofessional broadcasters will try to call the play on their own "surely that's a hit/error" but they often get it wrong. It doesn't bother me, they're the ones who end up sounding foolish. I have also occasionally seen broadcasters take off their headset to ask me for my decision followed by them letting me know how much they disagree in some sort of spastic fashion. All in all it's entertaining.

Will Bussiere said...

Had this one in a high school game a few years back, though it happens in a major league outfield at least once a year.

Shallow fly ball over the second baseman's head. He goes back to catch it, waving off the right fielder who nevertheless comes close as a backup. The 2B gets twisted around at the last second and flails at the ball, just barely tipping it with the webbing of his glove. Still charging, the right fielder lunges and makes the catch off the rebound.

Score it a flyout with an assist, 4-to-9.

Looking forward to volume 2, when you delve into team unearned runs.