Baseball statistics are not price tags.
If a price tag says the jacket you’re holding costs $50 plus tax, you will be charged $50 plus tax.
If a baseball player has three home runs, has he hit three baseballs over an outfield wall?
Well, sometimes. Dodgers rookie Zach McKinstry has hit three home runs this season. One of them bounced around the left field corner just long enough for him to round the bases at Coors Field on April 3. Babe Ruth famously hit 714 home runs, but historians credit him with 10 that landed short of the fence. Even the most famous statistics in baseball history require more than a glance to understand.
Inside-the-park home runs have been around as long as the game itself. We accept them as a feature of the way baseball games are scored, not a bug. We even have a name for them. This story isn’t about inside-the-park home runs, but they are a useful counterpoint to the bombardment of statistical oddities of 2020 and 2021.
By now you know what’s different. All doubleheaders consist of two seven-inning games. Extra innings begin with a runner on second base. The designated hitter rule did not return to the National League this season after a one-year trial run.
Each of these pandemic-era rules came with unwanted side effects. Most are bad for record-keeping and not much else. Sometimes they announce themselves loudly, like when Madison Bumgarner threw a complete game shutout, did not allow a hit, and got the baseball world in a tizzy over whether or not he threw a “no-hitter” because it occurred in a seven-inning doubleheader.
Other times, the consequences have been more subtle.
Take pitchers hitting. It isn’t often pretty, but pitchers contributed 24 home runs and a .128 batting average in 2019. This year they’re on pace to hit seven home runs and bat .103. A small shift toward total incompetence doesn’t command attention on a nightly basis, but it makes sense. Pitchers didn’t bat often to begin with, then they weren’t allowed to bat at all for a year. That left even the best hitting pitchers at a disadvantage.
Record-keeping quirks can be especially cruel.
Take Dodgers pitcher Garrett Cleavinger. The rookie left-hander still hasn’t allowed a hit this season, or an earned run. Yet he was the losing pitcher Sunday against the Padres. How? Fernando Tatís Jr. began the 11th inning on second base, stole third, and scored the game-winning run on a sacrifice fly.
Randy Dobnak can sympathize. The Minnesota Twins right-hander faced only two batters on Opening Day, allowing a single and a groundout. Because he pitched the 10th inning of a road game, those two plate appearances were enough for the Brewers to walk off the Twins and hang a loss on Dobnak’s ledger.
Or how about Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jeffrey Springs’ outing against the Red Sox on April 6? He faced three batters in the 11th inning – single, flyball, lineout – and was stuck with a blown save because of the automatic-runner-on-second-base rule. The concept of a “blown save” has never meant less.
What we have, really, are two different kinds of blown saves. One is the traditional variety, the kind that goes to a closer who can’t protect his team’s lead late in a nine-inning game. The other is a hangnail on the pinky finger of an ailing planet, the kind of blown save a pitcher earns in extra innings through no fault of his own. Call it an “unblown save,” pitching’s counterpart to the “zombie runner.”
This is what happens when we apply traditional statistics to anything-but-traditional scenarios. We need more terminology, and not just for blown saves.
What about all those extra-inning runners in scoring position? Why should a team get credit for putting a runner on second base when the runner was mandated by joint agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association? We’re accustomed to the idea of “unearned runs,” but I’m not sure uRISP has the same ring to it.
For Bumgarner’s feat, some have suggested “Bum-gar-no-no” to designate his performance. We might not need a term for it. Of course, if you believe his seven hitless innings against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday constitutes a no-hitter, no new terminology is needed.
MLB explained on its website why it isn’t quite so simple. The league is beholden to “the tradition of a 1991 ruling by a committee led by then-Commissioner Fay Vincent that stated that in order for a pitcher to be credited with a no-hitter … any game of fewer than nine innings in which a pitcher or pitchers do not allow a hit should be considered as a ‘notable achievement’,” but not a no-hitter.
The 1991 ruling, however, followed a game in which Yankees pitcher Andy Hawkins threw eight shutout innings in Chicago without allowing a hit, but lost by virtue of two walks and three errors that led to four runs. Would that precedent hold up in the Supreme Court?
Baseball has changed its scoring criteria before, but it’s been a while. In 1887, for example, walks counted as hits. In 1918, Babe Ruth hit a ball over the fence at Fenway Park to beat Cleveland in extra innings, but he was credited with a triple because the runner who scored advanced three bases.
Just as not each of his 714 homers cleared the fence, one of the Babe’s triples did. That hit would be scored a home run today, but Ruth’s career total remains fixed in time. Tempting as it is, we can’t blame the influenza pandemic for the strange rules of 1918.
We can take a lesson from history and apply it to today: baseball statistics are not price tags. Yesterday’s triple might be today’s home run. Many of the numbers populating the back of modern baseball cards cannot be taken at face value and will require deeper inspection a century from now – and, maybe, some new terminology to bring today’s performers back from the dead.