Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Deserved But Not Earned

I'm still bothered by a game I listened to on the radio when I was a kid. Thanks to http://www.retrosheet.org/, I know that I've been upset for nearly 48 years, so isn't it about time I got this complaint off my chest?

I was 11 years old the summer of 1962, and on June 5 I spent the late evening catching games on the radio. From my second-floor bedroom in New Milford, New Jersey, I could catch more than half of the 18 major-league teams on my old Emerson radio. I stayed mainly with the Reds, who came through decently on Louisville's WHAS but even better on the Buffalo affiliate of the Reds, WKBW. I could listen to Waite Hoyt telling stories and occasionally covering the action on the field.

There are a number of things worth noting about the Reds-Cards game of June 5, 1962. For some reason, Don Zimmer batted third for the Reds, something he did in only a dozen games in his career (he drove in two runs). The losing pitcher was Dave Sisler, son of Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler. He became the losing pitcher when 41-year-old Stan Musial belted an 11th-inning home run. That completed a hefty comeback from a 9-1 deficit, a comeback partly fueled by a three-run home run by future NL President Bill White of the Cards.

However, this game was etched in my memory for something else: the worst performance ever by a relief pitcher. I feel safe in making that claim, because I've never heard of another case where a pitcher was fined (in this case, $250) simply for performing poorly. That's how bad Ray Sadecki was on that night. Sadecki wasn't a bad pitcher. In 1964 he won 20 games for the Cards, and two years later he was considered formidable enough to be traded straight-up for Orlando Cepeda. Sadecki was a 135-game winner in the majors, but on June 5, 1962, he was 21 years old and unproven.

The Reds led 4-1 in St. Louis when Sadecki entered to pitch the sixth inning. He was greeted by Reds pitcher Bob Purkey, a lifetime .110 hitter. Purkey belted a home run, the fifth of his career. Shortstop Eddie Kasko followed with a single, one of his four hits in the game. Marty Keough tried to sacrifice Kasko to second, but Sadecki bobbled the bunt and both runners were safe on the error. Zimmer slapped a ball to Sadecki, who tried for a force play but threw the ball wildly. Kasko scored and Keough raced to third on Sadecki's second straight error. How much would you have fined him at this point? A home run by the pitcher, a single, and two straight errors. Hardly anyone else on the team had touched the ball, and he was in big trouble, facing the Reds' big bopper, Frank Robinson. Robby put Sadecki out of his misery by blasting a long three-run home run. That made it 9-1 Reds, and it spelled the end of Sadecki's workday.

It bothered me that night that I kept listening as the Reds went on to lose the game 10-9 in eleven innings. But the score couldn't have bothered me much, because I didn't even remember or care who won the game until I found the box score on Retrosheet this morning. What did bother me, what stuck in my craw all these years and still bothers me, is that the official record shows that of the five runs Sadecki allowed, two were unearned.

What!?! Has a pitcher ever deserved to be charged with runs more than Sadecki? I don't think so. Five batters: two home runs, a single, and two batters safe on errors Sadecki committed. Yet he was spared two more earned runs on his record because of those errors. Runs caused by errors are deemed unearned, no other questions asked. Technically, once Sadecki pitched the ball he became a fielder, a fifth infielder, essentially becoming a separate entity from the man who just pitched the ball. So it was that stupid infielder Sadecki who committed those errors, and pitcher Sadecki wasn't responsible.

That's a crock. "Earn" is defined as meriting something for your effort. An earned run, for a pitcher, should be a run caused by his effort. If Sadecki had been charged with four wild pitches instead of two errors, the runs would've been "earned," caused by his wild throws. The fact that someone hit the ball before he made his wild throw shouldn't let him off the hook. The pitcher is responsible for retiring the hitter. This baseball basic is even more pronounced when the ball is hit to the pitcher. Except for a strikeout, this is a pitcher's most direct participation in an out. He catches the ball, he throws it, he gets the out. If he screws up, there's nobody else to blame. In Sadecki's case, he was entirely responsible for all five runs. His outing was a self-contained, albeit nightmarish unit. Five batters, five runs, no clutter left on the bases, in fact, nobody else touched the ball except on the single. It was all Sadecki, yet somehow he wasn't held responsible for all five runs.

Instead of a 5.54 ERA in 1962, Sadecki's ERA should have been 5.72 (just from this fiasco). It even jacks his career ERA from 3.78 up to 3.79. That's the result of one inning in a 2,500-inning career!

My objection is a matter of semantics. As long as we call them earned runs, they should be allotted on that basis. There's a difference between individual and team statistics, and there are frequent discrepancies due to multiple relievers in innings where errors fuel runs. In Sadecki's case, it's one thing to say that the team allowed three earned runs with the others caused by errors. But when you ask the question "who is responsible for allowing those runs?" the answer is nobody else but Sadecki. He has to bear the statistical burden for his mistakes. I'm glad his team fined him for stinking up the joint, but posterity has let him off the hook. That has been bothering me my whole life, it seems.

Here's what I want. There are several other aspects of the earned/unearned issue which bother me, but I'll save those for another time. For now, let's change the terms we use for runs when we think of a pitcher's statistical line. Total runs is clear enough, but what do we call that next column of numbers, the column currently called "earned runs"? What this actually means is "runs not caused by fielding misplays." Those misplays include errors and passed balls. Whose? It doesn't matter. If we're simply measuring how many runs would have scored if the fielders all did their jobs perfectly, the "rncbfm" column would amount to the team's total of earned runs. All we'd have to add is another column showing that pitcher's total of earned runs, which in his case would include all runs for which he is responsible by any aspect of his work from the mound.

Suppose Sadecki had kept pitching? Suppose his manager, Johnny Keane, had said, "screw it--it's 9-1, we're out of this, and I'm gonna punish the punk by leaving him out there!" Fair enough. Say that Sadecki retired the next hitter after Robinson's home run. That would make one out, and if the two errors hadn't occurred, there would be three outs. According to the rules for earned runs, any runs that ensued would also be "unearned"; technically, once that third out should have been made, no more batters should have appeared in that inning. In other words, if Sadecki got one out and then allowed five or ten or fifteen more runs, they wouldn't have put any further dents in his record.

Does that make any sense at all? Nobody but Sadecki would be responsible for extending that inning, but because of the little loophole that defines him as an infielder once the ball is pitched, he gets a total statistical reprieve. Give us a break! If you must have your stupid rule, at least don't define it as the very thing it isn't. Don't call it "unearned" when it is more blatantly earned than any other kind of run. Face it. Purkey's home run may have been wind-aided, but there was no other force of nature involved when Sadecki kicked that bunt. He kicked it; he earned it. You and I know that. Watch out, Sadecki--when I become the czar of baseball, the first thing I'm doing is adding those two earned runs to your record. There is no statute of limitations on dumb stats.


Robin said...

That issue of pitcher errors seems to come up in the majors almost daily. In some game, somewhere, the pitcher causes an error that results in fewer earned runs being credited. Just last weekend Roy Halladay threw a complete game with 1 run scored, 0 earned. The one run allowed came in an inning in which he had a throwing error. The books would show that he had a shutout since that run was then no ones fault... As a Phillies fan I like Doc just fine, but that run was his fault. He threw the ball away. That should count, I agree.

Errors introduce a number of problems, since I frequently hear on the broadcasts of games, when there is a tough play in the field and the runner is safe, the issue comes up on whether it is an error or a hit. Usually the broadcaster would say the other team needs to earn the first hit of the game, so they think it should be an error. It seems it usually comes down to the hometown scorer. Every time that comes up, I think back to a game of wiffle ball my brother and I played in the backyard where he was determined to throw a no-hitter. I won the game by quite a few runs, but everytime the ball looked like a hit, he would pick it up, bobble it, and declare it an error. I think that game ended early when I threw the bat at him. Maybe the idea of an error should just go away?

Gabriel Schechter said...

Good comment, Robin. There are a lot of issues that rob ERA of a fair amount of meaning, including, as you mention, the fickleness and home-town bias of many official scorers. I'll blog more about this at some point, but the concept of a "team error" would help correct some of the inequities. As one example, the popup that two or three fielders let land between them should be a team error, not a hit, and the pitcher shouldn't be penalized for it.