03 May 2014

Anatomy of a Scoring Decision

In the top of the eighth inning of the April 27 game between the visiting Columbus Clippers and the host Norfolk Tides, Ryan Rohlinger hit a medium-speed chopper to the left side of the infield. Norfolk's third baseman Cord Phelps broke toward the ball, and shortstop Ivan DeJesus took a looping route to the ball. DeJesus intended to field the ball while moving toward home plate so that his momentum would be making his throw shorter. DeJesus did field the ball in his glove but, unfortunately for the Tides, DeJesus and Phelps collided DeJesus dropped the ball. He was unable to pick the ball up and the batter Rohlinger reached first base safely. After a period of time, an error charged to Phelps was posted on the scoreboard; however, the post-game box score did not include the Phelps error. That's what you would have seen if you had been one of the 4,094 fans in attendance on that Sunday. It wasn't a memorable or important play; the next two Clipper batters were retired on fly balls and the game ended after another inning and a half with the same Columbus lead of 6-2. However, I was the milb.com datacaster for that game, and as such was both a witness to and a minor participant in the process of scoring that play. It's a typical example of how official scorers arrive at their decisions.

First, and indeed most obviously, this was a play about which there was some doubt. The Tides did not play the ball cleanly, and it was clear that the Tides might have retired Rohlinger if they had played it cleanly. It was also clear that Rohlinger had not hit the ball so hard, nor had he placed it so well, that he would have reached first safely even if the Tides had played the ball cleanly. On the other hand, it also wasn't obvious that the Tides would definitely retired Rohlinger had they not misplayed the ball. The call of base hit or error would be left to Mike Holtzclaw, the official scorer.

There were four questions that had to be answered: (1) Did DeJesus make an extraordinary effort to get to the ball to field it? (2) Would DeJesus have had to make an extraordinary effort to complete the play; (3) Would Phelps have been able to avoid DeJesus without extraordinary effort; and (4) Would Rohlinger have been retired had the play been continued without incident?

If Mike had determined that DeJesus had made an extraordinary effort just to get to the ball in the first place, then Rohlinger should have been credited with a base hit. However, this was a play that, while not routine, is regularly made at the AAA level by most competent shortstops. Mike saw nothing extraordinary about the play before the collision.

Similarly, had Mike determined that DeJesus would have needed an extraordinary effort to complete the play, Rohlinger should have been credited with a base hit. Again, this was not the case. DeJesus had maintained his balance; he was moving in the general direction toward which he was throwing; the ball was securely in his glove. AAA shortstops complete this play regularly.

Third, Mike had to determine whether or not Phelps' colliding with DeJesus caused him to drop the ball, and whether Phelps could have avoided colliding with DeJesus. If so, then Phelps should be charged with an error, per Section 10.12(a)(1) of the Official Baseball Rules:

The official scorer shall charge an error to a fielder who causes another fielder to misplay a ball - for example, by knocking the ball out of the other fielder's glove.

It was clear that Phelps' colliding with DeJesus caused DeJesus to drop the ball. It was less clear that Phelps could have avoided DeJesus. Phelps probably shouldn't have tried to field the ball; he had a long way to go and would not have been in a good position to make a throw had he fielded the ball. But that's irrelevant; again per section 10.12(a)(1):

The official scorer shall not score mental mistakes or misjudgments as errors ...

I was unclear whether or not Phelps could have avoided DeJesus, but Mike decided that he could have.

So now we move to question 4 - would Rohlinger have been retired had the play been made properly? The problem here is that the fielding play was made at the shortstop position while the baserunner was hustling down the first-base line, out of Mike's vision. Mike decided to review the video of the play so that he could make a better-informed judgment. However, AAA video is not nearly as sophisticated as major-league video. There is only one camera being recorded at any one time, and as expected the cameraman was focused on the fielder.

So, he asked other people in the press box for their opinion - specifically myself, the milb.com datacaster, and Ian Locke, the Norfolk Tides media relations director. Both of us had over eight years of experience watching games in an official capacity, and Mike trusts our opinions. As it happened, shortly after the collision, I had glanced at Rohlinger as he ran to first; he was less than halfway down the line. I told Mike that; after some more discussion he decided that Rohlinger would have been retired. Based on all these factors, he decided to charge Phelps with an error.

However, he realized that this would probably be a controversial decision in the eyes of both managers. Among Mike's attributes as an official scorer is that he realizes that his view from the press box isn't necessarily perfect; the view from a lower vantage (either from the dugout or the stands) is quite different. And, while managers are naturally biased - they want the calls to go in their favor - Mike has told me that with very few exceptions they are also reasonable and will accept it - even most often graciously - if he gives them a well-reasoned explanation.

While normally Mike and I will head to the parking lot together, on that Sunday he decided to wait in case a manager wanted to question the call. When that happens, before he agrees to change his call, he'll confirm with the other manager that he saw it the same way. In this case, both managers agreed that the play was a base hit. Because the decision didn't affect the earned status of any runs, calling it a hit worked to the advantage of both managers - Phelps wasn't charged with an error and Rohlinger got a base hit. Mike had no problem changing his decision - it was a close call and he was willing to accept the judgment of those who had a different view.

This is a typical example of how good official scorers make their decisions. As you can see, they try not to be overly swayed by the home team; they try not to be arbitrary, and they are concerned about making the best decision possible. I'm sure that Mike Holtzclaw hopes that Ryan Rohlinger doesn't win the International League batting title by the margin of one hit. But that's another story.

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