The Error in Baseball and the Moral Dimension to American Life

The error in baseball is a unique phenomenon in sports—a judgment of the
quality of play that makes no difference to the outcome. No other sport,
not even a close cousin like cricket, has anything like it. Records of
errors are as old as official scoring; the rulebook devotes as many
pages to the error as it does to equipment. At each of the 2,430 games played this past season, official scorers,
nestled in the press boxes, have devoted considerable intellectual
energy and an elaborate casuistry to working out which plays are errors
and which aren’t. The statistic’s sublime pointlessness is pure
baseball.

“It is, without exception, the only major statistic in sports which is a
record of what an observer thinks should have been accomplished,” Bill
James, the father of sabermetrics, wrote in his “1977 Baseball Abstract.” “It’s a moral judgment, really.” James, supremely
utilitarian, regarded the moral dimension of the error as a failing; it
didn’t capture the nuances of what had really occurred on the field. And
James was right: as a metric, the error is more or less completely
useless.

For baseball, it doesn’t just matter what events transpire but how they
transpire. Take one of the most famous errors in history—the ball
trickling through Boston Red Sox first baseman Billy Buckner’s legs in
the ninth inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, on a slow grounder
by Mookie Wilson, of the New York Mets. Had Wilson hit the ball harder or
a little to the left—if it had been registered as a hit rather than an
advance on an error—the result of the game would not have changed. But
baseball’s institutions, not just the fans, consider it essential to
record that the game wasn’t won. It was lost. A game without a record of
its errors would feel half-forgotten. Just because a statistic is
useless doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless.

To enter the world of baseball’s official rulings on the error is to
place yourself at the center of…

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