A few weeks after Major League Baseball announced a series of surface-level rule changes aimed at improving pace of play, Minor League Baseball has announced that it’ll start experimenting with something more significant. During extra-inning games this season, a runner will automatically be placed on second base to start each inning after the ninth. (If this sounds familiar, it’s similar to what the World Baseball Classic used last year.) Ideally, this would speed up extra-inning games and pump in some excitement; practically, it seems like it’ll lead to an awful lot of sac bunts.
The most interesting part of this does not strike me as when the format will come to the big leagues or how it might look there, or what putting a guy on second does for run expectancy, or what this means for baseball on a spiritual level. The most interesting part of this is what it is, technically and logistically. From the official announcement, emphasis mine:
For purposes of calculating earned runs under Rule 9.16, the runner who begins an inning on second base pursuant to this rule shall be deemed to be a runner who has reached second base because of a fielding error, but no error shall be charged to the opposing team or to any player.
An error is specifically defined in the Official Baseball Rules; a fielding error, even more specifically. But you’re apparently supposed to ignore those definitions here, because the above sentence certainly seems to. An error is a statistic charged against a fielder—that’s the start of the rulebook’s explanation, emphasis again mine—but here no statistic is kept and no fielder is charged, because here there is no error. It’s one (logical!) thing for the rule to explain that these runs are unearned. It’s very much another to elaborate on that by claiming the reason for those unearned runs is a specific phantom play that didn’t even have the chance to happen. Yet while saying that the runner reached second on a fielding error feels weird and forced and simply wrong, so, too, does saying that he reached for no reason at all. The record of who reaches base, and who doesn’t, and how—that’s everything baseball is, the bones of every box score and recap and statistic. There are only so many ways that a runner can get on base, and there’s no space in baseball’s framework for just because. Baseball can create that space; if baseball wants this rule, I’d say that it has to. “Reached second on commissioner’s choice,” maybe, or whatever. But that space doesn’t exist yet, and so this is what happens instead: ghost errors, the orphan children of a rule forced into a game that isn’t quite built to hold it.
That’s what the rulebook gives you on this. What about the scorecard? How do you score a situation with a man suddenly on second, courtesy of an error that can’t be attributed to anyone in particular? The exact strategy and style of scoring is always highly personalized, sure, but the foundation of the whole thing is still pretty constant. Everyone’s modifying and adding onto the same basic structures. So what’s the best move when that basic structure hasn’t yet been built?
Stew Thornley, chair of the Society of American Baseball Research’s official scoring committee, considered the question while working as an official scorer during the 2017 World Baseball Classic. (The rules were a little different there—runners on first and second, not just second; beginning only in the 11th inning, not the 10th—but the general idea was the same.) The extra-innings format wasn’t triggered during Thornley’s scoring assignment, but it came close enough. The Venezuela-Italy game was tight, and it got him thinking. If Venezuela hadn’t scored three runs in the ninth to win, and if the evening had needed an 11th inning, with Carlos Gonzalez placed on second to begin and Rougned Odor on first, what would he have done?
“In my scoresheet I would have drawn in the lines the same as I would for a double for CarGo, showing him at second; same thing with one line to show a runner at first for Odor,” Thornley said. “I’m not sure how I would have coded a designation for how they got there—maybe an ‘x.’ Either player scoring would be credited with a run scored.”
The WBC’s manual explained that if the two starting runners scored, those runs would be unearned, he said, much like in the new MiLB rule. The runners were to be treated as if they had reached on an error, though, not quite as if there had actually been an error.
“The ‘placed’ runners, if they scored, would be unearned—even though there were no errors,” Thornley said. “Their placement and status as unearned would not affect the number of outs, so that would not be relevant in reconstructing an inning as we do when runs score in innings with an error.”
It’s fair to say that it’s stupidly persnickety to question all this; minor rulebook technicalities and scorekeeping strategies don’t mean too much to fans or players or managers on ordinary plays, let alone specialty ones. But to see how this rule fits, or doesn’t fit, into baseball’s most fundamental structures—the rulebook, the scorecard—is to get a sense of how it fits, or doesn’t fit, baseball.