The Boston Red Sox have made just 41 errors this season, which is an outstanding total given that Manny Ramirez is their everyday left fielder.
By seriously upgrading their infield defense over the winter with the additions of Mike Lowell, Mark Loretta and Alex Gonzalez, the Red Sox may break the major league record for fewest errors in a season (65, by the 2003 Mariners). Does that mean they're the best-fielding team in history? Before you answer, consider the following:
Error totals have fallen steadily since 1977, dropping from an average of 143 per team to 103 last year. They've dropped by 11 per team just in the last decade. The five lowest error totals for a team have all been since 1999. American League teams are on pace to average less than 100 errors per team for the entire season.
If there was a similarly dramatic change in a batting statistic, Congress would subpoena Omar Vizquel to pee in a bottle.
What are the possible explanations for this drop? One, fielders really could be better than they were in the days of Brooks Robinson and Paul Blair, though I can't think of a compelling reason why they would be that much better. Two, fields are in better shape throughout the majors, accounting for some drop in errors. But given that bad hops generally aren't considered errors anyway, this doesn't explain that big a decrease.
We all know the most obvious cause, though. Players just aren't given errors anymore. These days, it's easier to charge a player with use of a controlled substance than an error. An official scorer is more like being a federal prosecutor. To charge an error you need a DNA swab, a release form from the player's agent and sworn testimony from six eyewitnesses that the ball did not take a bad hop or get lost in the sun, in the stadium lights or against a backdrop of attractive female fans.
This wasn't always the case. Back in the old days when players relied on big bowls of Wheaties, two packs of Chesterfield cigarettes and fistfuls of amphetamines for their training diets, errors weren't that big a deal. A player's pride might have been hurt by having a play ruled an error instead of a hit, but it didn't affect his wallet because the owner was just going to screw him come contract time anyway. That's not the case now with arbitration and free agency, where there is the perception that every error and every point off a batting average costs someone money. I'm sure Scott Boras has a formula for it somewhere in his River Styx headquarters.
Thus, when official scorers rule a play an error, someone is going to complain, whether it's the player and his manager or a team official complaining for them. You might assume that the competing interests of the two teams would cancel each other out, but this is not the case. The problem is that while someone will usually argue that a player deserved a hit on a play, few will argue that someone deserved an error unless a number of possible unearned runs are involved. It simply is not in a team's interest to argue that one of their players should have a hit taken away or be charged with an error.
I don't fault the teams, who are only looking toward their own interests. But the result is a chilling effect on the scorers that winds up steadily lowering the bar. It's to the point where only the most obvious plays are ruled an error. Essentially, the only time a player gets an error now is if a thrown ball hits the mascot in the head.
The fallout is that the error is losing relevance and meaning as a statistic. They are so sparingly charged that they no longer give much measure of a player's fielding ability, which is better gauged by range factor (assists plus putouts divided by innings) or one of the more advanced defensive metrics.
It's not too late to change direction, though. The major league offices can and should announce a new scoring crackdown. Tell all teams and scorers to hold players to a higher standard again -- they are, after all, major leaguers. It has to be leaguewide because an individual scorer who tries to raise the bar on his own will only get criticized for not being consistent with his fellow scorers.
And while they're at it, the league should also introduce some scoring changes/reminders to more accurately record what happens.
There is a tendency not to charge a fielder with an error if he doesn't touch the ball. Sorry, but if a routine popup drops next to an infielder, that's an error, even if his fingerprints aren't on the ball. If the ball drops between several players and it's hard to determine who was at fault, that's all right. Create a new error: the team error, to apply in such situations, as well as others. For instance: An outfielder makes a perfect one-hop throw to third base but the ball hits the runner in the back and bounces to the dugout, allowing the man to score? That's almost always an error on the outfielder, but no longer. That's a team error.
Players need not worry if their error totals rise. For one thing, everyone will be in the same boat. For another, it's no big deal because errors are part of the game. Or at least, they should be.
BOX SCORE LINE OF THE WEEK
Mariano Rivera earned a save with a five-run lead while Greg Maddux threw six innings of no-hit ball before being forced out due to a lengthy rain delay. Nice efforts, but they can't beat Jake Westbrook's performance Thursday. The Cleveland pitcher allowed 15 hits -- and still won. That's right. Westbrook threw a 15-hitter and beat Boston 7-6. His line:
8 IP, 15 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 1 K.
Westbrook is the first pitcher since John Dopson in 1988 to allow 15 hits in a game and win
TELL YOUR STATISTICS TO SHUT UP
Twins starter Francisco Liriano has allowed almost as many earned runs in Detroit (nine) as he has in Minnesota (11). When the season ends, the Mariners can only blame themselves when they finish out of first place. Seattle beat Oakland the first meeting this season and has lost 12 in a row since. If the Mariners had won just four of those 12 games, they would be in first place.