The Death of the Unearned Run

Jo-Jo Reyes took the hill for the Toronto Blue Jays last night, facing the potent offense of the Texas Rangers. Reyes allowed 6 runs, 5 hits, and 1 walk in just two and two-thirds innings. His team battled back to but ultimately lost the game. After this ugly outing, Jo-Jo Reyes improved his ERA from 6.20 to 5.48.

Thanks to a marginal scoring decision, Jo-Jo Reyes’ ugly pitching line last night all but disappeared as the runs are classified as “unearned” due to the “error” by Edwin “Encarnacion.” The tough shot down the line he snared and fired to first earned him an error and Reyes a free pass to go strikeout-wild pitch-walk-single-double-hit by pitch-single-double-shower.

A truly miserable pitching performance from a highly dubious big league starter salvaged by an outdated model of defensive value. Luckily, knowledge is power.

An amazing article on ESPN Stats & Info today provides some invaluable insight into how modern defensive statistics work, illuminating their value and versatility in one fell swoop.

The article, written with data from Baseball Info Solutions, lays out the extraordinary nature of Brent Lillibridge’s game-saving catches in New York. No trickery, no fudged stats, nothing that might stand between a non-believer and the value of video-based analysis.

The play (see it at the 2:00 mark of this video) was a line drive hit towards the right field line. The ball was in the air – from the time it left Robinson Cano’s bat until it reached Lillibridge’s glove – for approximately 2.5 seconds, according to BIS. Since the beginning of the 2010 seasons, 61 balls were hit into this spot with that amount of hang time. Three were caught.

Had Cano hit the ball harder such that it reached the spot just a half second sooner, it would almost certainly land safely. 21 balls reached that spot in the field (a 10 foot by 10 foot zone in the outfield) in 2 seconds or less, all 21 went for hits.

This is the future. Scratch that: this is the present. No hazy interpretations as to what was or wasn’t a playable ball or what constitutes an ordinary effort and what makes a run earned or otherwise. Just the facts and the excitement.

When the Field f/x system is fully rolled out, the added bonus of fielder distance traveled will further elucidate what it means to show range. Ball was in the air for X seconds and you had to run Y meters? Excellent. Either you catch it or you don’t.

The possibilities are endless; the realities are that much more clear. Who takes the most direct routes? Who covers the most turf? Who makes the most plays with the least “effort?”

As for unearned runs, well, who cares? They still count on the scoreboard despite the fallacy of the pre-determined outcome. If we’re predicting the future based on what should have happened when defense is bad, why not do the same when defense is good?

Oh, right. There is no shortage of pitching stats which do that already. There will always be misplayed balls and great catches, guys with fall-down range and liner-gobbling glovemen. The runs are the runs, no sense trying to make arbitrary distinctions between what counts and what doesn’t.