Stew Thornley waited before looking at his laptop.
The official scorer first wanted to make his call — hit or error — after the Twins’ Brian Dozier reached base safely following a grounder he hit to White Sox third baseman Yolmer Sanchez on June 5. Sanchez didn’t field the ball cleanly, and his throw to first was in the dirt. Thornley took into account all the aspects of the play to determine whether it would require more than “ordinary effort,” the threshold for scorers to distinguish between a hit and error, for Sanchez to make the play.
Thornley, one of three official scorers for the Twins, doesn’t hesitate to make a call even on close plays. This time, he took his time. He watched a replay in the Target Field press box on his 17-inch TV screen, which he keeps on an eight-second delay for just this purpose, and delivered his verdict: Hit.
“We treat each part of the play [catch and throw] separately and it was a 50-50 play,” Thornley said. “Each one leaned a little above 50 on the hit side for me.”
But what Thornley did next might drive baseball purists to drink, especially when somebody like the official scorer, a position that has been around almost as long as the game itself, is doing it.
Thornley peeked at his laptop for the exit velocity of Dozier’s hit — 85 mph — and jotted down “85” in his score book. He wanted to see if the data matched his eyes — and he wanted to note the exit velocity in case somebody on the White Sox later challenged the play.
Thornley recognizes what he did might be sacrilegious.
“Exit velocity is kind of a dirty word with many,” Thornley said.
Exit velocity and other analytical terms like it might be encroaching upon the job of official scorer, redefining the core of what makes their job important to the game — what makes a hit and what makes an error — and even pushing the error as a statistic further to the brink of irrelevance.
With the launch of its Statcast technology in 2015, Major League Baseball introduced a number of different terms into the baseball lexicon. Exit velocity — how hard a ball comes off the bat — and catch probability — the likelihood of a fielder catching a fly ball based on his and the ball’s speed — have become part of the vernacular.
That changed things for official scorers who, for decades, made decisions with their eyes and without computers spewing information at them.
The three Twins official scorers — Kyle Trainor, Gregg Wong (a former Pioneer Press sportswriter) and Thornley — have different viewpoints when it comes to employing Statcast information on the job. On one end there’s Wong, who describes himself as “old school” and said judging a hit or error is more nuanced than just exit velocity.
“If somebody tells me, ‘Hey that was 108 miles per hour’ — there are balls hit 110 miles per hour that are caught,” Wong said. “It depends on the type of play. If the ball is hit harder, the fielder has less time to react, but was it hit to him? One hop? Did he have to make a backhanded play on it?”
On the other end of the spectrum is Trainor, 48, an obstetrician by day. He is willing to use exit velocity to help him decide between a hit and error. He hasn’t done that yet in any games he has scored, but is prepared to look up the exit velocity on difficult plays fielders make and plot what he would rule if the batter was safe.
“It plays into the decisionmaking,” Trainor said. “If you’re on that 50-50 type of call or 45-55 type of call, I’m kind of leaning this way and I’ll realize, ‘Wow that was actually hit at 109 mph and it was a corner infielder, that’s a tough play. I can’t imagine being on the other side of that.’ That’s going to lead me.”
Thornley, 62, is between Wong and Trainor. He won’t use Statcast data to inform his decision on a hit or error, but he will make note of the exit velocity after making his call, as he did with the Dozier hit. He might use it to defend a ruling that a player might challenge later, something Thornley said he has done only once.
“I hear the arguments: rely on our eyes, make the call that you think. I agree totally with that,” Thornley said. “But I think that there are spots that this can be useful. I just ask other scorers to keep open about it. Don’t shut it all down.”
There are still issues with using it in absolute terms. While Thornley ruled the Dozier ball a hit at 85 mph, there have been times he has handed out errors on balls hit harder because of where players were positioned and how far they had to move.
“There is no magic number when using exit velocity that this is a hit and this is an error,” Thornley said. “It depends. But I think it’s worth looking at.”
Do scoring, errors still matter?
Thornley said among official scorers he and Trainor have embraced Statcast more than the norm.
Or as Wong puts it: “I’m 71 and there’s a lot of guys scoring that are older than me who are even more dinosaurs than I am. There’s no way those guys are going to be using it.”
MLB doesn’t have any guidelines when it comes to official scorers using Statcast. They are free to use or not use it at their discretion.
Traditionalists can breathe a sigh of relief when it comes to plays in the outfield. Statcast figures little in the decision of official scorers, even Trainor and Thornley, who rarely use catch probability data when awarding a hit or error on fly balls.
“I’ll see a play that was a catch probability of 20 percent and see that it was a SportsCenter type of play,” Trainor said. “How can they say that’s going to be caught 20 percent of the time? So something doesn’t fully jibe there with me yet, but that’s going to evolve, I suspect.”
To official scorers, outfield errors are more cut and dry than infield plays — was the outfielder in good position to make the play without potential interference from the wall? In that sense a player’s athletic ability can work against him. If a fast outfielder gets to a ball a slower fielder might not have — and the fast outfielder bobbles it — he still can get credited with an error.
The scorers won’t be checking Statcast data to see if the fielder should have made it over there, nor do they care as much about exit velocity on fly balls.
Similarly, a ball that falls won’t be labeled an error any time soon if the catch probability was high but the outfielder was too slow to make it in time.
“And you don’t know when did he catch the sun with his eyes, or when he turned did a bug fly in his mouth?” said Bill Matthews, an official scorer for the Tampa Bay Rays. Matthews coaches other scorers to evaluate what is and isn’t an error, and is against Statcast use in the profession.
“These are things that we don’t have an algorithm for. Rather than try to create an algorithm that covers everything with catch probability, just score the play.”
This is where using errors as an evaluation for defensive players becomes problematic in the analytics community. An infielder or outfielder can’t make an error on a ball he can’t reach because he’s too slow. If he is more athletic and gets to more batted balls, he will have more attempts in the field and more chances to make errors. Statcast and advanced data will be able to provide you with those answers, but official scorers likely won’t. The error still has a place in the game, even if it doesn’t mean what it once did.
On second thought …
Nate Jones, the pitcher on Dozier’s grounder, disagreed with Thornley that it was a hit. If Sanchez makes the play, the White Sox would have had three outs in the inning. But Jones allowed four runs after Dozier reached, and because of Thornley’s ruling, all the runs were earned. Jones challenged Thornley’s decision to MLB in an attempt to make those runs unearned and lower his ERA, which stood at 4.01. Thornley said he did not cite the exit velocity of the ground ball in his defense of the call.
Jones lucked out. After reviewing the play, MLB decided to assess an error on Sanchez — on his throw, not on the bobble — meaning Jones’ runs that inning went from earned to unearned. Jones’ ERA plummeted to 2.55, and that’s why official scoring and errors, flawed as they may be, still matter. They matter a great deal to pitchers when their ERAs still influence arbitration proceedings and contract negotiations, even with a myriad advanced stats available today that diminish the ERA’s power.
“I don’t know if ERA is quite as important but sometimes it’s still important and it still gets people accolades,” Twins starter Jake Odorizzi said.
Thornley said he has only had a handful of calls overturned in his 11 years on the job, and at least MLB still agreed with him that the ball was hit too hard to require a clean catch.
He may not have used the exit velocity on Dozier’s hit to make his call, but Statcast might have been working in the back of his mind, influencing his eyes.
“If anything, it helps me to understand the difficulty [in the field] a little bit more,” Thornley said. “It maybe is causing me to call a few more hits than back when I was sitting in the armchair thinking, ‘Oh, that idiot called that a hit? What’s with that?’ I’ve seen a little bit of the difficulty that there is.”
Thornley imagines there will be a day when every aspect of a play is available in real time — how Statcast might quantify the time of a bobble on a ground ball, how long it takes the fielder to go from catching the ball to throwing it and how it all affects the play. As Statcast advances, so will its relation to official scoring.
But as long as the error is around the official scorer will need to make calls. Their tools just might include more than their eyes.
“These guys are individuals out there,” Trainor said. “The ’droids aren’t out there doing the games yet.”