Judging the Royals

Eric Hosmer and what we don’t know

Updated: 2013-09-13T00:15:16Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

In Thursday morning’s Kansas City Star, Bob Dutton had a piece about Eric Hosmer that revealed one of the reasons for Hosmer’s early-season slump—it may have been a sore hand. The Royals first baseman said that in the first game of the season he fouled a couple balls off while batting against Chicago’s Chris Sale and "my hand ended up blowing up on me." The piece said Hosmer’s sore hand ended up robbing him of his power, but Eric kept quiet about the injury.

The Hosmer situation is a perfect example of why fans and reporters should slow down before we jump to conclusions: we don’t know everything.

Stick around baseball long enough and people might start to tell you what’s really going on behind the scenes. It may not be for public consumption, but it makes you aware of how much you don’t know. For instance; I don’t know precisely what happened to Hosmer’s hand, but if he got jammed by a pitch and bruised the base of his thumb, that hurts like hell. After it happens it hurts every time you make contact with a baseball; it feels like an electric shock shooting through your palm.

If that’s what Hosmer’s talking about—and I don’t know that it is—no wonder he kept it quiet. You don’t want every pitcher in the league to know that they should come in on your hands and try to jam you again. The Hosmer injury is just the latest in a long line of situations in which the public did not have all the important information. Here are a few real-life examples (and not all of them come from the Royals, so there’s no point in trying to guess who I’m talking about):

• A team avoids a free-agent player and later you find out the player was about to go through a nasty divorce—the team figured he’d be distracted while that was going on.

• A manager leaves his starting pitcher in way too long and later you find out the starting pitcher had been complaining that the manager had been pulling him too early. The manager figured he was losing the game anyway; why not teach that pitcher—and everyone else on the team—to shut up and let the manager do his job?

• A team avoids using a guy with good numbers in late-game, high-pressure situations and later you find out the player has a history of missing signs at crucial moments.

• A team goes after a player that doesn’t seem that desirable and later you find out the team had a coach that thought he knew how to fix the player—a guy you get cheap becomes a valuable part of a team.

• A player is not used in a game and later you find out he was banged up. The team did not want the opposition to know the player wasn’t really available—having a lefty who really isn’t going to pitch just sitting in the bullpen may keep the other team’s left-handed pinch hitter on the bench.

• Here’s one I can disclose because I’ve already written about it: Ned Yost appeared to burn up Luke Hochevar by using him for multiple innings one night and later it turned out Luke’s pregnant wife had gone into labor. Yost knew Luke wasn’t going to be around for a while and got the most out of him while he could.

Bottom line: there’s a whole bunch of stuff we don’t know about teams and the guys who play for them. This guy came in hung over, that guy is horrible in a clubhouse, this player has a learning disorder, another guy has gained weight over the winter—all kinds of stuff that affect the decisions managers and general managers have to make and, often, all kinds of stuff the public doesn’t know.

I’m not telling anybody they should stop second-guessing or having opinions and it wouldn’t do any good if I did: it’s human nature. Entire industries—sports-talk radio and political cartooning come to mind—are based on expressing opinions without having all the pertinent information.

But…

We should all be honest enough to admit we don’t know everything and if we did know everything we might hold very different opinions. If I write that something appears to have happened, that’s me admitting I don’t have all the information required to make a flat statement. Regular readers know I try to go back and find a coach or player who can fill me in. If what they tell me conflicts with what I originally thought, I’ll write that—the point of this website is baseball educate fans and that definitely includes me.

Because there’s an awful lot we don’t know.

A reader’s question

Might you consider extending your journey of understanding to official scorers?  A couple of calls in the last couple of days were at least confusing.  But maybe there is something we don't know, and might learn from a scorer.  How do they decide whether a play is an error or not?  Have standards changed over the years?  Is there an organized effort for consistency across MLB?  How are scorers selected?  What kind of training?

My response

I tracked down official scorer Max Utsler and here’s what he had to say:

When it comes to errors the rule book is pretty clear: could or should the defensive player been able to handle the ball with "ordinary effort"? Max then admitted that defining "ordinary effort" isn’t easy.

Ordinary effort in the big leagues is entirely different than ordinary effort in high school. You shouldn’t expect a high school kid to handle a screaming short-hop rocket at his feet, but most of the time a big-leaguer will make that play. So you have to decide how you’ll define ordinary effort, but the rule book also says the benefit of the doubt should go to the hitter. So if you have some doubt, call it a hit. That gets all the scorekeepers leaning the same way and that’s what baseball asks of its umpires as well; however you call it, at least be consistent.

And part of being consistent means a scorekeeper can’t give an error for a mental mistake: earlier in the season Eric Hosmer caught a ball and assumed Jeremy Guthrie would cover the bag. Hosmer started to flip the ball to Guthrie, but Guthrie had assumed Hosmer would tag the bag himself. At the last second Hosmer tried to tag the bag, but the runner beat him to it—no error. It was a mental mistake.

Another rule of thumb Max might use to determine an error is how far the infielder had to go to get the ball. If the infielder was playing back and had to go as far as the infield grass to make the play, that’s an indication that it was a very tough play to make and might not be an error. Or if a guy was playing in on the grass and had a shot hit at him, that’s more likely to be a hit than the same ball hit at a guy playing back. Here’s another one; if a player thinks he doesn’t have time to glove a ball and tries to make the play bare-handed that will probably not be scored an error, no matter how the play turns out. You also can’t score an error for a guy getting a bad jump or taking a bad route.

Each team has three scorekeepers. There’s a yearly training session for scorekeepers and each club sends at least one representative who then comes back and tells the other guys what he or she (I’m assuming there’s a female scorekeeper out there somewhere—women couldn’t screw things up any worse than the guys have) has learned. The sessions deal with different issues a scorekeeper has to confront: passed balls, defensive indifference and so on. When there’s an issue over a scoring decision and a club protests a call, it goes up the chain and Joe Torre is the final arbiter.

In the last session Joe apparently showed some appealed decisions, went around the room and asked scorekeepers what they thought. There was a lot of disagreement; there’s more gray area in scorekeeping than Max expected. But knowing it’s not cut-and-dried provides a comfort zone: someone is going to disagree no matter what you do. (Kind of like having a baseball web site.)

Max said if you score something a hit the only person that gets mad is the pitcher and he has a second chance: if the runner doesn’t score, it doesn’t hurt his ERA. It does hurt his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), but he at least has a chance to do something about a scoring decision (in some cases, but not all). Prevent the run from scoring and your numbers stay pretty much the same. (I’m not sure I agree with this, but it’s interesting to hear a scorekeeper’s point of view.) The pitcher has a chance to work around a scoring decision, a batter or fielder can’t do much about it.

Max had done some work for MLB.com and was asked by a Royals front office guy if he would be interested in becoming an official scorekeeper and Max said yes. That put him on a list and it took three years to get a call. Once his name came up, Max had to fill out a resume and be checked out. After being selected Max studied the rule book and sat next to an experience scorekeeper for eight games, watching how things were done.

Max concluded that scorekeeping was a lot like journalism—which he’s taught at KU for 29 years—you’re almost always working in subjectives and you’re never 100 percent sure you have the story right. You just have to live with that. And, no surprise, it’s much easier to score a game at home; there’s no pressure. Here at the park, there’s an immediate reaction. Once a scorer makes a decision, he gets on a microphone and announces it to the press box. The announcement might be followed by groans of disbelief and eye rolling. Max said you have to sell the call, just like an umpire does.

Before he started scorekeeping, Max said he thought he knew this stuff—the experience has been humbling. I said it was good he was smart enough to be humble; I’d had the same experience. You think you know what’s going on, get some new information and then you know you shouldn’t be so sure of yourself. As Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle once said: in baseball, you’re either humble or about to be.

And that includes scorekeepers.

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