Who are you to decide what's unearned*? Exploring a mystery

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There are three reasons I do not like the whole deal with unearned runs in baseball. Well, there are probably more than three reasons, but three come immediately to mind.

1. Earned runs are based on errors ... and errors are a shaky concept for a number of reasons.*

*Here's one example ... it's one I got into an argument about with someone over dinner the other day. A guy hits a sharp ground ball into the hole between short and third. The third baseman makes a dazzling play, diving to his left to snare the ball. He then gets to his feet ... and throws the ball away.

Is that a hit or an error? My thinking is: Hit. For a couple of reasons. One, to me it's a continuous play. My opponent in the argument said it's really two plays, the stop and the throw. Once he made the great stop, the throw was ordinary effort, so it should be an error. I disagree. A guy makes a diving stop like that, it's still very hard -- I think hard beyond what the baseball rulebook would call "ordinary effort" -- to get to your feet and make a good throw. For me, it is all part of the same play. It's like the old line about flying a plane. Lots of people can fly a plane. But not a lot of people can land it.

More significantly, to me, if we're going to have ANY consistency when it comes to errors they should be errors or hits right off the bat. That is to say, a ball is hit -- an official scorer should be able to judge that it either SHOULD be an out or it SHOULD NOT be an out. That, after all, is what errors are about. A routine ground ball hit to short -- that's an out or that's an error. A lazy fly ball hit to right -- assuming the sun it not a factor -- that's an out or that's an error.

But in the above case, the ball was ticketed for a hit right away. Only a terrific stop by the third baseman even made an out possible. Had the ball just scooted into left field or had it ticked off the tip of the third baseman's glove, or had the third baseman smothered the ball but been unable to get to his feet, it's a hit. So, I think, for consistency's sake, it's a hit when the third baseman throws the ball away too. I don't think a fielder should have the power to turn a hit into an error, just like a reliever should not have the power to create his own save situation.

2. Earned runs have numerous quirks that make little sense. Passed balls contribute to unearned runs but not wild pitches. Pitcher defensive errors contribute to unearned runs but not pitcher's pitching errors. Don't even get started on the baffling catcher's interference confusion -- a runner who reaches on catcher's interference would count as an unearned run, but he does not count as an out in the unearned run series of events. Sometimes a hitter gets an RBI on an unearned run and sometimes he doesn't. There are "team" unearned runs and "individual" unearned runs, and the two don't necessarily equal. And so on. And so on. Too many rules. Too many ways to screw up what happened.

3. This is the big one for me: The whole earned-unearned run thing is just part of the continuing effort to turn a team game into an individual game. Pitchers don't win and lose games. Pitchers don't give up runs by themselves. Pitchers don't prevent runs by themselves. But, for more than 100 years, we have lived in a statistical world where they do, where pitchers are entirely responsible for runs allowed and shutouts and hits per innings pitched ... and they cannot be held responsible if some dumb fielder botches the ball behind them.

Actually, there's a fourth reason too: Unearned runs count every bit as much as earned runs do, and yet they are difficult to find in the record. For instance, do you know what team scored the most unearned runs in 2009? I didn't ... until I started on this post. And the only way I know how to find out was to put together another convoluted spreadsheet. I'm sure there was an easier way ... anyway, I'll give you those results in a minute.

Unearned runs are vague; that probably cuts to the heart of things. Baseball statistics, in my mind, should be more specific, more precise, more inclusive of all events. We have all been conditioned to the concept of errors and, as such, we don't want to give a hitter any credit at all for reaching base when the shortstop botches a two-hop grounder ... but the simple fact is the runner DID reach base. You will say, "Yeah, but he was lucky to reach." But isn't someone who hits a busted-bat blooper just over the second baseman's head lucky to reach? Isn't someone who check swings a dribbler that stays fair lucky to reach? Isn't someone who hits a routine fly ball that gets lost in the sun lucky to reach? Errors are accounting tricks. Unearned runs are pitcher loopholes.

All that said, unearned runs are here. And they accounted for about 7.5 percent of all runs scored in 2009. That's not an insubstantial number -- it's an average of about 56 runs per team. You probably know -- or could easily figure out -- the teams that allowed the most and fewest unearned runs in 2009. They were:

The Boston number is interesting because it was pretty commonly accepted that the Red Sox defense in 2009 was awful. Boston scored minus-52 runs in John Dewan's "Total Runs Saved" statistic. Only the Kansas City Royals were worse defensively according to that statistic. But the Red Sox -- either because they had very liberal official scoring in Boston (the Sox only had 82 errors, third-fewest in the league) or because they tended to clamp down after those errors -- did not give up many unearned runs.

Here's something you probably did not know unless you've had a Primanti Brothers sandwich recently ... Pittsburgh had the fewest errors in baseball last year. A lot of good that did them.

But those numbers are from a pitching and defense side. As long as we are going to have unearned runs -- and as long as they are going to blend into the statistical record -- we should ask this question: Is there an art to SCORING unearned runs? Well, here are the most unearned runs SCORED:

And the fewest...

Not surprisingly, good teams tended to score more earned runs while bad teams tended to score fewer. Well, Seattle wasn't a bad team -- but that was a bad offense.

It's probably not too surprising that the Angels -- with the way they run the bases and the pressure they try to put on defenses -- scored the most unearned runs. In fact, good teams generally should score the most unearned runs. Nine of the Top 10 unearned runs teams had winning records. And eight of the nine teams that scored fewer than 50 unearned runs had losing record. I don't think this is reflective of anything except the obvious: Good offensive teams are more likely to take advantage of the famed "Four outs in an inning" opportunity.

Now, let's put it all together -- here are your plus-minus unearned runs in 2009. That is unearned runs scored minus unearned runs allowed:

What's there to take from this? Well, the clear takeaway is that I will often get off track when I should be doing real work. But other interesting points are:

• Seattle was actually minus-25 in unearned runs last year despite the widespread belief (one I firmly hold) that it had the best defensive team in the league and perhaps in all of baseball. This probably tells you more about the weaknesses of the unearned runs stat than anything else, but it's interesting.

• In 2008, Tampa Bay gave up only 53 unearned runs and scored 64, a plus-11. In 2009, they gave up 68 earned runs and scored 58. So Tampa Bay was 21 unearned runs better in 2008. That would be about two more wins by the pythagorean system, not really enough to make a difference in the standings, but it maybe be enough to make Tampa Bay fans feel like the 2009 Rays just felt a little looser and a little sloppier.

• The Yankees are interesting. The feeling was that they really tightened up in 2009 after an extremely sloppy 2008. But by unearned runs, the opposite is true. The Yankees were plus-25 in 2008 -- they only allowed 42 unearned runs (24 fewer than 2009) while scoring 67. One more thing that shows the general uselessness of this post.

In general, I don't think you can judge a defense or an offense based on unearned runs. Maybe people will do -- or already have done -- studies that show something useful about unearned runs. To me, I wish we would just throw them into the pile of regular old runs and forget the whole thing. Well, actually, no, I don't wish that. I still like the quirks of baseball. Anyway, if we did that -- if we got rid of errors and unearned runs and all that -- there would be less to talk about. I'm never for less to talk about.

*The headline, you probably remember, comes from my mother. After I wrote my very first baseball story for a newspaper, she called me to congratulate me. She said she liked it very much but, not knowing anything at all about baseball, she had one question. She noticed that I had written about an unearned run. And she said: "Who are you to decide what's unearned?"