Posted October 26, 2013

Sloppy defense has been early story of World Series

Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, World Series
Jon Jay, Cardinals

A throwing error by Craig Breslow allowed the Cardinals to score what proved to be the winning run in Game 2. (Michael Ivins/Getty Images)

The 2013 World Series is only two games old, but one overriding theme thus far has been sloppy defense. The Red Sox and Cardinals have combined to make seven errors, a total that doesn’t include at least one misplay that exacerbated things even further. Five of the 15 runs scored have been unearned, with the turning points of each game involving critical mistakes in the field. Can’t anyone here play this game? Will the sloppiness continue in St. Louis? And, more to the point: Are we witnessing historically bad baseball?

Given that these are baseball’s two best teams by both won-loss record and run differential — which hasn’t happened since 1979 (Pirates versus Orioles) — it’s reasonable to expect that we might see crisply played games. From a simplistic standpoint, the Cardinals tied with the Diamondbacks for the fewest errors in the National League with 75 while the Red Sox were fifth in the American League with 80. St. Louis ranked third in the NL in Unearned Run Average, the rate of unearned runs allowed per nine innings, at 0.25; Boston was fifth in the AL at 0.27.

The advanced metrics tell the story of two teams that were less adept afield. The Red Sox were 11 runs above average in terms of Defensive Runs Saved (sixth in the AL), but the Cardinals were 37 runs below average (second-to-last in the NL). Boston ranked fifth in the AL with a .694 defensive efficiency, the rate at which they turned batted balls into outs, four points above the AL average, but St. Louis was in a virtual tie for 10th in the NL at .691, three points below the NL average. Via Baseball Prospectus’ Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, both teams actually ranked among the majors’ bottom seven, with the Red Sox 24th in the majors at −0.70 percent below the major league average, and the Cardinals 26th at 0.94 percent below average.

Both teams have made critical mistakes in this series. In Game 1, Boston’s three-run first inning was set up by Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma’s failure to get even a forceout on a potential inning-ending double play grounder off the bat of David Ortiz. Second baseman Matt Carpenter’s throw glanced off Kozma’s glove and dribbled away. Second base umpire Dana DeMuth — who was focused on Kozma’s footwork — initially called it a force, but the umpires huddled and reversed the call. That loaded the bases, and Mike Napoli cleared them with a double for a 3-0 lead. From an official scoring standpoint, only one of the runs was unearned, but better defense could have shut down the inning without a run scoring.

An inning later, an already struggling Adam Wainwright called off catcher Yadier Molina only to let Stephen Drew’s popup drop between them; it wasn’t scored an error because neither player touched the ball, but it was another critical mistake. The fielding follies continued in that inning as Kozma made his second error, this time on Shane Victorino’s grounder in the hole with men on first and second and one out; it would have been tough to turn two, but a forceout was a possibility. After an RBI single, Ortiz nearly hit a grand slam that Carlos Beltran brought back — the rare example of a great play so far — with an over-the-wall catch but the run that scored on the sacrifice fly was nonetheless unearned.

Fast-forward to the seventh inning, when the game was still 5-0 and St. Louis third baseman David Freese made a throwing error on a Dustin Pedroia grounder that would have been the third out; Ortiz followed with a homer, adding two more unearned runs to the total.

By the standards of the opener, Game 2 was cleaner, at least for the first six innings. In the top of the seventh, however, the Cardinals retook the lead on a play that began with Carpenter hitting a sacrifice fly to Jonny Gomes in leftfield. Gomes’ throw was late and offline, and it got by catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who was charged with the first error on the play. Backing up Salty, pitcher Craig Breslow attempted to nab Jon Jay as he advanced from second to third, but he airmailed the throw over Xander Bogaerts’ head, allowing Jay to score with what proved to be the deciding run, yet another unearned one. Carpenter went on to make an error on Jacoby Ellsbury’s grounder to lead off the eighth inning, but the Sox were unable to capitalize.

Error and unearned run totals (or rates) are less than ideal stats in general given that they hinge upon the subjective judgment of the official scorer. Still, while the totals don’t entirely capture the volume of slop, they’re useful for quick comparisons to past years, particularly when there’s no World Series DRS or PADE to fall back upon.

For errors, the Wild Card Era (1995-present) record in the World Series is 14, made during the seven-game 2011 World Series by the Rangers (eight) and Cardinals (six). Five of those errors came in the epic Game 6, a total that didn’t include leaden-gloved rightfielder Nelson Cruz’s misplay of Freese’s game-tying RBI triple with two outs in the ninth inning. Those Rangers are co-holders of the single-team record for the World Series, tied with the 1997 Marlins, 2001 Yankees, 2004 Red Sox (who not only won but swept the Cardinals) and the 2006 Tigers (who lost to St. Louis in five games). Detroit’s hurlers made five errors all by themselves, burning the phrase “Pitcher Fielding Practice” into the collective consciousness.

For the Division Play Era (1969 onward), the record for errors in a World Series is 19 in 1973, 10 by the losing Mets and nine by the victorious A’s. That series included the infamous Mike Andrews debacle, in which the Oakland second baseman made two 12th-inning errors in Game 2. A’s owner Charlie Finley then forced him to sign an affidavit declaring that he was injured and should thus be removed from the roster. The rest of the A’s, including manager Dick Williams, rallied to his, uh, defense and commissioner Bowie Kuhn disallowed the move. While Oakland went on to win its second title in a row, Williams was so disgusted with Finley that he resigned.

The single-team record for errors in the era is held by the 1982 Brewers, who made 11 over the course of their seven-game loss to the Cardinals.

Keeping things to the Wild Card Era, here’s a table of the top 10 error totals between the two teams:

Rk Year G E Winner (Tot) Loser (Tot)
1 2011 7 14 Cardinals (6) Rangers (8)
2 1997 7 13 Marlins (8) Indians (5)
3t 2006 5 12 Cardinals (4) Tigers (8)
3t 1995 6 12 Braves (6) Indians (6)
5t 2001 7 11 Diamondbacks (3) Yankees (8)
5t 2008 5 11 Phillies (6) Rays (5)
7 2002 7 10 Angels (5) Giants (5)
8t 2010 5 9 Giants (4) Rangers (5)
8t 2004 4 9 Red Sox (8) Cardinals (1)
8t 1996 6 9 Yankees (5) Braves (4)

Within that table are the era’s highs for series of every length; four games (2004), five games (2006), six games (1995) and seven games (2011). As you can see, it’s possible for a team to make far more errors than its opponents and still come out on top. It’s worth noting that the only team that didn’t make an error in the World Series, the 2007 Rockies, was swept in four games. It won’t take much for this year’s bumblers to crack the leaderboard — another two errors will do it.

As for unearned run totals, this year’s five is already among the era’s top 10. The high of 10 was set in 1997, with the Marlins and Indians each allowing five; the decisive run in Game 7 was unearned, via Cleveland second baseman Tony Fernandez’s 11th-inning error on Craig Counsell’s potential double-play grounder. The single-team high for the era was set by the 2006 Tigers, with eight. Here’s the “leaderboard”:

Rk Season G UER Winner (Tot) Loser (Tot)
1 1997 7 10 Marlins (5) Indians  (5)
2t 2006 5 9 Cardinals (1) Tigers (8)
2t 2002 7 9 Angels (5) Giants (4)
2t 2011 7 9 Cardinals (3) Rangers (6)
5 2001 7 7 Diamondbacks (0) Yankees (7)
6t 1996 6 6 Yankees (2) Braves (4)
6t 1998 4 6 Yankees (2) Padres (4)
8t 2013 2 5 Tied: Cardinals (4) Red Sox (1)
8t 2003 6 5 Marlins (1) Yankees (4)
8t 1995 6 5 Braves (3) Indians (2)

The highest percentage of unearned runs between two teams in a World Series is 27.3 percent in that 2006 series, nine out of 33 runs; at 33.3 percent, this year’s series is on pace to break that mark. At the other end of the spectrum, neither the 2007 sweep by the Red Sox nor the 2012 sweep of the Tigers by the Giants featured a single unearned run. Looked at from another standpoint, this year’s teams have the highest combined Unearned Run Average thus far:

RK Year IP UERA
1 2013 35.0 1.29
2 2006 86.0 0.94
3 1998 70.0 0.77
4 1997 127.7 0.70
5 2002 121 0.67
6 2011 125 0.65
7 1999 72 0.50
8 1996 109 0.50
9 2001 128.3 0.49
10 1995 107 0.42

Before anyone frets that baseball is sloppier than ever, it’s worth noting that this year’s postseason has featured just 0.5 errors per team per game, the third-lowest rate since 1995; the ’95 postseason, with 0.95 per game, was the highest. This year’s UERA of 0.35 is the era’s eighth-lowest, with 2004 (0.20) the lowest and 2001 (0.49) the highest.

Even so, it’s the game-turning mistakes that stand out in the annals, and unless these two teams reverse course, the 2013 World Series will be remembered for its blunders as much as its triumphs.

0 comments