JBJ and what should be baseball's 'last error'

Red Sox outfielder had 6-percent catch probability on tough play

August 16th, 2018

"You have to do something RIGHT to get an error; even if the ball is hit right at you, then you were standing in the right place to begin with."
Bill James wrote those words back in 1977, more than 40 years ago, in the first Baseball Abstract. In many ways, as Michael Lewis wrote in "Moneyball," this was the essay where James began to find his voice. In those days, the error was sacred. It was the only way anyone knew to measure a player's fielding ability. More than that, it was so obviously the right way to measure a player's fielding ability.
"How good a fielder is he?"
"Dunno. How many errors did he make last year?"
You know this already, but let's review it again. Defense in those days was considered a binary task: You either made the play or your didn't. Consider a ground ball to shortstop. If the shortstop made the play, great, good for him, someone might even give him a star in their scorebook.
If the shortstop didn't make the play though, then there was someone in the press box -- an "official scorer" -- who determined if he SHOULD have made it. The scorer used such methods as experience, gut feeling, questioning nearby viewers or, when available, watching an instant replay to make such a decision. If the play was deemed impossible or beyond a player's ordinary effort, the hit was granted.
But if the scorer determined the shortstop should have made the play, then the shortstop was charged with an error. At this point, everything sensible about baseball would be thrown out the window in order to be sure to place all the blame on the shortstop. The hitter's at-bat was recorded an out even though there was no out. His batting average went down even though he didn't make an out. If the hitter came around to score, this was not charged to the pitcher who, after all, was an innocent bystander in the whole thing. If there were two outs, than ALL runs scored after the error would not be judged to the pitcher.
The fielder would be made to answer for his blunder.
This is how it was for a century, and then Bill James (among others) looked at it and thought, "Well this is just about the dumbest thing I've ever seen."
"An error," he wrote, "is without exception, the only major statistic in sport which is a record of what an observer thinks should have been accomplished. It's a moral judgment, really."
It is a moral judgment. But the error survives. We don't take it as seriously as we once did -- most of us don't, anyway -- but we still count them, still look up to the board whenever a borderline play happens to see how it's ruled, still argue about whether a hit should have been an error or an error should have been a hit.

On Friday -- as our own David Adler tweeted, and Fangraphs discussed at length -- we saw what should have been the last error ever recorded. It won't be the last error recorded because history demands that we keep on counting and because a lot of people like the error and become of momentum and such. But it was such a clear example of the absurdity of the error concept that the weights should fall from our eyes and we should, as MLB Network's Brian Kenny so often says, just #killtheerror already.
The play involved Boston center fielder You should know this about Bradley: He's magical. That's the best word for him.
Why? Well, Bradley is one of the great outfielders in baseball. You look at Statcast™Outs Above Average, and he's tied for sixth in the league, up there in the same photo gallery with and and . Here's the big difference though: Those guys are way, way faster than Bradley.
Truth is, Bradley is not that fast. His sprint speed of 27.8 feet per second is only slightly above average; it's certainly not what you'd expect from a breathtaking center fielder. It's the same sprint speed as . Bradley this year has set his career high in steals with 12. He's not all that fast.
So if that's true, how does Bradley play such a good center field? It's because he gets the quickest jumps in baseball. And how does he do that? Well, obviously, Bradley has great instincts. But there's something else. He guesses. There's really no other way to say that. Bradley knows better than anyone that he doesn't have the sort of mind-blowing speed to run down balls, so he takes off the instant the ball hits the bat. He doesn't always take off in precisely the right direction; no outfielder in baseball takes as many indirect routes to the ball. But it's worth it. Bradley moves when the ball is hit, and he plays a terrific outfield, and he makes as many great plays as just about anybody.
Which brings us back to the play on Friday. Baltimore's smacked a line drive, and Bradley got an amazing jump on it. He reacted fast and he guessed right. Running the Statcast™ numbers, he had to travel 80 feet in 4.2 seconds. That might not mean anything to you, but this will: Statcast™ estimates that the chances of a Major League outfielder covering that much ground in that short a time is 6 percent. And yet, Bradley got there. To be honest, he got there pretty easily.
How? Well, because of Statcast™, we can go as deep into the weeds as you like. Bradley covered more than half of the distance in what our Statcast™ superhero Tom Tango calls the reaction-route-burst phases -- the reaction to the hit, the beginning of the route, and the burst of speed that he built up. Then, once he got going, he ran faster than usual (28.6 feet per second) to get after it.
In other words: Bradley made more or less the perfect play. The only possible way an outfielder could get to that ball was to do it perfectly, to get have a superior reaction, run a superior route and then run really fast. There are maybe -- MAYBE -- a handful of outfielders in the game who could have ever gotten to that ball, and none of them could have gotten there every time. It was a miraculous thing. But Bradley is so good at getting these jumps and was so right at that moment, that he made it look routine.
And then, when he got there, Bradley dropped the ball. And then he was given that error, the one that should be the last error ever.
"Should he have gotten an error?" I asked my friend and Red Sox fan and PosCast partner Michael Schur.
"It was close," he said. "I say yes, though. He was there and wasn't lunging."
"You know it was a 6 percent catch probability."
"Oh," he said. "Then maybe no."

The truth is, we see what we see in defense. We see someone make a diving play, and we think it's great even if it was a bad route or slow reaction time that forced the dive in the first place. Meanwhile, we see an amazing outfielder like Bradley or or make a running catch and we think, "Oh nice play," when very often it is actually a phenomenon, a play other outfielder would not have made. We judge how a play looks rather than how the play actually went. Even now, when you show someone the Bradley play, they cannot believe that it was incredible. He made getting there look so easy that it's hard to see the extraordinary skill it took.
This was what Bill James began writing about 40 years ago. And here we are all these years later, and a guy gets an error on a play that a Major League outfielder could not have made 94 percent of the time. Maybe we can rethink this thing.