Last Updated on April 14, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
What is an error in baseball? To an extent, it is a judgment call, but generally speaking, it is when a fielder makes a misplay on a routine play that allows an opposing player to reach base when they normally would have been out, in the judgment of the official scorer. The counts of runs, hits, and errors by each team are three standard numbers displayed on the scoreboard throughout the game
Some examples include a tagging error, where a player catches the ball but misses a tag for an out, a dropped fly ball, or a fumble. But when a ball takes an unnatural bounce or is out of reach, it is generally not an error. A player is also not charged with an error if they drop or fail to catch a foul fly, since it doesn’t allow a runner to reach base.
What constitutes an error in baseball?
The simplest cases of an error are when a player fails to catch a ball off the bat of a batter or a thrown ball that they should have. That in itself is subjective, but if a player catches a ball but then drops it, that’s usually a pretty clear-cut case. If the ball gets past them, they never make contact with it, and it would have taken more than ordinary effort to reach it, that’s not an error according to baseball rules.
The Buckner error in the 1986 World Series
Let’s break down one of the best-known errors in history, Bill Buckner’s error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Mets batter Mookie Wilson hit a fairly routine grounder to first base. Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner rushed the play and the ball went between his legs, allowing Mets baserunner Ray Knight to score the winning run from third base. Since the ball came into contact with Buckner’s glove, it was clearly an error.
Now let’s take a hypothetical. What if the ball went between his legs without Buckner making contact? Then it would have been a judgment call. But I think he still gets charged with an error in that case because that’s a play Buckner normally would have made, and it only required ordinary effort from him. With the fleet-footed Wilson charging hard down the line and Buckner slowed by leg injuries, it’s understandable why Buckner didn’t take a knee when fielding the ball like our Little League coaches told all of us to do. If Buckner had kept his eye on the ball a split second longer, he would have fielded it cleanly.
Now let’s take another hypothetical. What if Buckner fielded the ball cleanly but didn’t beat Wilson to the bag? Then it wouldn’t have been an error, but the Red Sox still would have lost the game. This is why even Mets players said the media and Red Sox fans unfairly chastised Buckner for the play.
Straightforward cases of errors in baseball
Another straightforward case is a throwing error. In that instance, a player makes a throw that allows an opposing runner to reach base or advance a base because the throw caused the other player to come off the base, or the other player couldn’t catch it at all.
Some cases aren’t as clear cut. If an infielder dives for a ball that’s out of reach and makes contact with the ball but fails to catch it, the official scorer may choose not to rule it an error. After all, if the infielder had just run for the ball without diving, they wouldn’t have made any contact with the ball whatsoever, and wouldn’t have had an error charged against them. Since the contact came as a result of making an extraordinary effort, the scorer may opt to rule the play a hit, not an error.
A stolen base, where the throw was on or near the mark but late, is not an error. Neither is a sacrifice fly, where a fly ball is hit and the runner advances or scores after the catch.
When a bad play isn’t an error in baseball
Not all bad plays are necessarily errors. In the 2015 American League playoffs, Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista made a bad throw but couldn’t be charged with an error. Kansas City scouts noticed Bautista had a tendency to always throw to the shortstop on balls hit down the line with a runner on first base.
So when Eric Hosmer hit a drive into the right field corner with Lorenzo Cain on base, third base coach Mike Jirschele sent Cain home all the way from first base. Bautista made a good throw to shortstop, but he really needed to throw to the second baseman. Nobody dropped a ball, and there was no wild throw, so there was no error. But there was also no question that if Bautista had been paying attention, he could have thrown the ball a different direction, and Cain either would have had to stop at third or would have been out at home plate.
A similar play that was an error
Contrast that with a play that happened about a week later in the World Series. With Eric Hosmer on third base this time, Salvador Perez hit a ground ball to third. Mets third baseman David Wright looked at Hosmer, then threw to first base for a routine out as Hosmer took off for the plate. Mets first baseman Lucas Duda made a wild throw wide of the plate and Hosmer scored. This was an error because the catcher didn’t catch the throw, and would have had to vacate the play at home plate to make the catch. If his throw had been close enough to the mark for the catcher to catch it and still cover the plate, it wouldn’t have been an error, even if the throw had been late. But it’s also likely a good throw would have nabbed Hosmer.
Hosmer had no business running, except the Royals’ scouts had observed injuries had taken their toll on Wright’s throwing strength and accuracy, and that Duda had trouble making throws to other bases. So in that situation with anyone but their two slowest runners on third base and Wright having to make a throw to Duda, the Royals were going to send the runner and try to induce an error.
Who makes the decision to charge a baseball player with an error?
In major league baseball, the home team designates an official scorer. This person makes the call whether to rule a play a hit or an error. The announcer will say over the public address system how the official scorer ruled a play. There are times when the official scorer will change their mind.
It is also possible for the official scorer to make questionable calls, just like an umpire sometimes does. On a call that could go either way, players who have reputations as good defenders may not be charged with an error but players with a reputation as mediocre or poor defenders in the same circumstance will get the error. Sometimes this leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
An error does not help a player’s batting average, and a run scored on an error does not count as an earned run and doesn’t inflate their earned run average (ERA). Sometimes ruling a play a hit vs an error will help a pitcher or a hitter, and that may affect the scorer’s judgment in some borderline calls.
Which position makes the most errors?
Shortstops make more errors than any other position, but there is a good reason. A batter hitting right handed has a natural tendency to hit the ball in the shortstop’s general vicinity. Shortstops get more balls, and more chances to make errors. Therefore, they make more errors than any other position.
Are errors a good metric for defense in baseball?
The raw number of errors a fielder makes is not a good measure of how well they play defense. Instead, traditionally the metric to measure a fielder’s prowess has been fielding percentage, which is the number of assists and putouts they made divided by the number of assists, putouts, and errors they made.
And relatively speaking, errors tend to be fairly rare. A player with a fielding percentage of .920 makes the play 92% of the time. But a fielding percentage of .920 is low enough that the player won’t play in the field regularly. That’s below the threshold of what’s generally considered an acceptable fielding percentage at any position.
But the threshold does vary from position to position. .980 is a poor fielding percentage for a first baseman, but it’s pretty good for a center fielder and would be spectacular for a third baseman. Marv Throneberry was famously inept with his glove but fielded .981 playing first base.
The other problem with fielding percentage is that a player who runs well will get closer to more balls in play, and they may make contact with a ball that a slower player wouldn’t have been able to reach. The faster player will get the error, and may end up with a lower fielding percentage. The tradeoff is worth it because the faster player will catch balls that the slower player would let drop for hits.
Advanced statistics for defenders in baseball
Defense is harder to quantify mathematically than offense, so there is less consensus on advanced statistics for fielding than there is for hitting. They also tend to be more difficult to calculate and to understand than OPS or OPS Plus. WAR does try to factor in defense and that’s one of the things that hurt Jeff Kent’s Hall of Fame case.
Errors are one of the confusing things about baseball. Ozzie Smith made 281 errors in his career, while Dave Kingman made 174 errors. Ozzie Smith is one of the greatest fielders of all time, but Dave Kingman played four positions in his career, none of them well. He made fewer errors than Smith because his managers actively tried to avoid the ball being hit in his direction. He was a good hitter, so they put him in the field where they thought he could do the least damage with his glove. So while fewer errors are better, all things being equal, it’s rare for all things to be equal.