Sabathia's Goof Begs For Rule Change

added 9/1/2008 by Bob Hulsey

Congratulations to Brewers pitcher C.C. Sabathia for the one-hitter he threw Sunday at the Pittsburgh Pirates. He's been on a remarkable run for Milwaukee since the trade deadline deal sent him there from Cleveland.

In most Monday papers you will read that Sabathia tossed a one-hitter but that it ought to be a no-hitter. Sabathia misplayed a dribbler in front of the mound by Adam LaRoche that the official scorer ruled to be a single. It was the only "hit" Sabathia allowed in the game. The Brewers are appealing to the league office to have the hit changed to an error which would give Sabathia a no-hitter.

Take nothing away from Sabathia's performance. I'd love dearly to see the guy wearing an Astros uniform next season although outings like Sunday's are likely to push his asking price beyond what Houston's front office would be willing to pay. He deserves all the accolades he is receiving.

And by the end of the week, I fully expect the hit to be changed and Sabathia to be credited with the hallowed no-no for the simplest of reasons. Baseball is in the crowd-pleasing business and thousands would be pleased if the ruling was changed. At most, only two people would be happy if the ruling stood - LaRoche and the game's official scorer.

But the debate on whether or not it should be a hit or an error misses the broader question; a question that has bugged me for years. Why does baseball reward a good pitcher for being a bad fielder?

One of the foundational stats of baseball is the "earned run". An earned run differs from just a plain old run because it is supposed to measure a pitcher's culpability for the run scoring. The "earned run average" is a statistic every baseball fan knows and is often seen as the standard for comparing a pitcher's performance value.

It is, in many ways, a flawed premise but over time it is not that bad of an indicator of a pitcher's performance. However, there are a few quirks in the formula. The pitcher who walks four straight batters, for example, is charged with an earned run, even though the opposition did absolutely nothing to earn it. All they did was lay off swinging at a lot of bad pitches.

However, if a fielder commits an error during the half-inning, it may result in some or all of the runs not being earned. The thinking is that if the fielder had successfully made the play a fielder is expected to make, the pitcher would not have given up as many runs during that inning.

Yet, why let the pitcher off the hook if it was the pitcher that committed the error? How often have we seen a bad pick-off throw or a sacrifice bunt airmailed past the first baseman's head which led to a bad inning? If the pitcher made a bad throw, he is charged with an error and subsequently given carte blanche to implode the rest of the inning without an earned run being charged against him. Where's the justice in that?

In Sabathia's case, it was his own bad fielding that the Brewers now argue should be the grounds for giving him a no-hitter. The person who goofed is the guy who stands to benefit the most from having his goof officially acknowledged. Trust me, fielding averages aren't discussed at contract time but no-hitters definitely are. Maybe a no-hitter gets C.C. an extra hundred or so C-notes this offseason. Is that fair?

Of course, no pitcher intentionally screws up in the field just to preserve their earned run average or to keep a no-hitter. But Sabathia's episode illustrates that they are not above arguing for an error after the fact if it serves their own interests.

In Ken Johnson's losing no-hitter for the Houston Colt .45s in 1964, two errors were commited in that fateful ninth inning to lose the game to Cincinnati. One of those errors belonged to Ken Johnson. Would it have been more fair to score the miscue as a hit, preventing him as it were from achieving baseball glory and infamy at the same time? Had the official scorer that night done so, the game would have been a one-day story and not an established part of baseball lore.

I recall the woman who won a huge lawsuit against McDonald's after spilling hot coffee in her lap. It wasn't McDonald's that spilled the coffee. SHE spilled the coffee. A more dexterous person who fielded the coffee cup cleanly would not have been awarded millions of dollars because they didn't spill a drop. But by being a klutz, this woman became set for life. There's something just entirely wrong about that.

I think baseball should institute a rule change whereby all errors made by pitchers which lead to runs should count against their earned run average. And all fielding errors made by pitchers should be scored a hit. The rules for the other eight fielders would still apply normally. Much like with the infield fly rule, you shouldn't reward bad fielding.