Anyone from Chicago who caught any given couple of innings of the series between the Chicago White Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays knows one thing for sure: Hawk Harrelson absolves the White Sox pitching staff of all blame for the losses.
There are certainly grounds for believing that the pitchers can't be held accountable for all that went wrong on the defensive side of things for the White Sox. In Friday's opener, with no one on base and two outs in the first inning, Joe Crede committed a throwing error, allowing Scott Rolen to reach base safely and the inning to continue. The Blue Jays then proceeded to score two runs, which were the difference in the 2-0 contest.
On Saturday, with the bases loaded and two outs, Octavio Dotel induced what should have been an inning-ending fielder's choice to Joe Crede. Crede, hailed by the White-Sox faithful for being a "clutch" player, botched the ball by trying to make his next move before having it in the glove. Rod Barajas scored on the play, and the bases were still loaded when Vernon Wells followed with a two-run single.
Sunday's game featured a wrong call by the umpiring crew. With runners on second and third, and nobody out, David Eckstein grounded to Orlando Cabrera, who tagged Alex Rios's leg before throwing out Eckstein. Due to the angle the second-base umpire had on the play, he thought Rios and Cabrera merely collided and that no tag was made. Replays confirmed that Cabrera tagged Rios's leg.
This was a failure on the part of the umpiring crew as a whole, for not colluding to get the call right. After a Scott Rolen lineout should have ended the inning, the Blue Jays scored three runs with two outs.
So why blame the pitchers? After all, each of these innings would have been over had the previously mentioned mistakes not happened. One interesting statistical finding is that pitchers who give up a lot of earned runs, tend to give up a lot of unearned runs as well. While defenses and umpires can open wounds, pitchers certainly can rub salt in them.
Suppose an error is made by the shortstop with two outs, allowing the inning to continue. Now the pitcher walks three-straight batters, then gives up a grand slam, then a double, then another home run.
Is it really intelligent to absolve a pitcher of his continuing responsibility to get outs, even if the inning should have ended already? At what point should these "unearned runs" start to affect our evaluations of the pitcher's performance?
Let's take a look at each of these three games, using Baseball Prospectus's Run Expectancy Matrix.
Run expectancy is a simple concept. It's the average amount of runs that baseball teams score in the rest of an inning, given a certain situation (e.g. One out, men on second and third). For example, in 2007, the run expectancy for having the bases loaded with nobody out was 2.35 runs, while it was 0.11 for having the bases empty with two out.
We will use the 2007 data here as a close approximation of our analysis here (there's little variation from year-to-year).
In Friday's game, Crede made the throwing error on the Rolen grounder with two outs in the first inning. Had he made the play, the expected amount of runs for the Blue Jays in the first inning would have been zero. It's not possible to score when the inning is over. Instead, his error led to a situation in which there was a runner on first and two outs. This situation has a run expectancy of 0.11.
However, Buehrle made the error hurt much more than 0.11 runs, as a ground-rule double by Vernon Wells and a single by somehow-DH Shannon Stewart, yielded two runs. We can blame Crede for the 0.11 runs, but Crede was not the one who gave up the hits that put the Sox behind.
Saturday, Crede's error was far more hurtful. When Crede botched the bouncer with the bases loaded and two outs, a run scored on the play, and Dotel was left with the same situation after the play, bases loaded and two outs. Had Crede not made the error, the inning would be over for the Jays. Zero expected runs.
However, they scored one directly on the play, and still had the bases juiced with two down, which had a 0.79 run expectancy. Crede's error costed the Sox 1+ 0.79 = 1.79 runs. Vernon Wells singled on the following play, and the Blue Jays scored three instead. Dotel should be held accountable for the other 1.21 runs.
On Sunday, the situation was a little different. The umpiring crew's blown call was not the difference between ending and prolonging an inning. Had the umpires colluded and gotten it right on the Rios tag, the situation would have been a runner on third, two out (0.39 expected runs). Instead, it was runners on second and third, one out (1.44 expected runs).
It is logical, therefore, to blame the umpires for 1.44 - 0.39 = 1.05 runs. What actually happened was that Matt Stairs hit a double and Vernon Wells hit a single, leading to three Toronto runs. Contreras can be held accountable for 3 - 1.05 = 1.95 runs.
Unlike the other two situations, this was the difference in the game. It was the events following the blown call, not the blown call itself, that cost the White Sox the victory.
What should you take away from all of this? The most important thing I'm pointing out is the fallacy of the "unearned run". Why should a pitcher get a free pass for all the runs in an inning just because one of his teammates made an error? In the same way that the defense is responsible for helping pitchers when they make mistakes, so too are the pitchers responsible to the defense.
So when Hawk Harrelson says at the end of Sunday's game, "It should have been a 3-1 Sox victory if it weren't for the missed call by the umpiring crew," don't listen to him. He's attributing too much damage to one cause.