A Baseball Integrity Conundrum: The Non-Hit That Is Always Called A Hit But Shouldn’t Be

In baseball, when a batter gets lucky and his pop-up or fly falls between fielders who could have easily caught it but who got mixed up, allowing the ball to drop in safely, it is scored as a hit, not an error, as long as neither fielder touched it on the way down. Sometimes this makes sense; usually it doesn’t. Then again, it also is ruled a hit if an immobile, fat outfielder can’t run down a fly ball that the average Little League could catch with ease, whereas if a faster outfielder runs over, catches the ball but drops it, it would be an error. Such are the scoring vagaries of baseball.

This particular rule of scoring drives some aficionados of the game nuts. Why should the pitcher be charged with a hit if his fielders were at fault? Why should a hitter get credit for a hit when what he did would have been an out if the fielders didn’t mess up, or the wind wasn’t blowing, or the sun didn’t get in their eyes? They are right, but a hit is what the game defines as a hit, and by practice and tradition, this has always been called one, so it is.

Except that on Friday night in Arlington, Texas, it wasn’t. Yu Darvish, the Abbott and Costello-named Texas Rangers ace, was pitching a masterpiece against the Boston Red Sox. In fact, with two outs in the 7th inning he was working on not just a no-hitter but a perfect game (no batter reaches base), either of which qualifies as a major, landmark achievement. Then Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (who would later single to break up the no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning) hit a high pop-up to shallow right field, an easy out….except that it fell, untouched, between the Rangers second baseman and the right fielder, Nelson Cruz, who could have and should have caught it. It was a terrible way for a pitcher to lose a perfect game and a no-hitter, and a collective sigh of disappointment came from the Texas crowd, only to turn to cheers when the scorer (local sportswriters are given the job of deciding hits and errors in Major League Baseball) ruled the ball an error on Cruz. The perfect game was gone—anything, even an error, mars that—but the no-hitter was alive!

What happened? An old (and stupid) baseball “unwritten” rule declares that when a serious no-hit bid is ruined, it should be always a “clean” hit—not a so-called infield hit that is a borderline error and a judgment call by the scorer. One alleged reason for the rule is to avoid making a villain out of a  player on the pitcher’s team because he failed to make a one difficult play. Another reason is the scorers, who really are amateurs at this—they are writers, with no special training—are cowards, and don’t want the responsibility of having to make a close call that robs a pitcher of a cash bonus, a week of headlines, lasting fame, and having his name in the baseball history books. The main rationalization is that everybody likes no-hitters (and the fans at the game love seeing one in person), so the scorers are pre-biased to do whatever they can to help make one happen.  No-hitters have been saved this way in the past, and it stinks, essentially. If the ball would be called a hit in a typical 8-4 game in the third inning, it should be called a hit in the seventh inning of a no-hitter in progress. Anything else harm’s the sport’s integrity, and cheapens the achievement.

Ah, but wait! say the defenders of the ruling that preserved (until the very last moment) Darvish’s game for the ages. This was a special situation!

Welcome to the Ethics Incompleteness Principle!

Scoring the catchable ball dropped untouched as a hit may not make sense, but everyone accepts the convention, and it never really changes anything material about the game, just its stats (a bit better batting average for the batter, and depending on what happens, a hit to the pitcher’s earned run average). In this unusual case, it DOES make a difference, a big one, for the pitcher, the fans, the media, the broadcast network, everyone. If Ortiz’s pop is a hit, then we are suddenly watching an 8-0 game in May that is not only meaningless, but non-competitive. If it’s an error—as everyone agrees that it should be anyway, if the rule weren’t otherwise—it’s still history in the making! In this special situation, the scorer was right to bend the rules.



The Ethics Incompleteness Principle suggests that it may be ethical in anomalous situations to ignore a law, rule or principle when it leads to unjust or unreasonable results, if another approach can be fashioned using basic ethical principles to reach an unequivocally fairer, better result, as long as it does not create a precedent that will do more damage than good. What the scorer did is not an ethical solution, under the Ethics Incompleteness Principle, or any other theory.

In baseball, Ortiz’s pop is a hit, is always a hit, is recognized a hit and called a hit. Always. Such hits fall in virtually every game; some games are full of them. For years I have heard the concept of a “team error” being assessed in such situations, but so far, it has never made its way into the rule book, so that’s not an option for this game. The lucky pop-up cannot suddenly become an error because a no-hitter is on the line—that is unethical result in multiple ways:

1. It doesn’t preserve the no-hitter. It preserves a false no-hitter, because this is a hit. If a scorer can do this with one unlucky hit, why not two, or six? If one such scoring irregularity is acceptable when there are no hits, the next one must be acceptable too. And the next.

2. It is unfair to all the pitchers whose no-hitters were not saved by a generous scorer. Yes, many of them, maybe all, were lucky too—some line drives happened to be hit right at fielders, or someone made an incredible play. Nonetheless, those aren’t hits—you couldn’t call them hits if you wanted to, because they are outs. This was a hit.

3. The scoring was, in essence, a rules change by the scorer, who does not have such authority. That unwritten rule about a “clean hit” essentially means that in a close call, give the benefit of the doubt to the guy trying to make history. I don’t like that, but it’s different from this situation—here, there is no doubt.

4. It is an illegal rules change. The argument being made by some would-be intellectuals in the sportswriting ranks is that a decision that should be right, made when making that decision matters most, can’t be wrong just because its essential wrongness has always been accepted for a hundred years. This is, to be blunt, crap. I disagree with the rule that a player has to touch a ball for it to be scored an error, but I can see the reasoning behind it. Did you know that ground rule doubles—hits  that bounce into the stands  where the outfielders can’t get them—used to be called home-runs? I can see the reasoning for that rule too, unwise as it is. But it had to be changed by the official rules committee, not a lone scorer who decided on his own one day that the batter of a ball that bounced into the stands had to stop at second base because treating a lucky bounce the same as ball hit out of the park was unfair to the pitcher.

5. The scoring fails Utilitarianism 101, because it does more bad than good. The precedent it establishes—such a ball is still a hit, unless it has to be called an error to save a no-hitter—is terrible, one that lacks all integrity, but worse, it takes the pressure off the game to change a stupid rule. Letting a bad rule rob a pitcher of a no-hitter may be unfortunate for one  pitcher, but it focuses attention on a needed fix.

In the end, as I mentioned already, Darvish missed a no-hitter anyway. Now, many around the game are saying the “error” that wasn’t but should be will be quietly changed to a hit. Now that would be consequentialism at its worst: the scorer’s call would have been a good one if Yu (not you, him, the pitcher, YuHey Abbott!!!) had finished the game without giving up another hit, but since he didn’t, the call was wrong, so it should be changed. No, no, no! The call was wrong from the moment the scorer made it. It should be changed to a hit now, because it was one.

Now, let’s fix the stupid rule.

Update: 5/14The error was quietly changed to a hit. Would that have happened if Darvish had achieved his no-hitter? Of course not.


7 thoughts on “A Baseball Integrity Conundrum: The Non-Hit That Is Always Called A Hit But Shouldn’t Be

  1. I do like the idea of a team error. A “double error,” even. I don’t like stolen bases that are not credited by rule of “indifference.” Following that horrible rule of disrespect to runners, there may as well be a rule that takes the RBI-via-sacrifice-fly away from a batter whenever the player who catches the fly ball does not hustle his throw back toward home. And a batter who enables a runner to score on a fielder’s choice should get credit for the RBI, every time. I swear I saw that recently, where the RBI was not credited. I don’t know that rule, and it’s just as well that I don’t, because it’s wrong.

    • A batter gets always gets credit for a ribbie on a fielder’s choice, but not on a double play or an error. I agree that the defensive indifference rule is dumb..I don’t know when it started, but it is relatively recently.

      • That’s what I saw: a double play that the batter hit into. A run scored. Silly me, I had always thought those runs were credited as RBIs, too. And why not? The DP is still a fielder’s choice, right? The batter still made contact and put the ball into play, right? The fielder can always try the throw to home for a tag-out, instead of trying to start the twin killing. Allowing the run to score, while getting two outs instead of one, smacks again of a degree of “indifference” that I think neglects the batter’s effect on play. I guess maybe the thinking is that the batter does not deserve credit since he enabled two outs in exchange for one run – still seems wrong to me.

        Thank you for confirming that the defensive indifference rule is relatively new. It was frying my brain to try to recollect when I was first aware of that rule, when I was sure I had never seen it invoked before. Like I said, I think that rule is disrespectful to base runners – and to pitcher-fielder combos who should work at “holding” runners, always, regardless of the overall infield defensive set-up. The notion of a “sacrifice steal” is absurd. I don’t think indifference should be rewarded statistically to the disrespect of a base runner, even if it’s a situation of the bottom of the ninth or extra inning in a tie game, with runners on first and third, and no matter how many outs; the run on third represents the winning run, and so what, if the runner on first is ignored while he steals second? It’s still a steal.

        • Yes, there is no rbi credited on a double play. An old rule of scoring, and a dumb one also. The batter isn’t responsible for whether it’s a double play or not; the fielders determine that. Still,if a player makes a great play on what looked like a sure hit up the middle, but converts it to two outs as a run scores, there’s no rbi. BUT if the batter hits a tailor made DP grounder to the shortstop, who flips to the second baseman for the force, who then botches the easy DP with a wild throw to first as the run scores from third, the batter gets an rbi—because there’s no error, since “you can’t assume a double play”—another idiotic scoring convention.

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