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May 13, 2004

Breaking Balls

Keeping Score

by Derek Zumsteg

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If you've scored games for any length of time--no matter if you were in the press box or the cheap seats--you've probably had this happen to you:

  • Someone mocks you for keeping score
  • Later, the same person asks you for information off your card

Scoring leaves a personal record of the game. Done well, it's like a familiar photograph that recalls the memories of a vacation. If I ever need to know what happened in some game, I can look up the results, or even the box score. But if I want to know how it felt to watch it, that's when I dig up my score cards. The long innings stretch out on the card, my chess-style notes next to great plays and weird manager decisions to revisit later. The guy who mocks the scorer goes home after the best game he's ever seen, but a week later remembers only what he saw on SportsCenter the next morning. The scorer has a hand-drawn portrait of the game he actually watched; what he experienced.

Still, as much as I like scoring, I'm not hardcore. I score every minor league game I go to because I'm usually checking out something for the book or a column. I don't score if--just to pick a random example--I'm there on my own time and it's Thirsty Thursday, or a nice sunny day with two really bad teams. I score major-league games even less often.

I mention this because ESPN.com's introduced their stat pack, a .PDF document that you're supposed to be able to print and haul to the park for all your reference needs. Despite being .PDF (Seriously, how did this proprietary format become the defacto distribution format for everything, including government docs?) it's pretty slick, probably the coolest thing ESPN.com's done in a long time. I'm sure between writing this and press time they'll either:

  • Get rid of it
  • Fill it with ads
  • Convert it to Flash, so it takes 20 minutes to load

Here's what you get in your stat pack. Cover page: Who vs. Who, When, Giant HP logo ("Invent," it says under the logo; I guess "Self-immolate" didn't fit), "Gameday Matchup" with the anticipated starters, their batting average, home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases and OPS. I feel like a hungry dog that's been tossed a biscuit in a flavor I'm not particularly fond of. The packet also has some stats on records and how they're doing as a team: team average, team home runs, team stolen bases, team OPS, and OPS allowed. The Mariners have a .012 OPS* and a 1.800 OPS* allowed. I'm not a big fan of OPS, but uh...that's not good.

(*Not real OPS values--I'm just depressed.)

Two scorecards, one for each team. They're cramped, oriented vertically, with 10 innings. But there are also five pitcher lines (I hate the modern bullpen) which you need, and handily enough, at the bottom of the page there's a somewhat accurate team roster. Chris Snelling, for instance, is listed as a fielder though Snelling as about as likely to be healthy enough to run to left field as I am to dance the Charleston with Bud Selig. And even if Snelling did run out to left field, he'd get run over by the mascot's ATV, breaking his fibula and ending his season.

Then you get a couple of pages with detailed batting and pitching stats, including "vs. OPP SP" and "vs. OPP CLOSER" which seems a little silly. Jose Offerman is 6-14 with two homers against Eddie Guardado? I'll look forward to that matchup in the late innings. Pitching stats don't have anything like that, but do have K/9, which is cool.

The scorecard's been frustrating to me all year, though. My handwriting is pretty bad, partly because I don't care but mostly because very early on I learned to type way faster than I could write. At this point in my life my handwriting's a lost cause.

And I have some scoring peculiarities. Scoring baseball games reveals a lot about people. It's like teaching someone to drive: you're going to look deep into that person's soul and find out how they handle frustration, terror, elation, and (in either case, for me) how well they talk themselves out of trouble with the cops. For instance, I don't agree with the official scorer on occaision. Safeco Field has a particularly frugal scorer when it comes to errors; in Seattle, a fielder has to be able to easily field a ball hit directly to him, with no tricky hops, at a nice medium pace, and botch that play in a particularly obvious and undeniable way--i.e., the ball rolls to a stop at fielder's feet; fielder falls asleep on ball, trapping it while runner advances--for an error to be charged.

I'm not a big fan of the error, but it's in the rulebook: if the play can be made by an average fielder without extraordinary effort and it gets by: error. There are a lot of unearned runs on my scorecards.

Speaking of which: if that rule was strictly enforced, wouldn't we see a huge drop in batting averages and ERAs? Seriously, half the guys at any position are below average, and they should be racking up errors like crazy. Even good fielders miss routine plays sometimes when they get bad jumps: that's an error even though, overall, they're good fielders. While I'm on it: why not assume the double play? It's one thing if it's Mike Cameron coming into second--that guy must be in infielders' nightmares--but if there's plenty of time and slow runners, but the throw to first is way off, why can't we count that as an error? And you kids, get off my lawn!

The cramped boxes don't allow me to write much of that, though. It's hard enough to get hitter names in the 1/8th-inch lines provided...scoring "H(but actually E-9)" means you're headed into the next inning's notes already. So I score them like I see them, and let the record differ. I want to be able to write "*3bC used .38 revolver to shoot out Snelling's knee as Snelling rounded 3b" next to my "FC7-6-5*" note in Snelling's box.

Some people chart pitches, so they can make observations about first-pitch strikes and so forth. I don't, for two reasons: While after each batter there's a gap sufficient to allow scoring, I'm usually too immersed in what's going on with the game to stop after every pitch and score. And there's not enough space to do it well. Five boxes to check off for balls/strikes tells you what the count was when something happened, but not how the match-up progressed. Given five filled boxes there's no difference between a swing-at-two-watch-three "SSBBB" and a 15-pitch "FCFFBFFBBFFFFF" duel. Some note the pitch number in the box, but after five you're running into the box. I haven't found a way to do this effectively, though I understand the value.

I hate wasted space. Fractionally larger boxes for tracking the score are more useful to me than being able to write down the announcers' names. Who cares who the announcers are? It's not like it's the umpires, where even with John Shulock retired (to the great relief of all of us who appreciate the art and craft of the men in black) the umpire can have a huge impact on how the game plays out, even in the way they control and defuse confrontations (which, not to kick a guy when he's retired, but Shulock was awful, awful, awful at). Does it seriously matter to anyone which mouth-breathing color-man tells you that your team needs to put the game in motion, or execute on the basepaths? Plus, I'm scoring live games.

The other thing that's missing from this and almost every other scorecard are the stathead boxes. Inning summaries have runs, hits, errors, and left-on-base--the traditional inning-ending invocation of the broadcaster. But I'd rather have walks, or runners reached. I want "balls put into play." I'd like to keep track of the count, but that's a level of detail that's hard even for me to keep up.

I score games in spring training too, which is a challenge all its own: there's often incomplete roster information, poorly-announced substitutions, and duplicate numbers. One year I was down there with my brother to watch as many games as I could, scoring on whatever the programs offered, and one--at Tucson Electric Park, if I remember--actually printed the scorecard on a shiny, glossy insert. That damn thing wouldn't have taken a mark if I'd used a blowtorch. I scored freehand, which is easier than it sounds. I would have gotten my money back if I hadn't needed the rosters so badly.

And why do programs insist on squeezing the scorecard for ads? I want at least 10 innings available to me. I wouldn't sell you a car with three wheels and an ad for a DiGiorno pizza because you might not need to actually drive around in it. So what if you don't use that 10th or 11th column often? Should the official program run ads across everything after the fifth, and then if your game's not rained out in the middle, force you to write across the dead eyes of some Tommy Hilfiger model?

Which reminds me. There's another way to save space on cards, which I'll use sometimes. Instead of


                  1      2     3
Ichiro! -L   RF   GO4-3
Winn    -B   CF   FO8
Boone   -R   2B   K
Ibanez  -L   LF          K
Martinez-R   DH          HR

You can squeeze them on the card:

                  1      2     3
Ichiro! -L   RF   GO4-3        1B
Winn    -B   CF   FO8          K
Boone   -R   2B   K

(mark noting end of inning)

Ibanez  -L   LF   K
Martinez-R   DH   HR

Piece of cake. This is particularly handy if your team specializes in letting opposing teams pummel them. It's bad, though, because with cramped boxes you're writing in adjacent squares anyway, and using the "compact method" you're guaranteed to need those boxes, and then you're seriously squeezed.

I've never come to terms with how to note pitching substitutions on the hitting records, though. I've struggled with it, but there's really no easy solution that allows you to read through and know what pitcher went in where without requiring writing in the boxes and sacrificing legibility.

Which brings me to another thing--nice design. You're entering information on a card, it should be easy to know what you're doing and to read it back to yourself. I want to be able to post my scorecards on the wall and grin. The diamond should be something I can write on, and if there's space, denote hit location.

So what do I want from my scorecard?

  • Writeable surface
  • Space for two, maybe three subs, and four, five pitchers (LaRuuuussaaaaaaa!!!!)
  • Space to make notations
  • No ads would be nice
  • Horizontal rather than vertical paper
  • Nice design

There are many options for you. So far this season I've been trying out different cards I've found on the net. The best part about the free internet scorecard is that once you find one, you take it down to the local copy store ("Do we have to help you?") and have a huge chunk of them spiral bound, along with a reference sheet, cool cover photo, notes pages...instant scorebook exactly like you want it. But it's not working for me, frankly. I've burned through these things like Bill Bavasi working down his excuse sheet. (Here's the one I thought I settled on: "AO Scorecard" available here at www.baseballscorecard.com, which I highly recommend for your scoring and browsing needs). Check it out: it's a little spacious up top, but there's a spot for notes at the bottom, and if you're willing to use the margins, at far right. Six pitcher slots, plus you can write under it easily, and it looks sweet.

Eric Enders put out one that looks pretty nice, but he isn't selling them any more. Four subs per lineup position! Seven pitchers! Vertically aligned, but it's a nice, compact piece of work. Alex Reisner's "Baseball Data Graphics" has .PDF (blech) scoresheets that are pretty sweet, along with scoring system explanations, so if you want to use the Project Scoresheet system, here's your card and intro.

In addition to the Project Scoresheet there are also alternate scoring systems. Retrosheet's scoring method allows you to do entirely textual scoring, or just omit the tedious tracking of previous runners. But I like shading in the boxes when a run scores. That's me. I'm crazy like that.

Kirk MacDonald advertises online as the "Official Baseball Scorebook" (and his site is located at officialbaseballscorebook.com). Despite my annoyance at the ads--look, you're not the official scorebook--advertising as such, even if you're selling "The Official Scorebook of the Fan" (Who certified that? When do I get my endorsement money?) is at best a little shady. It's pretty nice...at first glance. Notes for the players, that's good. Only two sub spots? Hm...annoyed. Broadcast information? Grrr. Twelve innings? Rage decreasing. Game notes? Good. No umpire slot? .

It's to the point where I'd like to build one myself. Mad, you say? They called me mad at Oxford. I'll show you. I'll show you all! Wahahahahahahahahaha! Or maybe I'll just tinker with it for a couple minutes and go back to figuring out why my shower still leaks after I replaced all the washers and the plastic thing (mixer?) that controls the flow.

Scoring's good fun, even if you only do it once in a while. Spend some time trying out different cards, paying attention to what annoys them about the one they're using, and search for ones that solve those problems. Even if you don't do it every game you attend and pick your spots, you'll never know when you'll score a no-hitter and have a precious heirloom your kid can destroy. I did that to my dad a long, long time ago, and I'm still sorry. If I ever score a no-hitter, I'll give you the cards.

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Premium Article Teams: A Critical Guid... (05/12)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Breaking Balls: More M... (05/10)
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Premium Article Breaking Balls: Rookie... (05/18)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Prospectus Today: Whee... (05/13)

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