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In the era of aggressive defensive positioning, does the old-fashioned box score still tell us where people played?

At its core, baseball’s defensive revolution has been about positioning fielders in places where the ball is most likely to be hit, an idea so simple and sensible that it seems incredible that teams didn’t adopt it earlier. As the Astros’ Sig Mejdal says, “Why weren't teams positioning their infielders different half a decade ago? I don't know. The data was all there.”

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It might be missing WARP, FRAA, and TAv--for now--but the humble box score still gives us much of the information we need to understand the game.

While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.

If you can bear to take a break from perusing our new sortable stats, give another read to Keith Scherer's appreciation of the box score, which originally ran as a "Baseball Prospectus Basics" column on February 25, 2004.


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In our introduction to the Baseball Prospectus Basics series we wrote, "We always want to improve our understanding of the game--each player, each play, each pitch, each throw, each hit--what does it really mean?" We have a storehouse of data to help us refine our understanding of how baseball really works and how it can be improved. We have a team of performance analysts who help us see things we might have never perceived on our own. But the unrefined essentials of what we use are harvested from the box scores you and I read every morning from April through October. The title of this essay is misleading: there is no correct way to read a box score. Roto gamers approach a box score like it's a greatest hits record. Retrosheet's patrons dust each stroke of agate as if it was an artifact. You pay for the morning paper, you get to use your box scores however you wish, even as fishwrap. Box scores now tell us nearly everything that occurs in a game. They tell us hot warm it was, the direction and speed of the wind, and how many people came out to the park. We can find out who the umpiring crew was. Baserunning blunders, substitution patterns, clutch hits, high-leverage relief appearances--it's all in a good box score, along with groundballs, flyballs, balls, strikes, and pitch counts.

The title of this essay is misleading: there is no correct way to read a box score. Roto gamers approach a box score like it's a greatest hits record. Retrosheet's patrons dust each stroke of agate as if it was an artifact. You pay for the morning paper, you get to use your box scores however you wish, even as fishwrap.

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So far, this column has been a day-by-day review of factoids. That's a fun and profitable way to review box scores, but this week I have re-oriented Box Lunch toward a topical focus, using Earl Weaver's maxims to introduce a variety of subjects. There's little worth knowing about baseball that Weaver hasn't already covered, and so far I have found more than 40 observations in Weaver on Strategy that are relevant to things we can study using box scores as the primary source. This week the emphasis is on how managers select and use their rosters. "When a manager has been pushing the same buttons day after day and losing, he'd better start pushing different ones." Alan Trammell is doing the drunkard's walk. On Wednesday he started Bobby Higginson in center field. It was the first time Higginson played the position in the majors, and he hasn't played there since. And then on Saturday, with his team sniffling along at 1-14 and losing its 16th game 9-2, Trammell had Craig Paquette pinch-hit for Higginson. It was the eighth inning and Royals reliever Albie Lopez was working on his fifth consecutive scoreless inning, so maybe it was despair, and maybe it was the managerial equivalent of Brownian Motion, but the move had no strategic justification. Removing your best hitter is the worst way to start a rally. Paquette is Trammell's de facto designated pinch-hitter, so maybe he was trying to keep Paquette fresh. Pinch-hitters come in cold and they can't really be kept fresh, but even if you could crisp them up with two or three swings every other day, what would be gained by wasting one of your stars' turns on a bag of sand like Paquette? It wasn't a platoon decision. Higginson is a lefty and Paquette and Lopez are righties. If Higginson was injured you can't tell by the box scores; he had played the previous inning and was back in the lineup the next day, and there was nothing in the next day's news about an injury to Higginson. All I can think of is that Trammell was either conceding the game by giving him a breather or--this has to happen sometimes--a leisurely bathroom break.

Alan Trammell is doing the drunkard's walk. On Wednesday he started Bobby Higginson in center field. It was the first time Higginson played the position in the majors, and he hasn't played there since. And then on Saturday, with his team sniffling along at 1-14 and losing its 16th game 9-2, Trammell had Craig Paquette pinch-hit for Higginson. It was the eighth inning and Royals reliever Albie Lopez was working on his fifth consecutive scoreless inning, so maybe it was despair, and maybe it was the managerial equivalent of Brownian Motion, but the move had no strategic justification. Removing your best hitter is the worst way to start a rally. Paquette is Trammell's de facto designated pinch-hitter, so maybe he was trying to keep Paquette fresh. Pinch-hitters come in cold and they can't really be kept fresh, but even if you could crisp them up with two or three swings every other day, what would be gained by wasting one of your stars' turns on a bag of sand like Paquette? It wasn't a platoon decision. Higginson is a lefty and Paquette and Lopez are righties. If Higginson was injured you can't tell by the box scores; he had played the previous inning and was back in the lineup the next day, and there was nothing in the next day's news about an injury to Higginson. All I can think of is that Trammell was either conceding the game by giving him a breather or--this has to happen sometimes--a leisurely bathroom break.

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In response to one of last week's Box Lunch articles, one reader asks: "I see the intellectual interest in all the detective work of reconstructing an inning from a box score, but in this day and age, who would do that instead of clicking on the game log provided right next to the box score at ESPN if you really want to know what happened?" Maybe some of the same people who think it's still worthwhile to cook their food on a stovetop. Also, newspapers don't publish game logs. Box scores are portable, foldable, markable.

Maybe some of the same people who think it's still worthwhile to cook their food on a stovetop. Also, newspapers don't publish game logs. Box scores are portable, foldable, markable.

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This week's question comes from Chuck Valenches, who writes: I am the broadcaster for the Pirates' Triple-A club, the Nashville Sounds. We do a promotion where fans are encouraged to write in and "Ask the Sounds".... One question we received we cannot find an answer for. Q. Has there ever been a game in which both teams scored at least one run in every inning, and when was the last time it happened?

This week's question comes from Chuck Valenches, who writes:

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This week's question comes from Chuck Valenches, who writes: I am the broadcaster for the Pirates' Triple-A club, the Nashville Sounds. We do a promotion where fans are encouraged to write in and "Ask the Sounds".... One question we received we cannot find an answer for. Q. Has there ever been a game in which both teams scored at least one run in every inning, and when was the last time it happened?

This week's question comes from Chuck Valenches, who writes:

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May 21, 2002 8:55 pm

Prospectus Feature: Box Work: Rally Killers

0

Keith Scherer

A good box score answers countless questions. Was it windy, was it wet, how many people were there? Did the wind blow in, did it blow right to left, did it cause home runs? Was it a day game? Who was the home plate umpire? Did he squeeze the strike zone? How many fans showed up, and when were they allowed to leave?

We experience baseball through its box scores more than through any other medium. A box score is an analogue, a concise recreation of everything we need to know, a tidy answer to Lenin's question: Who is doing what to whom?

Didn't most of us develop our understanding of the game by reading box scores? Before the Internet, "Baseball Tonight," and Extra Innings, our access to the game outside our town came through the morning paper. Did we read for data or drama? A lively imagination could dramatize the data so that the box scores really were the next best thing to being there.

A good box score answers countless questions. Was it windy, was it wet, how many people were there? Did the wind blow in, did it blow right to left, did it cause home runs? Was it a day game? Who was the home plate umpire? Did he squeeze the strike zone? How many fans showed up, and when were they allowed to leave?

The box score tells us how many batters a pitcher faced, how many pitches he threw, and whether he pitched ahead or behind the hitters. Do mid-inning relief changes make games longer? Are pitchers more effective when they work faster? Does this manager use his relievers as specialists, while that manager lets his stretch their arms? Who abuses their young starters?

From a box score, we can learn if a team loses because it has poor fundamentals. Does it commit too many errors, passed balls, and wild pitches? Does it take needless risks on the bases? Can it take a pitch or throw a strike? Do its pitchers get rattled after two-out errors?

A good box score tells us which pinch hitters were used, when they were used, and whether the manager has a priority off the bench. Does he use platoons? Does he have a designated starting catcher against right-handed power pitchers? Does he let players work through slumps? Does he favor veterans?

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May 21, 2002 12:00 am

Box Work

0

Keith Scherer

Didn't most of us develop our understanding of the game by reading box scores? Before the Internet, "Baseball Tonight," and Extra Innings, our access to the game outside our town came through the morning paper. Did we read for data or drama? A lively imagination could dramatize the data so that the box scores really were the next best thing to being there.

A good box score answers countless questions. Was it windy, was it wet, how many people were there? Did the wind blow in, did it blow right to left, did it cause home runs? Was it a day game? Who was the home plate umpire? Did he squeeze the strike zone? How many fans showed up, and when were they allowed to leave?

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