What to Do About Earned Run Averages, Part 4
By Carlos Bauer
In the ten years or so since I came up with this way a estimating ERAs for pitchers, I have not only used this method consistently throughout my work, but have also learned a lot about Earned Runs.
Originally Earned Runs were just that— runs earned by the batting team. Later the Earned Run became a pitching statistic, but bore only slight resemblance to what is today considered an earned run. An earned run, in the 19th Century, not only was a run scored without the benefit of errors— especially late in the century— but without the benifit of walks, sacrifices, fielder choices, and virtually every other type baserunner movement other than hits.
From an 1897 Sporting Life article:
“Under a strict interpretation of the rules, if a batsman tripled with one out and scored on a succeeding put-out to the outfield that run would not be earned unless a hit was subsequently made, but President Young gives a common-sense ruling, and asserts that an E. R. credit is due. The only radical change therefore, wrought by the amednment is that if a batsman singled and stolen second his run could not be earned unless hits enough were afterward made to put him over the plate had he remained for first.”
A year later Ned Hanlon told the Balitomre Sun: “The present earned run rule is, as you say, an absurdity,” he said yeaterday, “It is absolutely of no use in furnishing a basis by which to judge the relative work of the pitchers, which was the original purpose of the rule. In fact, it is worse than useless, because I once knew a pitcher who used to give base on balls purposely to some batters to produce the runs against him being ‘earned.’ I suppose some of the pitchers last season watched those things closely and did the same thing as the man I speak of. I shall try to get the League to pass a rule with some sense in it and that will allow us to ‘get a line’ on the work of the pitchers. Such a rule should make the pitcher responsible for base on balls, batter hit, and wild pitches as much as for base hits.”
The rule, however, was not changed until the next decade. Knowing the above, and knowing that such researchers as Vern Luse used earned runs given in box scores of that era to calculate ERAs, I questioned whether the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia had used those “earned runs” given in box scores. Pete Palmer tried to assure me that the group led by David Neft had compiled earned runs from game stories rather than the earned runs from the box score summaried of the late 19th Century and early 20th.
(I wanted to know this because I wanted my earned run data to be as correct as possible. If the early data that made it into the Big Mac were flawed, then my correlation would be biased. If Neft had told me that he had used it, I would have thrown out all my data points from the pre-1914 period.)
I am not as nice— or trusting— a person as Pete Palmer, so I wrote David Neft with the following question: “Did you compile earned runs completely from game stories, or did you use the earned runs given in the box scores of the late 1800s and early 1900s?”
David Neft apparently smelled a rat, but was kind enough to write me back, and really didn’t clarify things, at least to my satisfaction: “We used game stories,” he wrote on my letter, “But we did look at them [earned runs in box scores].”
The response was tantamount to saying: “We compiled batting averages by summing up all the at bats and all the hits— but we also looked at triples.”
But the response was typical of somebody who had spent too many nights drinking beer and talking philosphy at the West End Bar: The only conclusion I can draw from David Neft’s response is— that we don’t know if the earned runs in all the encyclopedias to date are correct or not.
I thought I’d be able to wind this up today, but will have to finish this article tomorrow.