What does the ERA or earned run average stat mean in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Beginning baseball fan here, trying to catch up on some of the basic stats in baseball. It seems impossible to follow baseball without knowing these. Can you help? What does the ERA or earned run average stat mean in baseball? How is it calculated?


Dear Sharon,

Baseball requires more of its viewers from a statistical standpoint than any other sport. You can group baseball stats into three main categories: basic stats like runs, hits, runs batted in (RBIs) which seek to simply state what happened during a game, advanced stats like BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) or Isolated Power that try to create objective and detailed truthful interpretations out of what happened, and intermediate stats that do limited interpretation. Earned Run Average (ERA) is one of the earliest intermediate stats. The statistic was invented and popularized by Henry Chadwick, a newspaper man and early baseball statistician who died in 1908. So, it’s been around for a long time. At its essence is an attempt to compare the performance of pitchers. The formula for ERA is 9 x Earned Runs Allowed/Innings Pitched. Let’s unpack what that means and why it’s meaningful.

The simplest way of comparing pitchers would be to state how many runs opposing teams scored while a pitcher was playing. There are two key problems with this approach, one obvious, one less so, both of which the ERA statistic attempts to solve. The first and most obvious issue is that pitchers don’t all pitch for the same number of innings or at bats. If you only compared how many runs opponents scored while a pitcher was playing, pitchers who pitch fewer innings would always seem better than those who pitch more. Of course, we know that’s not the case. Usually, if a team wants to win, it plays its best player at every position for as long as it can. So, ERA normalizes the number of innings a pitcher has played by taking the number of runs allowed, dividing by the number of innings pitched, and multiplying by nine. It sounds like fancy mathematical footwork, but all it’s doing is ensuring that a pitcher who allows one run in one inning has the same ERA as a pitcher who allowed nine runs in nine innings or three in three.

The second issue that ERA tries to accommodate is that sometimes a run will score while a pitcher is playing that is not the pitcher’s fault. Let’s create an extreme example that’s theoretically possible even if it’s insanely unlikely. Imagine that a batter hits a weak little pop fly ball directly to the third baseman. He should be able to catch it easily and get the batter out. Instead, he gets distracted by a tasty-looking plate of nachos in the stands and instead of catching the ball, he lets it hit him on the head. It knocks him out and as he falls to the ground, the ball somehow manages to slide down his shirt. His teammates are torn – provide medical aid, find the ball, or stare at the nachos. They stare at the nachos. All the while, the player who hit the ball is tearing around the bases, running like the wind. Before the ball can be found, the running goes all the way around for an in-the-park home run. Sure, it’s a run, but is it really the pitcher’s fault? If we’re trying to compare the performance of one pitcher against another, should we really take it into account? ERA says “no.” In order for a run to be included in the ERA metric, it must be an “earned run” that is not the result of an error or series of errors on the part of the pitcher’s teammates. In addition to errors, a pitcher is not responsible for the runs scored by base runners who were already on base when the pitcher entered the game. This means that if a relief pitcher comes into the game with two men on base and then gives up a home run, he’ll only have one of the three runs go into his ERA formula. The other two will go into the previous pitcher’s ERA total.

ERA seems like a pretty neat statistic and it’s certainly passed the test of time. It’s been a key statistic in baseball for over 100 years. It’s not perfect by any means though. It’s key problem is that, while it does a good job at reflecting the outcomes for pitchers during a previous period, it’s not good at predicting the future. A pitcher with a good ERA this year is not much more likely to have a good ERA next year than a player with a bad ERA this year. This is because, despite weeding out errors, ERA still judges a pitcher for many things which aren’t under his or her control. For example, a pitcher who plays for a team with an extraordinary outfield may benefit from their ability to get to difficult fly balls. If that pitcher switches teams to a team with an average outfield, his ERA is probably going to fall. Situations like our example above, where a relief pitcher came into the game with two men on base, happen often in baseball. A starting pitcher’s ERA is to some extent at the mercy of the relief pitchers that replace him.

Many new advanced stats have been created to improve upon or replace ERA but for now, it’s still an integral, commonly used statistic.

Good luck and thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Three baseball writers fail to explain their love of the game

Last night I attended a Pitch Talks event in Boston. Pitch Talks‘ website describes what it does by saying it “connects diehard baseball fans with sports insiders by hosting informed and entertaining discussions on all aspects of the game.” Last night’s event, at the Cask & Flagon bar right next to Fenway Park, the ancestral home of the Boston Red Sox, was a moderated panel discussion with lots of opportunity for members of the audience to ask questions. The second segment of the evening was a three-part conversation between host Pete Abraham and panelists Dan Shaughnessy and Nick Cafardo. Each of these men is an eminent sports writer covering baseball for the Boston Globe. During their question and answer session, I was called on to ask a question. I addressed the panel with a question true to the essence of Dear Sports Fan:

How do you explain your love of baseball to people who don’t share it?

The response I got, from all three of the writers was equal parts insightful and profoundly disappointing.

Let’s start with what was good and educational and heart-warming. All three of the panelists expressed their profound love for baseball and seemed completely earnest in doing so. They all think baseball is the best sport to cover and follow, and that’s quite nice to see in people whose profession demands they follow baseball to an extreme degree. As for why, each of the three writers spoke about the everyday nature of baseball. As opposed to football, where teams play once a week, and hockey or basketball where teams play every two to four days, baseball teams play almost every day, sometimes more than once. Shaughnessy was the first to answer and the first to introduce this feature as a main driver of baseball’s unique appeal. He identified that playing almost every day gives baseball players and teams more chances to create meaningful redemption narratives for fans to enjoy. Cafardo built off of Shaughnessy’s comments by pointing out other benefits of the everyday nature of baseball. He said that this makes baseball extremely compelling: “As opposed to football where the rest of the week [other than the once weekly game days] is boring,” in baseball there is a story every day. Abraham chimed in as well, noting that watching a team play almost every day helps fans get to know the players in a uniquely intimate way; much more than in other sports.

It was wonderful to hear people who have devoted their lives to a sport explain what it was about that sport that they found so compelling. What was disappointing was their attitude towards the hypothetical person who didn’t like baseball that I invented in my question. They were dismissive. Shaughnessy said he “doesn’t try to push it” with people who aren’t baseball fans and that if people don’t like baseball, “that’s your loss.” When it was Cafardo’s turn, he added that he doesn’t get people who don’t like baseball.” They made unwarranted assumptions about that imaginary person. Shaughnessy imagined that they were either an impatient young person who couldn’t take baseball’s slower pace or someone who didn’t appreciate baseball’s complexity. He and Cafardo both went out of their way to insult soccer and soccer fans, clearly assuming that this imaginary non-baseball fan must be a soccer fan.

What a depressing response. Sports fans in general and people who make a living from sports even more should be more welcoming to non-sports fans than that. I appreciate Shaughnessy’s choice not to proselytize, but I wish he had a better explanation of why he loves baseball ready and waiting for the many non-baseball fans he meets in his daily life. I love that Cafardo shared with the audience his sense that he was “born with” baseball, how he “loved watching the games as a kid” and how he still “hates it” when the season ends. It’s great to have passion about what you do but surely a professional baseball writer should want to expand the reach of the game to people who didn’t grow up with baseball in their lives. What about immigrants from countries where baseball is not a common sport? What about women who grew up during a time when girls were not expected or encouraged to take an interest in sports? Those people deserve to be treated with respect. They shouldn’t be dismissed, they shouldn’t be belittled, they shouldn’t be stereotyped, and they shouldn’t have their interests (for surely, some of them are actually soccer fans) insulted.

The next time someone asks one of these writers or any baseball fan out there why they like baseball, I hope they have a positive answer prepared. I hope they are open to understanding why the person across from them doesn’t like baseball. There’s simply no downside to open dialogue and there’s lots of upside. Here’s an answer to that question from my colleague Dean Russell Bell in 2013. He likes baseball because watching it in person is like being at an outdoor picnic, because of the emotional investment baseball fans make in their teams, and because of strategy, tradition, and beauty. That’s his answer. What is yours?

How valuable is a signed baseball bat?

Dear Sports Fan,

How valuable does signed stuff actually get? If, for *cough* example, I had a little league bat signed by Brooks Robinson in the 80’s, would that be valuable or just something that a million other kids had?


Dear Justin,

Brooks Robinson is an awesome dude. During a 23 year Major League Baseball career, all as a member of the Baltimore Orioles, he went to 18 All-Star games and won 16 consecutive Gold Glove awards as a third baseman. He played in the World Series four times and won it twice. He had a great nicknames: The Human Vacuum Cleaner and Mr. Hoover. Elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, he in one of only 16 people to be voted in during their first eligible year. At 78, Robinson is still active in the baseball community, serving as head of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association. There is a 1,500 pound statue of him in downtown Baltimore. And yet, unless there is something particularly special about the signed bat you have, it’s probably not worth very much.

Sports autographs can mean big money, with the most valuable signatures going for millions of dollars, but they’re also big business. Memorabilia companies arrange for athletes to sign lots and lots of balls, uniforms, bats, gloves, baseball cards, and posters. As a result, the vast majority of signatures are not worth all that much. There are a multitude of factors that effect how much a signed item is worth but the underlying principle is that the more rare something is, the more valuable it is. Here are some of the factors that effect your bat:

  • Is it authentic and authenticated? — Two different things, an authentic item is one that is both real (the bat is a bat, not a loaf of bread shaped into a bat) and really signed. An authenticated item is one that has been certified to be authentic by one of a number of companies that exist for this sole purpose.
  • Is it game-used? — A bat that was used in a game by Robinson is worth more than one that wasn’t. Of the bats that weren’t, those that were produced for him to use in a game are worth more than those that were produced primarily so he could sign them before being sold to the public.
  • Is there something special about your item? — Did Robinson use it to hit during a memorable game? Was it the last he ever used? Or the first? Did he set a record with it? Use it to injure an offensive pitcher? Is it a brand he didn’t normally use? Is he someone who rarely ever signed bats? Again, rarity converts to value when it comes to signed items.

The Professional Sports Authenticator’s website has a handy chart showing the estimated value of “normal” signed items from a large number of professional baseball players, including Brooks Robinson. It suggests that your bat, if authentic and authenticated and in good condition, would be worth $100. If only you had something from the next Robinson on the list… Jackie Robinson! That estimate seems about right, if a little high, based on a search of sold Ebay signed Brooks Robinson bats that ranged from around $25 to $150.

You could sell it and probably make a little money. Although, since brand new baseball bats on Amazon are going for between $20 and $60 themselves, you’re almost better off just keeping it and using it as a baseball bat!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What is a force play in baseball or softball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a force play in baseball or softball? I’m new to watching and it seems like force is an important concept but I’ve yet to here a good explanation. Can you help?


Dear Caroline,

The force play is one of the most integral concepts in baseball and softball. Without an understanding of it, not much in the game will make sense. Unfortunately, because most baseball broadcasts assume that all of their viewers grew up playing or watching baseball or softball, there aren’t commonly explanations of what a force play is or what its implications are. A force play is a kind of short-hand; a convenience that the defense or fielding team gets to use against the team that’s trying to score.  In some situations, instead of having to tag the opposing player with the ball to make an out, a defensive player with the ball can step on a base and immediately create an out. The reason for this convenience is predicated on a single concept – two base runners can never occupy the same base at the same time.

How do we make the leap from two players not being able to be on the same base at the same time to being able to get someone out just by stepping on a base? Let’s run through a scenario where there is no force play available to the defense. Imagine that there is a base runner on second base but not first or third. When the player that is batting hits the ball into the field, he has to run to first. The player on second can either stay on second base or run to third. He starts running and then sees that the opposing team has a chance to throw the ball to third before he can get there. If he keeps running, he’s likely to get tagged by the player with the ball before he can make it safely to third. So, he turns around and runs back to second base. If he can make it back there without being tagged, he’s safe. He has options – second or third base. Either one is a safe haven. There is no possible force out.

Now we’ll take a similar scenario but add in a force play. Imagine everything were the same except that instead of having only a runner on second base, there was also a runner on first base when the batter hit the ball. The batter still has to run to first base. But wait! There’s a runner already there. If he stays put, there will be two runners on first base — and we know that’s not allowed. So, the runner on first base has to run to second. Now our runner on second base faces the same dilemma. He has to run to third or else he and his teammate who started the play on first base will both be occupying the same base. So, he starts running to third. The fielding team makes the same play and throws the ball to the defender on third base. The guy running from second to third sees that he’s in trouble but unlike in our first scenario, he can’t turn around and run back to second base. He has teammates already on first and second base, so he can’t run backwards. He has to run forward.

In an imaginary baseball world without the force play rule, the defender standing on third base with the baseball would wait for the runner to get to him and then step forward to tag him with the ball. This would work close to 100% of the time because the runner has no options other than to run straight into the defender. In effect, the outcome of the play is set by the time the defender gets the ball on third base. The out is fait accompli. Instead of waiting for the inevitable, baseball created the force out rule. If a runner has no option but to run forward to a base, and a defender can get to that base with the ball before the runner does, it’s immediately an out.

This seemingly small convenience has widespread tactical consequences. The double-play, one of the most exciting plays in baseball, when the defense records two outs on a single hit, would be drastically less possible without the force out. The most common double play, one where there is a runner on first when the batter hits the ball and the defense is able to get the ball to second base, step on it, and then throw the ball to first base before the guy who hit the ball can get there, relies entirely on force plays or outs. If the defense had to wait for the runner on first to get to second before being able to get him out, they’d never have enough time to throw the ball to first before the batter got there.

Here are the two scenarios we described above:

Scenario 1: Home plate [•] First base [ ] Second base [•] Third base [ ]

Scenario 2: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [•] Third base [ ]

Can you figure out where the force plays are in these other scenarios?

Scenario 3: Home plate [•] First base [ ] Second base [ ] Third base [•]

Scenario 4: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [ ] Third base [•]

Scenario 5: Home plate [•] First base [•] Second base [•] Third base [•]

If you answered – first base for scenario three, third base for scenario four, and first, second, and third base and home plate for scenario five, you’re well on your way to being a baseball and softball force play expert! Here are two bonus facts you might also have picked up on. First base is always a force out. It’s not intuitive because there are no runners moving behind the batter, but nonetheless, once he hits the ball, he has to move to first base. He cannot simply stay at home plate and try again next time. The other bonus fact is a pretty advanced tactical one. In terms of force outs, it’s sometimes better defensively to have more players on base. Referring again to our first two scenarios, the defense may not have been able to get anyone out in the first one, but definitely would have been able to in the second. This goes against what seems to be the normal logic of playing defense in baseball — you want fewer people on base not more. In some situations, teams will intentionally walk a batter to get more runners on base so that they create more force play opportunities during the next at bat.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

How does stealing bases work in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan

How does stealing bases work in baseball? I know that a stolen base is when a player runs from first to second or second to third base without there being a hit but I’m not sure when base runners can steal and what situations they do it in. Can you help?


Dear Andres,

The steal is one of the most exciting plays in baseball. A player on base tries to run to the next base without the assistance of a teammate’s hit. If he gets there before the opposing team can throw the ball to the base and tag him, he’s safe. If not, he’s out. It’s got speed, deception, timing, and coordination — everything you could want in a sport. A successful stolen base can propel a team to victory. An unsuccessful one can break a team’s momentum and destroy its chance of winning. So how does a steal work?

A player on base — that means they got to first, second, or third base through hitting the ball, being hit with the ball, or being walked — can try to run to the next base basically whenever they want. The only time they are not allowed to run is if a timeout has been called. Timeouts are not as obvious in baseball as they are in other sports, probably because they are unlimited, but they usually happen when a batter steps out of the batting box and holds up his hand or when a catcher wants to speak to his pitcher or visa-versa. If you’re at a game or if you have your television volume way, way up, you might be able to hear the ump screaming, “TIME” when someone gestures for a timeout and “PLAY” when the timeout is over. In some recreational baseball or softball leagues, a timeout is called by default whenever the pitcher has the ball. Not so in a professional setting.

The fact that base runners can try to steal virtually whenever they want doesn’t explain much about when players actually attempt to steal. Professional baseball players throw so accurately and strongly that unless a runner caught them completely off-guard, stealing in the normal course of play would be a miserable and ineffective gambit. No, what makes stealing possible is a rule that forces pitchers to throw the ball to home plate once they’ve committed to the motion of throwing in that direction. A pitcher who is guilty of starting to throw to home plate and changing his or her mind in mid-pitch is guilty of what’s called a “balk” and any players already on base get a free trip to the next base. The impact of this rule is that it allows sharp eyed, speedy players on base to watch the pitcher and start running to the next base as soon as the pitcher commits to a pitching motion.

Once a player decides to steal a base, she begins sprinting to the next base. She only has a few seconds to make it there. In that time, the pitcher will pitch the ball over home plate, the catcher will grab it, rise to his feet, and throw to the player covering the base the runner is trying to get to in one motion. The whole thing – running from one base to the next as well as the pitcher and catcher combining to try to throw that player out – takes right around 3.5 seconds. In a Smithsonian Magazine piece, Brad Balukjian describes an analysis of the process that suggested the most important factor in a successful stolen base is the top speed a runner reaches in his attempt.

By far the most common base players try to steal is second base. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Singles are by far the most common hit. Therefore being on first base is more common than being on any other base. From first, the only place to go is second.
  • While there are more lefties in professional baseball than in the general population, there are still more right-handed pitchers than left-handed ones. When a righty sets up to pitch, his back is turned to first base. This gives the base runner an advantage stealing from first to second but a disadvantage going from second to third.
  • As we covered in out article explaining why there are so few triples any more, there simply isn’t that big of a difference between being on second or third. Runners on either base are expected to be able to score on a ball hit out of the infield and not on one that stays in close. Stealing third isn’t often worth the risk. The difference between being on first or second, on the other hand, is a big deal and worth a greater risk.

While the rules about how and when a player can steal a base are fairly simple the rules about when their act is deemed to be an official steal by scorekeepers is much more complex. While it may not seem important (no matter how it happened, what matters to who is going to win is that the player made it from first to second or second to third) baseball players, managers, and true fans give statistical designations like this a lot of importance. Just one example of these distinctions is that a player who makes it safely to a base because the catcher threw the ball wildly in her attempt to catch the runner stealing is credited with a steal while a player who safely gets to the next base because the opposing player who was trying to catch the ball and tag him out messed it up, he is not credited with a steal. 

Aside from stealing second from first and third from second, there are three other forms of stealing that are much more rare. A player on third base can attempt to steal home. This sounds insane, since to catch the player, the defensive team only needs to do half or one third of the stuff they normally have to do to catch a stealing attempt. Instead of the pitcher throwing it to the catcher who throws it to a player covering second or third base, the pitcher just needs to get the ball to the catcher who can stand there and tag the runner out. Only the fastest and most audacious players ever dream of attempting this. Jackie Robinson did it successfully in the 1955 World Series. A double steal is a play where two runners on different bases both try to steal the base ahead of them simultaneously. This can involve players on first and second running to second on third but it can also be used to disguise an attempt to steal home. The last form of rare stolen base is not allowed any more. In the early days of baseball, when entertainment and high-spirited hijinks were as important drivers of behavior as winning, base runners would sometimes steal backwards. This behavior is now prohibited by MLB rules and somewhat sassily too: if a player “runs the bases in reverse order for the purpose of confusing the defense or making a travesty of the game. The umpire shall immediately call “Time” and declare the runner out.”

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Why is the MLB baseball season so long?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why is the MLB baseball season so long? Baseball teams play like every day for more than six months. That’s SO MUCH BASEBALL! What’s the point?


Dear Ken,

The Major League Baseball regular season is 162 games. That’s almost twice as long as the NHL ice hockey and NBA basketball schedules. It’s 10 times longer than the 16 game NFL football schedule. It’s harder to compare baseball to soccer leagues whose seasons vary in length from around 30 games to 40 games but whose teams simultaneously compete in a number of other domestic and international competitions and whose players may be called up to play internationally as well. Still, it’s pretty safe to say that baseball seasons involve the most games of any common professional sport.

Baseball has had long seasons for as long as it has been played professionally. In 1876, the first year that professional leagues started mandating the number of games each team should play (before that, they simply gave a minimum but teams could play more games if they wanted) each team played 70 games. By 1901, the first year that the National League and American League both played, the schedule had doubled to 140 games. From there, the number vacillated a bit before moving to 154 in 1920 and then the current 162 in 1961-62. The primary cause for each lengthening of the schedule was team expansion. Up to 1962, the number of games was set by taking the number of possible opponents and multiplying by some number so that each team would play each opposing team 18 or 20 times. Since then, the leagues have sought to retain the same number of games (162) regardless of the number of teams and have done so by changing who teams play and how many times they face each other.

The simplest reason for why baseball seasons are longer than other sports is because they can be. Baseball is not a particularly physically demanding sport. Basketball and hockey’s 82 game seasons engender far more angst about the physical wear and tear on players than baseball’s season which is twice as long. The fact that the most commonly used performance enhancing drug in baseball history has not been steroids, but amphetamines called “greenies” supports the idea that the grind of a long baseball season is more mental than physical. Baseball is mostly a non-contact sport, so its teams can play 162 games in six months and even sometimes twice a day without losing an insupportable percentage of their roster to injury. Bonus fact — I read somewhere that early baseball was more beloved by lower and middle class people and early football by the upper classes because only upper class people had the luxury to risk injury in their recreational activities. Lower and middle class people who worked in more physical occupations couldn’t risk it, so they played baseball.

The other reason for baseball’s long season is that more than any other sport, baseball believes in large sample sizes to determine the best team. At its simplest, baseball is a series of one on one encounters between a pitcher and a hitter. Each game has around 60 to 70 of these contests. The long season provides a greater significance to the statistics produced by each player and each team and baseball is all about statistics! No sport cares more about its records – who is leading in each meaningful statistical category each year and in history. Of course, this is a bit of a chicken or the egg argument. It’s possible that baseball’s reverence for statistics comes from its long seasons and not the other way around.

Baseball’s long schedule gives following the sport a decidedly different feel from being a fan of any other sport. A favorite baseball team is like a friend you can rely on. They’re there almost every night. Baseball fans don’t need to schedule time to spend with their team, they can just use baseball to fill up any down time in their social schedule. Baseball remains one of the few sports that people still listen to on the radio, not just because its action is simple and slow enough to easily imagine but also because the number of games in a season mean that no single game demands full and undivided attention. Going to see a baseball game in person is far easier and more affordable because there are so many games. In so many ways, baseball’s plentiful schedule has molded it into the pastime that so many people enjoy.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer


Why aren't there more triples in baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I’ve been wondering – why aren’t there more triples in baseball? I see a lot of doubles and there are always a few home runs, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a triple! What’s up with that?


Dear Mona,

Triples are the rarest type of hit in Major League Baseball by a long shot. Over this season and last, only roughly 2% of all hits have been triples. This wasn’t always the case. Until 1930, there were more triples in baseball than home runs. There are two main reasons for the rarity of triples in today’s game: they are difficult to achieve and not worth that much. We’ll take a quick trip into history to see what changed to make triples so unusual and then fast forward 80 years into today’s baseball to describe why they continue to be infrequent.

When baseball was in its infancy, from the 1860s to the 1910s, most baseball fields had no walls. Baseball was played on a hypothetically infinite field. No matter how far a batter hit the ball, a fielder could theoretically run, pick it up, and throw the ball to a teammate in the infield. As you might imagine with this setup, the frequency of types of hit was in a natural kind of order. Singles were more common than doubles, which were more common than triples, which were more common than home runs. Every home run was what we now call an “in the park home run” because there were no walls beyond which, if a ball was hit, it would be an “out of the park home run.” Even after ballparks were built with walls, so that a ball hit beyond the wall was a home run, triples continued to be more common than home runs. The walls were set so far out (and the balls were so difficult to hit far) that they didn’t really effect how the game was played. According to the SABR Research Journal from 1901 to 1929 “the average distribution was: 76.9 percent for singles, 15.2 percent for doubles, 5.3 percent for triples, and 2.7 percent for homers.” During the 1920s, baseball team owners gradually moved the walls or fences in, to make outside the park home runs more common and also adjusted the way baseballs were produced to make them fly farther. As you can see in this line graph from High Heat Stakes, the frequency of home runs passed that of triples around 1930 and has never looked back.

In today’s game, triples are the rarest type of hit by a wide margin. In 2014, 68% of hits were singles, 20% were doubles, 2% of hits were triples, and 10% were home runs. The most obvious reason for the scarcity of triples is that they are hard to do! Baseball fields may look enormous, but the athletes on them are quite fast and they cover a lot of ground. Almost no matter where the ball is hit, one of the nine fielders should be able to reach it and throw the ball to the infield before the batter can run the 270 feet from home base to first base, around to second and then to third base. The only two plausible reasons for a triple today are some kind of mishap — a funny bounce, a tripping outfielder, an animal running onto the field — or the ball being hit to an area of the field that the defense purposefully left uncovered because they didn’t think the batter would hit the ball there.

Despite how difficult they are, teams could probably get a few more triples than they do if they were really trying for them. On any hit that’s not obviously going to lead the runner safely to third base, teams tend to be conservative and ask the runner to stop at second. It’s rare for someone to try to “stretch” a solid double into a risky triple. The reason for this is that having a runner on third base is not thought of as a big advantage over having a runner on second base. It’s commonly understood that a runner on second base will be able to run home and score on any hit that gets past the infielders. This is almost exactly the same for a runner on third base. Without any real incentive to get to third base, players would rather stop at second than run to third and risk getting thrown out.

How rare is a triple? Around 2% or one in fifty hits are triples. Teams average around eight and a half hits per game. Multiply that by two because there are two teams playing in each game and you get 17 hits per game. 17 times three is 51, which is close enough for me to 50. So, we’d expect to see a triple about once every three games or so. Rare, but not unheard of!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How do trades work in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

I was watching Moneyball with my husband. We were curious how trading works in various sports. Can you explain the rules and how they are implemented. For example why do trades happen in the middle of the season for some sports, but not others?


Dear Sarah,

At it’s heart, Moneyball is a story about how careful analytical thought can provide an organization an advantage over its competitors. The team at the center of the story, the Oakland Athletics baseball team, exploited its competition mostly by making unexpectedly smart personnel decisions. In any sports league, teams have three main ways of acquiring players: by drafting players not yet in the league, by signing players who are free agents, and by trading for players. As you pointed out in your question, trades work a little differently in each major sports league in the United States. While an explanation of the exact rules in each league could easily give even the most long-winded Russian novelist a run for her money, I’ll try to lay out a few of the major differences in a few mercifully brief paragraphs below.

Hard Cap, Soft Cap, or No Cap?

One of the biggest factors affecting how players are traded in a sports league is the salary cap structure. A salary cap is a value, set before the season, against which the aggregated salaries of all the players on a team are compared to. In leagues with a hard salary cap, like the National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL), teams are (with very, very few exceptions) not allowed to exceed this value. In leagues with a soft salary cap, like the National Basketball League (NBA) there are a host of ways that teams can exceed the value set by the salary cap. Depending on how a team manages to exceed it, they may be assigned a financial penalty but not one that hurts them on the court. Some leagues, primarily Major League Baseball (MLB), have no salary cap. In baseball, teams can pay their players as much or as little as they choose and the market will bear.

These rules have a deep impact on the trading culture of the leagues. Having a hard cap restricts the possible trades teams can make. Any potential trade that would put a team over the salary cap is a non-starter. Having no cap, like in the MLB, means that teams are free to trade players pretty much however they want. The in between world of the soft capped NBA is perhaps the most interesting. NBA trades are often more about finances than they are about basketball players. Because teams are constantly in the process of manipulating their payroll in order to position themselves best within the complicated world of soft-cap exceptions, you’ll often see basketball trades that, if you don’t understand the financial and cap implications of them, seem totally crazy. For instance, one team might seem to give a player to another team for virtually (and sometimes literally) nothing. Or a team might send a good player to a team for a player who has had a career ending injury. In those cases, what the team is getting back is not the injured player or nothing, but some element of financial flexibility.

To trade a draft pick or not?

In all four major U.S. sports leagues, there are entry drafts each year where teams get to take turns choosing players who aren’t in the league yet. In all but one, teams can and often do trade their right to choose in a future year’s draft to another team. The one league where that is (again, basically) not allowed is the MLB. Teams in the other three leagues often get themselves in trouble by mortgaging their future for their present by trading a lot of their future draft picks away. One entertaining aspect of trading draft picks is that the order during drafts is set (more or less) by how teams did in the previous season. The worse a team does, the more likely they are to have a high pick in the upcoming draft. If the team you root for has another team’s draft pick, it’s order is still set by how that team performs, so a good fan will root against that team all year to optimize the chance of its draft pick being a good one.

Do the players get a say?

This all seems fine and dandy until you stop and think about players and their families who can get uprooted at any moment and forced to move to another city. This is definitely part of the business of sports and most players don’t have much control over their careers in this way. There are a couple major exceptions. When a player negotiates his or her contract, they can negotiate a full or partial no-trade clause. A no-trade clause, sometimes abbreviated as a NTR means that a player does have some say over whether and where they get traded. A partial no-trade clause means a player has to maintain a list of some number of teams they would be willing to be traded to. A full no-trade clause means they have complete veto power over any trade. Usually only veteran or star players have the clout to negotiate these clauses into their contracts. In the MLB, players who have played for 10 years and have been with their current team for five consecutive years are automatically given no-trade clauses. This is called the 5/10 rule.

How does the sport itself affect trading?

The final major factor that goes into defining the trading culture of a league is how easy it is for players to switch teams mid-season. You mentioned in your question that some leagues don’t seem to have mid-season trades. That’s only partially true. All leagues allow for mid-season trades (at least before a trade deadline) but there is one league where they rarely ever happen. That league is the NFL. This is mostly because football is so complicated and so reliant on the close-to-perfect collaboration of lots of interconnected parts. It’s really difficult for a player from one team to move over to another team in the middle of the season, learn their plays and their terminology, and make a difference to the team’s fortunes that season. Compare that to the NBA where teams often run similar plays and the individual talent of one player (of the five on the court at one time compared to the 11 in football) can make an enormous and immediate impact. NFL trades are rare. NBA trades are quite common.

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Like I said, trading is such a complicated business in sports that a post about how it works from league to league could easily morph into an unreadably long essay. I think this is a good stopping point for today. These four factors probably account for the majority of the trading differences within the four major U.S. sports leagues.

Thanks for reading and questioning,
Ezra Fischer

News Clippings: October 18

One of my favorite parts of writing Dear Sports Fan is reading other great writers cover sports in a way that’s accessible and compelling for the whole spectrum from super-fans to lay people. Here are selections from some of the articles this week that inspired me.

Brian Phillips is one of my favorite writers out there these days. He is overwhelmingly enthusiastic and incisive about the subjects he chooses. In this article, he says farewell to the U.S. Soccer player, Landon Donovan, who retired from international play this week.

Inside Out

By Brian Phillips for Grantland

Donovan carried a zone of retirement around with him, the way fighters sometimes seem to move in a zone of potential violence. There was always this slight hint of removal, as if he were surrounded by a Photoshop blur set to 1 or 2 percent — hardly detectable, but enough to let you know that you were seeing him, and being seen by him, through a force field of self-created privacy.

He refused to be anything but himself… But what he was — complex, reflective, observant, careful with himself — was so out of step with our expectations for a major sports star that he left us with a sense of something unresolved.

Eric Kester is a former football player and NFL ball boy. This gives him a rare perspective with which to reflect on the violence and virtue of football.

What I Saw as an N.F.L. Ball Boy

By Eric Kester for The New York Times

Spend an extended period of time behind the N.F.L. curtain, as I did, see eerily subdued postgame locker rooms filled with vacant stares and hear anguished screams echoing from the training room, and you’ll understand how the physical and emotional toll these players endure is devastating enough to erode the morality of a good man or exacerbate the evils of a bad one.

This is not to say players who commit crimes deserve even a little exoneration. But what they and all N.F.L. players do deserve — and need — are improved resources to help them cope with the debilitating consequences of on-field ferocity.

The Allrounder is a great new site that “looks at how sport impacts communities, shapes culture, and taps bodies and emotions.” Created by a history professor, a senior research fellow, and an analyst at a think-tank, the Allrounder has a valuable scholarly presence without being pedantic in the least. I look forward to more great pieces from their writers in the coming months. This article about the singing culture of Welsh Rugby comes from their Guide For the Global Fan series.

Welsh Rugby Songs

by Daryl Leeworthy for The Allrounder

The oldest Welsh rugby song of all is “Men of Harlech,” a stirring tune penned in the eighteenth century that tells of Welsh defiance in the face of the English invader during a medieval siege that lasted seven years. It was originally sung to accompany the Welsh team as they entered the pitch, the “battlefield” if you like, and is still a key part of the pre-match build up. Then there’s the comic classic “Sospan Fach” which is literally about cat scratches, an unwell and then dead servant called Dafydd, a soldier called Dai who can’t seem to tuck his shirt in properly, and a couple of saucepans. There’s no real logic to the song but it established itself as a firm favourite of rugby crowds in Llanelli and is now one of those songs that every Welsh person knows, regardless of whether they like rugby or not.

But on the whole rugby songs are much less problematic than soccer songs, there’s almost none of the hostility that’s present in the songs sung at an Old Firm derby in Glasgow for instance. That’s not to say that some of them aren’t obviously couched in a degree of playful dislike… But generally they’re harmless and build on a Romanticised stereotype we have of ourselves as a nation. At their heart they seem to say it doesn’t matter if we lose (as we often do) to New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, France, or Ireland; as long we beat England by a single point, it’s worth it in the end.

The European Champions League is an exciting tournament for fans but it might be even more exciting for team owners. Just qualifying for the tournament is a financial windfall. This article looks at one unintended consequence of this money — the destabilization of small soccer leagues. In this case, the author focuses on the Swedish league.

A Glamorous Event Injects Cash and Concerns

by Sam Borden for The New York Times

Money is always front and center in professional sports, and it is no different in European soccer. Malmo won the Swedish league last season and made its way through two qualifying [Champions’ League] rounds before arriving in the 32-team group stage. For its accomplishments, Malmo will receive more than 78 million Swedish kronor (more than $10 million), regardless of what happens during its six group stage games.

Tony Ernst, the chairman of the Swedish supporters group that encompasses fans of teams in the country’s top two divisions, said the sudden influx of money for Malmo — which is already poised to win the Swedish league again this season — had left many fans worried about competitive balance.

“Traditionally, the Swedish league has been very hard to win two times in a row — it is very open,” Ernst said in an interview. “I think there is a fear that this will make the other teams’ chances that much harder.”

This week marked the 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco area. So many people around the country remember that earthquake, not just because it was strong and damaging, but because it happened during the pre-game telecast of the World Series. Sports fans experienced it live through the lens of baseball. Well-known baseball writer, Richard Justice, was there and shares some of his personal memories of the quake in this article, including waking up in a hotel room to find that the furniture was all out of place.

Remembering the Quake

by Richard Justice for Sports on Earth

And yet, in the worst of times, these two great American cities did themselves proud, too. This is the part of the story that sometimes gets lost in the retelling. We focus on the shaking and the death and the damage.

We laugh at how we huddled in dark hotels and jumped as the aftershocks came in waves over the next few days. We remember the one baseball writer who got stuck in traffic because he was, as usual, running late and never got to Candlestick Park. We occasionally pass over the best part of the story. That’s how people pulled together and helped one another and resolved to rebuild and carry on.

I would just about guarantee that those of us who experienced the earthquake and then stayed around the city until the World Series resumed 10 days later would tell you the same thing.

If they didn’t love the Bay Area before, they fell in love with it in those two weeks. And if they already loved it, they had those feelings reinforced. There was such a spirit and a resolve it was impossible not to be inspired.

Friday, October 17

  1. And then there were two: The San Francisco Giants finished off their series with the St. Louis Cardinals in a 6-3 victory. The game was closer than it sounds from the score. The last three runs were scored on a home run by Travis Ishikawa in the ninth inning. The Giants actually had to score one run in the eight to tie the game at three runs apiece before winning it in the ninth. Although the game was close, the series was not — the Giants won four games to one. It’s been a pattern this playoffs. For all the excitement over the Royals run and the close individual games, the series scored have all been sweeps or three or four games to one. I, for one, would like to see the World Series go six or seven games.
    Line: The Giants don’t lose championships on even years but the Royals don’t seem to lose at all!
    What’s Next: The Giants play game one of the World Series against the Royals on Tuesday, October 21, at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.
  2.  The Jets were valiant but the Patriots won: In the continuing feud between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots, last night’s game was typical. The Jets came into the game with a losing record, the Pats with a winning one. The Jets played the Pats better than one would expect given their respective records and rosters. Tom Brady played great and the Pats found a way to win. The final score was 27-25 and the Jets had a chance in the last second to win on a 58 yard field goal. That’s pretty far to kick a football, two yards farther than the Jets’ kicker had ever successfully kicked before, but we’ll never know if he was going to make it because a Patriot managed to block it at the line of scrimmage.
    Line: Brady and Bellichick won’t be around forever to beat the Jets infinitely but they’ll probably outlast the Jets quarterback and coach if the Jets keep losing.
  3. Double overtime in college football: The Utah Utes barely got by the Oregon State Beavers (how come pro teams don’t have such awesome names?) 29-23 last night. In fact, they needed double over time and 229 and three touchdowns from running back Devontae Boooker to do it. That’s a good two or three games for most running backs! This game does nothing to dispel the sneaking suspicion that the PAC 12 might be the strongest conference in the country.
    Line: You gotta say, the college football overtime rules, where teams get alternating possessions starting at the 25 yard line until one scores more than the other, are really exciting!