Why Runs/Hits/Errors should no longer define baseball … but still does

What is the smallest, oddest, most omnipresent detail about baseball that we take totally for granted? Is it that there is a front of the batter’s box to keep batters from moving suicidally closer to the pitcher? Is it that balls that hit the foul pole are deemed fair, regardless of which side of the pole they actually pass? Is it that the players wear pants that require belts? That the manager, generally an older man sitting in the shade, wears a ballcap?

I think the very smallest and most omnipresent is actually the last thing we saw in the last shot of the last baseball broadcast that mattered:

It’s the Runs/Hits/Errors box, which we’ll refer to going forward as The R/H/E. The R/H/E appears on every major league scoreboard, above every box score of every game on Baseball Reference, on every television graphic going into and coming out of every commercial break. Even on the radio, where there is no visual component, the broadcasters generally read the R/H/E sequence multiple times per game, and sum up every inning by its Rs, Hs and Es.

It is omnipresent, as common as any sequence in the sport, and it is also anomalous and outdated. Baseball is perhaps the only sport that pads its scoreboard with such supplemental information. (Sports with time periods sometimes show scoring per period, just as baseball’s scoreboards show scoring per inning, but they don’t routinely show Yards & Turnovers, or Assists & Rebounds, or Drive Yardage & Putts, alongside every display of the score.) And why hits instead of simply baserunners? And why errors — a stat largely ignored in modern evaluation of defense, and such a rare occurrence (fewer than one per game) that the scoreboard nearly always shows a 0 or a 1 in that column?

The answers to these questions are sort of known and sort of not. They reflect some design and some accident. But if we invented baseball in 2020, The R/H/E would probably not exist, and if it did it exist it would certainly show different numbers under different letters. Relatively inconsequential as it is, ignored as it is, our best understanding of how The R/H/E did come to exist — and to spread, and to stay exactly as it is — has a lot to tell us about baseball today.

This next season of baseball, if it comes to exist, will be unlike any before it. It will start later, be shorter, and face logistical challenges the modern game has never faced. This has led to somewhat radical suggestions for how baseball might change to accommodate these limitations: doubleheaders built around seven-inning games, 30-man rosters, round-robin tournaments, television-only audiences, an abbreviated amateur draft, baseball in the winter, restrictions on extra-inning games.

Baseball’s got an odd history with change, by which I mean: The sport generally resists changing things, but things change anyway — the players get bigger, the technology that’s available gets better, the cultural demands shift, problems get too big to ignore, fluky changes happen. But, since the sport generally resists change, those changes aren’t accompanied by other, complementary changes. One part of the game evolves in myriad ways over decades and decades, while many interconnected parts stay exactly the same.

Take, for instance, the idea being considered lately of preventing super-long extra-innings games, like the seven-hour, 20-minute marathon between the Red Sox and Dodgers in the 2018 World Series. When baseball first began, it would have been inconceivable that such a game could ever exist. There were no lights, and thus no play after dark, so the length of games was quite literally capped by daylight hours, and it was a baked-in assumption that some number of games every year would end in ties, sometimes before nine innings were even complete. Furthermore, scoring very early on was much higher, so ties were mathematically (and empirically) less likely. The stakes of the games were arguably far lower, and the first professional teams played the extra innings only if a captain insisted; otherwise they’d agree to the tie. And when it did become more common — as in the first couple decades of the 20th century — games were still being played far more quickly than they are today. A 26-inning game in 1920 took only three hours and 50 minutes. (It ended in a tie because of darkness.)

So when they were designing baseball from scratch in the middle of the 1800s, the problem of seven-hour games was nonexistent. They dealt with the problems of ties after nine innings by simply adding extra innings, just like the first nine. For more than a century we kept playing it that way, largely resistant to change, even as even nine-inning games began to take four hours. Nowadays, five-plus-hour games seem like a real problem. No other sport routinely demands five hours of its consumers, or expects its players to unexpectedly play the equivalent of two games when only one was scheduled.

Similarly, had it never been invented, The R/H/E would probably not be invented today. And if it were invented, it would probably be not Runs/Hits/Errors but something like R/PA/K, where runs tell us who won, plate appearances tell us (roughly) how many baserunners the game had, and K’s tell us how much of the work the pitcher did himself. Perhaps it would be home runs instead of plate appearances, to give fantasy owners the most concise, important information. But, as with seven-hour games, something like The R/H/E remains part of baseball’s wallpaper long after it precisely fits the way the sport is actually consumed.

R/H/E didn’t show up until baseball was a few decades old, and it didn’t show up all at once and everywhere. Here’s the best we can tell:

As of 1890, the New York Times would run capsule summaries of some baseball games — along with full box scores that showed each player’s performance — and brief box scores for others. Those brief ones included scoring by inning and a scoring total, but nothing more:

In 1891, that information was expanded slightly: The Times ran those same linescores, but right below them would be listed, in text, team totals for “Base hits” and “Errors” along with each team’s batteries:

Now a fan who wanted to know what happened in an out-of-town game would know not just the score but a basic description of what type of game it was — whether it was defensively tidy, whether it was filled with more baserunners than the score suggested.

But three lines of text is a lot of real estate for a newspaper designer. Around 1900, the H/E information was summarized at the end of the line score:

So by 1900 — and perhaps earlier in other newspapers — R/H/E had been born, saving one or two lines on each out-of-town game.

But it wasn’t yet the default for full box scores. In response to our query, Peter Morris — the preeminent researcher of early baseball history and the author of the indispensable reference book “A Game of Inches” — surveyed 20th-century newspapers and issues of the weekly Sporting News. R/H/E “didn’t become remotely common in newspapers until the 1950s.” And, more tellingly, it never became common in Sporting News.

Morris has a tentative conclusion: Newspapers liked the R/H/E format because newspapers’ page designers often have to cut things for space as deadlines approach. If the full box score had to be cut for space, then at the very least the R/H/E at the end of the linescore would tell readers the basics of the game. Sporting News, meanwhile, would never cut box scores — that publication existed to publish those box scores, and operated on a more forgiving weekly production schedule — so it didn’t need to include R/H/E at all, since that information could be easily gleaned by the full box score. By leaving R/H/E out of the line score, Sporting News could use narrower columns and crowd more box scores on each page, Morris says.

Why hits and errors? That’s also largely the result of box score design. As Morris tells us, the six most common statistics in 19th-century box scores — the full box scores, with each player’s daily line — were at-bats, runs, hits, putouts, assists and errors. (Henry Chadwick, baseball’s founding statistician and the credited creator of box scores, famously disliked walks.) But not every newspaper used the same box score, depending on how they used their space.

“At-bats and hits were part of every box score, but use of the other four varied,” Morris says. “Runs were sometimes omitted because of the gradual realization that they didn’t measure a specific player’s contribution very well. Putouts and assists went together; they either both appeared or neither. Errors might be omitted as well, but that column took less space (one player’s total rarely went into double figures, as the first baseman’s putout total often did). So two of the most common formats of box scores were AB/H/R/E and AB/H/E. And so I think that’s why the latter became a common feature of linescores.”

And so, because Chadwick didn’t like walks, and because so many balls in the 1880s were put in play, and because newspaper decisions are often about managing space, R/H/E became shorthand for a ballgame. Even as the focus on defense waned — and as Runs and RBIs replaced Errors in most box scores — the R/H/E format had been established furniture. By the early 1930s, Runs, Hits and Errors were such a common formulation they could be recognized by L.A. Times readers even in this macabre, non-baseball pun headline:

And by the time baseball was broadcast on television — where there are no newspaper deadlines, box scores, column inches or anything else we’ve been talking about — the R/H/E showed up there, too:

And, as errors became almost a relic of the past, and as walks became as much a part of a hitter’s daily merit as hits, and as newspapers barely exist as a medium, and as the idea of a box score being somehow unavailable is absurd, and as the modern box score — at, say, Baseball Reference — has 10 times the information that a 1907 box score did, R/H/E survives. It’s the last thing I saw in the last baseball game that mattered.

One of the omnipresent details about baseball that we take for granted is that the lineup doesn’t reset every inning. In nearly every other sport, the team and its decision-makers can attempt to give the ball to its best player more often than to its ninth-best player. But in baseball — on offense, at least — the lineup comes to you when it comes to you. In the biggest moment in franchise history, the eighth spot in the order might be up. You just make it work.

There’s a lot about baseball that doesn’t exist the way it would if we were designing it for modern players and modern play. It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense that pitchers throw 20 mph harder than they did when 60 feet, 6 inches was codified, and yet 60 feet, 6 inches hasn’t changed — and it somehow still works! It doesn’t make a lot of sense that bases are just as far apart as they were before gloves were invented, or that the outfield walls are just as close in a juiced ball season as they were before — and yet the sport still works. Just as the lineup doesn’t reset for every inning, the game doesn’t reset for every shift in style or advance in player ability. The players change, the world changes, we change, the sport itself changes when it must, and yet the rest stays stubbornly, nonsensically, reassuringly exactly the same. Whenever baseball comes back, there might well be significant changes to it. But, for the most part, Mike Trout is going to be trying to beat the very same dimensions that Ty Cobb did, and what he does will be summed up just as it was then: Runs, Hits, Errors.

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