So You’ve Decided to Follow Baseball – Part 1

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With Part One of a beginner’s guide to the greatest game of them all, we’re delighted to welcome, Banished to the Pen stalwart, Darius Austin. You can find Darius tweeting at @DariusA64
If you’ve found your way to this post, there’s a good chance that these two statements apply to you:

1. You’re from the UK.

2. You don’t know very much about Major League Baseball.

If 2 is true but 1 isn’t, don’t worry, this isn’t going to be too country-specific (although, much like many British people watching US shows, it’s possible not all of the references will make sense to you). If 1 is true but 2 isn’t, you probably either still think you might learn something, or you want to know what I think UK fans don’t know, possibly so you can tell me I’m wrong.

If neither of these things are true, I’d love to know why you clicked on this in the first place, and it’s very kind of you to do so. You might not learn much new about baseball, but you probably will learn a lot about all the things we don’t know about baseball when we first start watching.

The idea for this is to be an introductory guide for those who are new to following the sport, or perhaps feel like they have basic gaps in their knowledge, particularly when it comes to interpreting the stats.

I won’t try to explain every little detail about the game, but I also won’t jump in at too high a level, so this first post will focus on the basics of the game, in terms of the stats and terminology you will encounter on an everyday basis. That will be followed by some thoughts on how to select a team to follow and the best ways to watch, listen and generally experience the game when you’re in a timezone that’s 5-8 hours ahead of the one where the action is taking place.
Finally, I’ll run down some of the more advanced stats and what resources you can use to further increase your understanding.

The Basics

Did you play rounders in school? (note to American readers: school does not mean college/university.) Yes? Good. Baseball is like rounders. Someone throws someone else the ball, they try to hit it, they run if they do, they score if they make it all the way round the bases…

Ok, that might be a little too basic to start with. Hopefully at this point you already understand the fundamental premise of the game, and I don’t need to tell you that the guy standing on the little hill throwing the ball is the pitcher, or that three strikes are an out (if you did then I guess you just discovered two new things, and you’ve somehow never heard a strike-based idiom).

Instead, I’ll take you through something you’re going to see an awful lot of if you start following the game seriously, especially if you’re doing most of it through the internet: the box score.

This is the equivalent of the cricket scorecard: in addition to the result of the game, all the basic info about how each team’s individual players performed in a game is recorded here, and the terms I’m about to go over will make up the vast majority of the game terminology you’ll hear referred to on a broadcast, or read in a game story. One of the first things I kept having to look up when I started following baseball was the acronyms and abbreviations, because there are a lot of them, and they’re not all intuitive.
There are a lot of unexplained tables, column headers and notes that you might see in a box score, so I’ll work through each one from the first time it appears, starting from what you’ll see at the top:

Box Score, Part 1: The Line Score
The grid at the top underneath the date, time and location is called the line score. This is an quick version of the box score; all it tells you is how many runs were scored by each team in each inning, represented by the numbers 1-9 across the top, and the total number of runs, hits and errors, as well as the winning & losing pitchers, and the pitcher who recorded a save if appropriate. Let’s run through all of these, with the letter denoting each where appropriate.

Inning: three outs. Unlike cricket, the whole team does not come to bat in an inning; instead, they bat until three outs are made, then the other team takes their turn to bat, and so on for nine innings.
R: Runs. Fairly obvious – you get to home plate, you score a run.

H: Hits. Again, fairly obvious, although it might be counter-intuitive to some that a hit does not mean you made contact with the ball, but rather that the ball was successfully put in play without resulting in an out (this confusion was responsible for someone I know thinking that baseball players were really, really bad at ever making contact with the ball).

E: Errors. This refers to mistakes the fielding team has made, and can be somewhat arbitrary. Essentially, if a fielder fails to make a play to get the batter out, the official scorer at the park has to decide whether the fielder should have made the play, in general terms. Errors can be obvious, such as if a ground ball is hit straight at the shortstop and they let it bounce off their glove and run away, but there are also borderline judgement calls. This feeds into the very moral-sounding concept of ‘earned’ (ER) and ‘unearned’ runs, which we’ll cover in the pitching table. Errors were once considered a measure of defensive talent, but are fast being replaced by much more detailed fielding data; we’ll look at those when we get to the more advanced stats in a later post.

W (also WP) and L (also LP): Win (or winning pitcher) and Loss (or losing pitcher). The rules can get a little arcane, but generally speaking, the pitcher who pitched in the half-inning immediately prior to the team taking the lead that decides the game is credited with the win, and the pitcher who gives up the run(s) that led to the other team taking that lead is awarded a loss. Wins are still considered by some to be good measures of pitcher performance, but they tend to depend far too much on factors that aren’t in the pitcher’s control, and many more pitcher-focused ways of assessing performance now exist.

S (also SV): Save. A save typically occurs when a relief pitcher comes into the game with his team leading by three runs or less and successfully completes the game without giving up the lead. Teams generally have a designated pitcher who does this called the ‘closer’. Much like wins, the rules for a save can be a little arcane, and while the intention is to indicate that the pitcher successfully finished the win in a close game, it’s far from the best way to actually value reliever performance.
That brings us to the end of this initial look at the basics of baseball and the information you’ll find in the line score. In Part 2, I’ll cover the main statistics you’ll see specifically in the hitters section.

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