ATLANTA -- Ozzie Smith, for a certain kid of a certain age in the mid-'80s, was the perfect gateway drug toward a lifelong baseball addiction. He was charming and charismatic, he had a child-friendly nickname (the Wizard of Oz), he made crazy diving plays all over the place and, best of all, when he ran onto the field on Opening Day, he would do a backflip.
Ozzie Smith might also be the greatest defensive player in baseball history. That's important to establish, because it gives you some perspective on just how good Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons is. Simmons is the only other shortstop who has even given you that "you could be a Hall of Famer even if you bat .205 the rest of your life" vibe. Here's my favorite Andrelton Simmons play:
All right, that's just impossible.
So yeah: Simmons is amazing. Which is why it was so strange last night, in the Braves' 4-3 loss to the Cardinals, their seventh in a row, to see him make two rather egregious mistakes. The first came in the third inning, on a Matt Carpenter ground ball he bobbled away. The second, and more costly, came in the fifth, when, after a leadoff single by Peter Bourjos, second baseman Mark Ellis hit a relatively easy grounder that Simmons muffed again. That hurt plenty: The Cardinals would end up scoring three runs that inning, in a game they would win by one run.
Now, because MLB.com is not in the habit of clipping embarrassing mistakes by its players, there aren't clips of these two mistakes by Simmons. (You can watch some good plays he made, though.) But you can watch the replay of the game on MLB.tv if you wish: Simmons bonked both balls. He would be the first to admit it: Those were errors.
Not in the eyes of the official scorekeeper in Atlanta, though, at least not for a while. The question is whether they were "errors" or "Errors." Because Andrelton Simmons is a perennial Gold Glove candidate, it is in the Atlanta Braves' best interest to keep Simmons' fielding percentage as high as possible. And nobody likes to give out errors: The culture surrounding a Major League Baseball team is one of relentless positivity, particularly when it comes to non-athletes judging athletes. (All teams have water boys, including some who wear ties and use computers.) Thus, Simmons, who made two obvious errors, was given zero.
Well … at first. After the game, the play in the fifth inning was switched from a hit to an error. Was this because the official scorer took a closer look and decided it was an error after all? If you were being generous, you might say "maybe." Except: The error in the third inning was just as bad, and that wasn't switched. The difference? The Cardinals scored three runs in the fifth inning and none in the third. Making Simmons' play an error turned two of those three runs into unearned ones, thus helping Aaron Harang's ERA. The basic elements of the game are being counted by retrofit. They're changing the statistics to tell the story they want, rather than the story that really happened.
Now, obviously, fielding percentage is as deeply a flawed statistic as you can imagine, and on the whole, the smart sports fan has learned to completely disregard it. But even if you're aware of ERA's shortcomings, you still use it, pay attention to it. So much of ERA, though, is defined by silly whims like this. Simmons was charged with an error later because if he hadn't been, Harang's ERA would be 3.41 rather than 2.98. And that might make Aaron Harang feel bad. Our great game is being measured and documented by people more interested in giving out participation trophies and making everyone feel good about themselves than, you know, the truth.
This happens all the time. When you see an error switched overnight, it is almost always because there were runs scored that inning and someone wanted to rejigger everyone's statistics so that the ego damage -- and potential contract negotiation advantages -- will be minimized. I've been to six MLB games this season, and I've seen this four times already. (The Cardinals' Seth Maness' ERA should actually be 6.55, but because the Milwaukee official scorer retrofitted a Jhonny Peralta error back on April 16, it's 4.09.) Official scorers won't give an error unless they absolutely have to. And only then if it doesn't offend anyone.
I know, they're just stats. But this is baseball, of course, which means they are so much more than stats. This is a sport in which we try to get everything right, to get everything documented in as black-and-white a fashion as possible. The official scorers -- the very foundation of this whole process -- are more interested in back scratching and making sure everybody gets a sticker. We are drawing conclusions from faulty numbers and blatant human bias. For years, we have known the error is a terrible way to objectively judge defense. Now, it's becoming clear it a terrible way to objectively judge errors.