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The White Sox and Ken Harrelson's first rule of baseball

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A look at errors and their correlation to the success of the 2014 White Sox

A clear violation of the MLB Official Baseball Rules, Division 1.00, Rule 1.01
A clear violation of the MLB Official Baseball Rules, Division 1.00, Rule 1.01
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

"You have to catch the baseball."

Over the past few years, it's been nearly impossible to be a semi-regular viewer of White Sox telecasts without hearing Ken Harrelson explain that "first rule of baseball" to viewers.  It's safe to say that when Hawk repeats this, he's not referring to Ultimate Zone Rating or any other advanced defensive metric.  Rather, it's a saying born out of frustration at games the White Sox have lost due to simple, observable miscues with the leather.  Hawk is talking about errors.

Any fan knows the sting of a baseball game lost due to a fielding error at a critical juncture.  There's plenty of ways to lose, but the error stands as one of the toughest to swallow.  Even though walk-off homers and opposing team shutouts can suck, there's something particularly grating about errors.  They seem so unnecessary, so preventable. They get the iffa-woulda-coulda-shouldas going.  Making the routine play is such a thankless job.  If you screw up, everyone remembers it.  If you succeed, you get a golf clap and it's forgotten after the next pitch is thrown.

Hawk Harrelson, the voice that so often echoes the passionate side of the White Sox faithful during games, knows this better than anyone.  After all, he has a legitimate case to be labeled as the team's biggest fan.  When the defense chokes with the game on the line, it hits him more than most.  The frustration clearly sticks with Hawk, because his thoughts on the broadcasts counterintuitively imply that error prevention is more important than things that play greater roles in the outcome, like hitting or pitching*.

However, it's possible that the repetitiveness of Hawk's statement and the availability of better fielding metrics might cause us to look past the impact that errors can have on a game.  After all, they are really bad events, particularly ones that turn an almost-certain out into a baserunner.  Let's say a ground ball goes through the second baseman's legs for a single.  Ideally, this takes place with two outs and no one on base, in which case the 2014 run expectancy matrix says it's worth just 0.2 runs.  If the bases are loaded, botching that grounder could easily be worth about three runs.

That math doesn't take into account the mental effect that an error might have on a pitcher.  Few, if any major league pitchers are immune to frustration, and frustration can make a person lose focus.  Furthermore, despite the advancement of pitching statistics, ERA can still play a role in salary negotiations and is still very widely used.  There's something of an absolution that comes to the pitcher when a fielding error extends an inning, since the pitcher knows that no "unearned" runs that cross the plate after that point in the inning will tarnish his ERA.  Major league pitchers aren't ignorant of basic statistics, and it's a good bet that this thought at least crosses their minds.

So errors are bad, and it's not news that they have a negative correlation to winning.  However, I was curious about the strength of that correlation for the 2014 White Sox. I scanned through the box scores for the season, and after Friday, the White Sox are 35-27 in games in which they don't commit an error.  That pace would yield about 91 wins over the course of a full season.

Further still, the Sox have played 32 games this year in which they've committed fewer errors than their opponents. Of those 31 games, they've won 19.  That's a 96-win pace.  On the flip side, when the Sox commit more errors than their opponents, their winning percentage has been .344, which extrapolates to 56 wins, seven worse than the dumpster fire that was the 2013 White Sox.

This brings us back to Hawk. Ken Harrelson has repeatedly said that when the White Sox catch the baseball, they're a good team. I can't speak for everyone, but when he says that, I often smirk and say to myself, "No, they're still a couple bats, a bullpen, and a couple starter's arms short."  But looking at the actual results, it's tough to argue with him.  He's not looking at the team's wOBA or FIP or anything like that.  He's just looking at the events that take place when the team wins and the events that take place when it loses.  Without looking at high-level advanced stats, he's come to a conclusion that's supported by the results.  It may not be all that helpful, because no team can play error-free ball for 162 games, but it's true that when the Sox have played clean defense, they've generally been winners in spite of the team's other flaws.

"Hit the baseball" and "pitch the baseball" are still more important directives, of course.  However, the next time Hawk harps on how important it is to "catch the baseball".  I'll probably tone down the smirk a little bit.

*Well, starting pitching anyway.  From what I gather, the importance of the bullpen gives fielding a run for its money.