Sports

The three-ball walk, and other MLB counting failures

Hope you enjoy the above episode of Dorktown! Below is a conversation between Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein about what went into it, as well as a couple of weird things that didn’t quite make it into the script.


Jon: So as we said in the video, we weren’t the first to find this phenomenon of umpires and everyone else getting the count wrong, but you stumbled upon it independently. How did you find it? Was it just in the course of one of the millions of Sports-Reference searches we run?

Alex: Yep! While in the process of working on the Kirby Puckett Dorktown post, I was exploring the percentage of time the batter is ahead in the count or not when home runs are hit. In running this search, thankfully my eyes happened to veer enough to the right of home runs to notice nine walks that occurred with an even count. My eyebrows immediately launched into outer space. Were these walks on 3-3 counts? 2-2 counts? Didn’t know that could happen in baseball! I’m afraid I could not refrain from taking a deep plunge down this rabbit hole.

Jon: I feel like this is how our story selection comes about at least half the time. We’ll be digging around in Stathead looking for Thing A, only to spot something weird or funny that ultimately becomes Thing B. In most cases, Thing B is something we file away in our top-secret list of episode ideas. That’s the case with the next episode of Dorktown we’re working on right now – no spoilers, but it’s all about something we first found about two years ago. We just let it sit for a long time and waited until we had the time and space to tackle it.

Not the case with this one, though! I remember you dropping a wrong count you found into our Dorktown chat, then another, then another. Some of the others in that room, regulars like Graham, Seth and Kofie, were as confounded as I was. I was just like, “man, you want to just put everything else on pause and do this now?” Which you did, so we got going right away. This phenomenon was so damn weird that I just didn’t want to wait.

One thing that folks might find interesting is that story selection process, what it is that makes us give a thumbs-up to a particular project. How would you explain that to somebody? Like, to you, is there a signature quality to a particular story that makes it the kind of thing you know you want to talk about?

Alex: There are a few things that I look to identify from the outset of potential projects. Finding stories of things that simply should not happen I’d say is a common theme — and that can be a very malleable concept. I think this is a good example in that for my entire life I’d taken for granted that anytime a baseball player walked, there must have been four balls, and any time a baseball player was still in the batter’s box, there must not have been four balls. The idea that there’ve been exceptions is hysterical to me. Certainly not a thing that happens every day.

And of course, in telling that story, you look for it to lend itself to the ability to craft charts that underscore just how bizarre what we’re seeing is. I wanna see charts that feature bars towering over others, scatter charts with outliers in their own solar system, etc.

Jon: Yeah, that’s actually a really interesting observation that I don’t think I’ve put into words. A good qualifying question that determines whether or not we talk about something is, “is this gonna pop on a bar chart, scatter plot, timeline, whatever?” It’s all about the outliers. Sometimes we try to fold it into part of a greater narrative, but sometimes it’s just self-evidently worth talking about, like “look at this weird shit.”

Speaking of, we were running a little long on the episode and we ended up largely cutting out something we found pretty damn weird – the phenomenon of so many players being involved in multiple wrong-count incidents, despite those incidents only coming around once in a blue moon. This was really strange. Can you lay it out?

Alex: So the genesis of me noticing this phenomenon originated from a September 2020 Nats-Phillies game. Not only did that game feature a delightful four-ball non-walk, the pitcher involved was actually a position player: super-utility man Brock Holt, on the mound for the second time in his career (meaning catcher is the only position he’s never played).

The first time was actually five days earlier, and he allowed a homer to his first-ever batter faced. But lest you think allowing a first-batter homer would be the most eventful story of Holt’s pitching career, guess again, while carefully observing the count at the time of the pitch to Philly pinch-hitter Mickey Moniak.

Amid my amusement that even the novelty of a position player pitching couldn’t attract enough focus to keep track of the count, it dawned on me that the first baseman in the field at the time was Asdrubal Cabrera, who himself had previously been the beneficiary of a three-ball walk. Not anything noteworthy on its own, but it opened the door for me to realize the weird extent to which there are common bonds within these phantom counts.

Both Cabrera and Logan Forsythe were also in the field for this Max Muncy five-ball walk, then reconnected a few years when each happened to wind up with the Texas Rangers in 2019, where Cabrera batted in front of Forsythe when the latter was victimized by a four-ball non-walk. Forsythe also of course was a central figure during the broadcast when Will Venable wasn’t able to extract a walk out of four balls.There’s also Yunel Escobar and Chris Stewart, plus Kurt Suzuki was the catcher behind the plate for both Escobar plate appearances, though unfortunately the Nats didn’t start him in the Holt/Moniak game.

Speaking of Escobar, in that very first example we show with Jon Jay, Escobar got kicked out of that game a few innings earlier, and was replaced by Forsythe, who was in the field at the time it went down. Oh, and just for fun, our good pal Brandon Guyer took this Randy Choate sinker to the hip a mere 12 minutes prior to that Jay plate appearance.

Jon: That is so bizarre. It’s not the first time in Dorktown history that it’s felt like certain individuals operate on some sort of chaotic frequency that disturbs everything around them.

The last question I have for you concerns what we’ve referred to as The Escobar Incident – that plate appearance in 2014. Losing count and forgetting the pitch existed was funny to begin with, but once they actually put on headsets to review the plate appearance with the league office and STILL got it wrong … I mean, that’s one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in any sport. Do you think this takes the title of Weirdest Thing In Dorktown History? Can you think of anything else we’ve covered that approaches it?

Alex: I think it’s gotta be. Any and all excuses go out the window when you soak up three minutes of everyone’s life to look at six pitches and come away as though you only looked at five pitches. An inability of an entire umpiring crew and MLB suits to count to six within the paused confines of replay review is something that I will forever wonder about. Perhaps the only thing that could come close is if David Bell actually walked on a ONE-ball count in the 3rd inning here, though we chalked that up to perhaps being a ball in play that was mis-recorded. I still hope to one day track down the footage of that game to observe, just in case.

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