A Brief History of Opening Day/Early-Season Error Rates

Meaningful baseball! The world is right again. Full stadiums, actual numbers in the win-loss columns, Curt Schilling in the booth, all of it. Except, as we saw yesterday in our three games during “Soft Opening Day,” the first few games of the season can feel a bit like an extension of spring training — at least performance-wise. Sure, there was Chris Archer and Marcus Stroman dueling in Tampa (even though Archer might not have had the trademark control of his slider at times), and the Royals doing many Royals things, but there were also things like this, in the first game of the day:

And then this in the second:

And a little of this in the third:

Those things can happen any day during the regular season. Catchers throw balls into the outfield all the time trying to get guys stealing second. Outfielders lose balls in the lights, even on very routine plays. However, when they happen during the most routine of plays (at least for Jose Bautista and Yoenis Cespedes) on a high-profile day of baseball with only three games, we are inclined to start shouting about how it still feels a little like spring training.

But is there any merit to the idea of teams continuing to “warm up” in the early games in April? Do teams make more errors during these games, and play worse fundamental baseball, as it were? Let’s find out!

One final thing: we know errors aren’t the best judge of fielding prowess, given their inherent subjectivity. It’s an unfortunate part of working with them, and we’d love to look at what advanced metrics have to say on this subject — the splits are just hard to come by. Today, we’ll have to make do with what we currently have on hand. I’ve pulled data from the always-helpful Baseball Reference Play Index on error rates for every season since 1930 (the first year for which the index contains full information on errors), looking at the average number of errors per game in the first 25 games of the season vs. the remaining 137 (or fewer, prior to 1961). Based on a dead simple average of number of errors per game, here’s what those years say:

Error Rates, First 25 Games vs. RoS, 1930-2015
Average # of Errors Per Game
Opening Day 0.56
First 7 Games 0.54
First 25 Games 0.51
Rest of Season 0.45
SOURCE: Baseball Reference

There was a slight uptick in error rates in the first 25 games of the season league-wide compared to the rest of the season in the years in our data, which on the surface seems to lend at least some support to the idea that play could be more sloppy during April than the months afterward. However, it’s really the first seven games of the season that look extra error-prone compared to the rest of the season: in fact, if we only look at error rates from the eighth game of the season on, we get an average of .46 errors per game, telling us that this has been pretty strictly a first-week phenomenon in baseball for the years we’re studying.

Are players just nervous during their first game of the season? It’s obviously impossible to know the root cause of what made players commit more errors during the opening weeks of these seasons, and there’s certainly the possibility that some of this could simply be noise. We already know the issues with errors and what they do and don’t say about actual fielding performance. They’re not perfect — far from it, in fact. However, from the data we have, the first seven games could have served to effectively work the kinks and nerves out of players that might still have a little winter rust on them. On average, after the seventh game of the season, obvious defensive lapses have become less commonplace.

Now the natural question becomes: what were some of the most error-filled Opening Days and opening weeks?

Most Errors per Game (avg.) on Opening Day: 1960, 1.13 

The 1960 season saw 18 errors made on its first day, with only six of the 16 teams playing a clean game. Of particular note was the game between the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Athletics which saw five errors. Ultimately, only five of the 10 runs scored by Chicago were earned. After an error in the top of the ninth inning by White Sox first baseman Ted Kluszewski led to the A’s tying the game at 9-9, Minnie Minoso homered on the first pitch of the bottom half of the frame to walk it off for the Sox, 10-9.

Most Errors on Opening Day: 2003, 26

The 2003 campaign featured a banner Opening Day, as just seven of the 15 games played (or 30 total “team” games) accounted for 17 of the 26 league errors on the day. Of the errors in those seven games, the most ignominious might have been a Jake Westbrook fielding error that allowed the eventual winning run to reach second base during the bottom of the 13th inning in a game against Baltimore. At the time, the length of the game — three hours and 45 minutes — theoretically could have factored into the decision by Westbrook (conscious or not) to mercifully boot the ball, though that is just conjecture on the part of the author of this piece.

Most Errors per Game (avg.) in opening week: 1936, 0.88

Only a confirmed 3,600 fans showed up for the third game of the season at Fenway Park in 1936 to watch the Red Sox beat Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics 10-4, though they had the pleasure of witnessing the teams combine for seven errors. The Sox were even able to get past a throwing error by their third baseman Joe Cronin in the fourth inning which lowered their Win Probability by 8%; Cronin would go on to commit two more errors in the game before being pulled for a pinch hitter.

Most Errors in opening week: 1996, 124

Even though this category was likely always going to be won by a post-expansion, modern baseball season, 1996 was impressive despite its size advantage. With 124 errors during the first seven games of the season, 1996 had nine more than the next-closest season, 1982. There were two games that really stood out: a Padres vs. Astros tilt with six errors, and a Cardinals vs. Mets game with eight errors. The former, a 17-2 Padres win over the Astros that was not a contest following the fifth inning, saw those Astros commit four errors in the second half of the game, in essence wildly waving a white flag while attempting to bury their heads in the infield dirt. The latter, a 10-9 Mets win, saw the tying run score on a Gary Gaetti fielding error in the bottom of the ninth. The following batter, pinch hitter Brent Mayne, singled home the winning run off of Dennis Eckersley.

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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Jim Lahey
7 years ago

I was watching the Jays game.. Kiermaier was thrown out trying to steal 3rd not long after the drop. The announcers were disgusted with the attempt – bad baseball play; assume that will presumably get fixed with coaching / repetition over the coming months like your data on fielding shows.

Coincidence all 3 of these guys appear to be taking it easy when they committed their error?

7 years ago
Reply to  Jim Lahey

Maybe the real lesson here is that “Fielding isn’t Fun” – if JoeyBats started doing glove-flips after making a catch, it’d become fun enough to be worth his focus. Get that man a “Make Fielding Fun Again” hat!