This article was originally developed as an oral presentation given by the author to the Society for American Baseball Research at their SABR 45 Convention in Chicago on June 27, 2015. The presentation, which featured the innovative use of video, audio and transitional animation embedded within a PowerPoint deck, was awarded the annual Doug Pappas Research Award as the best of the 32 oral presentations made during the convention that weekend.
This article has been repurposed from that deck. Since the Retrosheet play-by-play data on which this study was predicated were updated just days before the original presentation, all the data provided during the oral presentation have been updated for this article.
In the first installment of this Little League Home Runs series, we first reviewed the proposed definition of the Little League home run and found both the earliest recorded incidence of the event itself and of the earliest use of the term. In the second installment, we contemplated some of the statistics and oddities attended to the history of the Little League home run, including a link to a file listing all 258 Little League home runs that have occurred in big league history.
In this installment, we will boldly call the entire premise of the first post into question by reviewing that original proposed definition and discuss — and I mean with you, not just in my head — whether that definition is the right one, or whether we should adjust it based on available facts on the ground.
We initially selected the two-criterion definition of (1) two or more errors on the play and (2) batter scores on the play because of its simplicity. As we said before, simple works really well: you simply go into Retrosheet’s play by play files, simply plug these two parameters into their proprietary BEVENT tool, and all the plays that match them come right up. Couldn’t be much simpler.
But despite that the Little League home run can be defined in this simple manner, the $64,000 question is: should it? Not all two-error/batter-scoring plays look alike, and they encompass a wide range of plays occupying the spectrum between hilarious gaffe-filled boners (which sounds like an uncomfortable physical condition, doesn’t it?) and mild defensive glitches on good long hits.
Here’s what I mean: would you call this a Little League home run?
Len Kasper, Cubs’ play by play announcer, would. Actually, Len Kasper did, right in the clip. You probably noticed that yourself.
But technically, under our definition, this is not a Little League home run, because only one error was called on the play: the third baseman’s throw from the backstop to the catcher to try to catch Kris Bryant, the batter, who was then trying to score. There was no error charged leading up to that because, technically, Anthony Rizzo scored on the play without any error called on his advance; plus, Bryant took third on that throw and not on any error called during that part of the play. Yet the ball did appear to be thrown around in the same comical fashion as during a “technical” Little League home run, so you couldn’t fault Kasper for calling it such, even if at the time he’d been aware of our proposed definition and even agreed with it.
But even if there were another error called on the play, there’s another potential problem with calling this play a Little League home run: the nature of Bryant’s hit itself. That hit was not anything like a little dribbler picked up on the infield and thrown all over the place. This was a booming drive hit way over the head of the center fielder that one-hopped the fence. Is there anything “Little League” about a hit like that? Think about it: if a kid in real life Little League hit a ball that far over the head of the center fielder, that ball would have kept going and going (since few if any Little Leagues play in fenced-in ballparks), and the hitter would have easily trotted in with an actual home run. So can any ball hit like this be considered a “Little League home run”?
Here’s a similar example with a different conclusion:
Now, this Reed Johnson effort from last year was also called a Little League home run in the clip, and it does, in fact, satisfy our simple definition as it currently stands. But again, can such a monster big-league style hit truly be called a “Little League home run”? This one hit off the wall in the deepest part of the ballpark, yet this would be considered a Little League home run by our current definition, while the Bryant shot, a practically identical hit, is not. Is it reasonable that one of these hits should make the Little League home run list while the other should not? Do you think they should both not be Little League home runs because Little Leaguers don’t really hit moonshots like that? Should both be considered Little League home runs because the batter scored on the play on errors made? Or is the current definition correct in defining Johnson’s hit as one while Bryant’s hit is not?
Here’s another interesting and totally hilarious example:
We probably all remember this one, also from last year: Ryan Raburn’s utterly horrible throw, replayed in tweets and other social media posts endlessly for weeks afterward. Raburn indicated after the game that this was a mental error on his part; that is, he was mentally stuck between throwing to second and not throwing to second because he noticed too late that Mike Moustakas chugging towards third, so his tweener decision ended up crapping the bed. But this hit was also a different kind of double: rather than a monster shot off the outfield wall, it was a soft pop up down the left field line, catchable on a really good play (although understandable if not caught). That’s why it was ruled a double and not as the other error needed to technically qualify as a Little League home run. However, it’s possible that a better case could be made for this one being a Little League home run, because the ball, while clearly a hit, was not a booming long hit. It was more of a pop up, which could be considered a mistake by the batter in failing to square it up. If it there’s one thing Little Leaguers are good at, it’s failing to square up a pitched ball for a hard hit.
Here’s one more interesting example to consider:
Unlike the others, this Peter Bourjos 2011 candidate was not a double. It was a single, and a sharply hit single at that. It scooted under the left fielder’s glove for a three-base error, going all the way to the wall, and it was Bourjos’s speed that allowed him to advance three bases and score whereas an ordinary mortal might have drawn a throw to third, creating the opportunity for the second error needed to qualify as a Little League home run. It wasn’t a booming double, and there was only a single error on the play, but it was a much sharper hit than the Moustakas’ pop up double. Should this qualify as a Little League home run, as broadcaster Victor Rojas characterized it in the broadcast?
We could discuss all this in the comments below — and we probably will — but there is another way we can make this determination, and one that is actionable: through an online poll. So I have set up such a poll over at SurveyMonkey, which lives here:
In this poll, you will be shown some videos of batters scoring on inside the park plays featuring varying numbers and degrees of defensive errors, after each of which you will be asked one simple question: is this example a Little League home run? Yes or no?
We hope you will see it as a fun poll to take, but there’s a serious purpose to it, too. We would like some of the smartest baseball fans on the planet to help us determine, once and for all, which kinds of batter-scoring inside-the-park plays should be considered Little League home runs, and which ones should not. So please go on over and take the poll, now if you can, while your mind is still wrapped around the concept. Or go later when you get time. But either way, please go and vote.
In case you can’t locate the link to the poll above, here it is once more:
Looking forward to your responses.
The author did not do this entire project alone. He had a lot of help from database geniuses who ran queries for him so he could find instances of Little League home runs. So, big public thank yous are due to Mike Emeigh and Dan Hirsch, who ran the original queries; and Tom Ruane and David W. Smith, both of Retrosheet and both of whom ran the updated queries. These guys are also all SABR members, too. If you’re not a SABR member yet, please consider becoming one now, because then you will get easy access to super keen research stuff like this.