Baseball lingo writers will need to add a few more characters as MLB undergoes rule changes.
It’s spring training for everyone. In recent weeks, MLB players, managers and umpires have begun to adjust to a new rulebook, figuring out how to handle changes like the pitch clock and the ban on infield changes.
Good … almost All. There is one more related group of people here. They’re not in spring training, but they’ll have to abide by the new rules, and they’re patiently waiting in their home markets with pens and notebooks in hand.
They are the official scorers of MLB.
A goalkeeper may not have to figure out how to manage or plan or play under the new rules. But he has to figure out how to record what happens because of them. Forget how you plan a strike with the clock ticking down. How do you write that on a scorecard?
There are two answers here. The first is that it’s okay. MLB does not require scorers to follow standardized practices for keeping score. The only requirement is that they can easily read and understand their own notes. The scorer must decide whether a given play is a hit or an error, a passed ball or a wild pitch, but does not have to end the night with a regular score sheet. (Exact play data is captured and entered from a data string.) This means a scorer can use whatever notes they want, not just for these new plays, but for everything. However, the second answer is that it matters a lot. Keeping score means speaking the language of baseball. It can be both an art and a science—a deeply individual exercise, full of personal secret codes, or more like a shared practice, passed down from generation to generation. How a game is written on a scorecard is a record not so much of what happened as of how it was seen, felt, experienced.
So ask the official scorers how they plan to call, say, a strikeout that occurs on a pitch clock violation, and you’ll hear that it doesn’t really matter. Except for all the ways he does it.
The pitch clock looms large in spring training for everyone from the pitcher on the mound to the catcher.
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports
Under the new rules, a pitcher who takes too long to deliver a pitch will be charged an automatic ball, and a player who takes too long to enter the box will be charged an automatic strike. This means that any plaque occurrence can theoretically end in such a violation. Which, in a sense, is easy to score. A strikeout is a strikeout. A walk is a walk. If one occurs in a pitch clock violation, it can still be tagged with a K or BB, just like any other. Except… you should the? There is precedent for differentiating the symbolism based on exactly what is happening. A strikeout look can lead to a backward K. An intentional walk can get IBB. If the goal is to make a scorecard as faithful a description of a game as possible, it only makes sense to include some sort of indicator that indicates the mechanics of a particular game. So why shouldn’t a hit that occurs on a pitch clock violation be… uh… something?
One possibility is an italic K.
“I like that and I’ll probably use it,” says Stew Thornley, one of the Twins’ official scorers.
This became an early popular choice: If you turned a K backwards to indicate that it was seen, it wasn’t swinging, why not turn it sideways to show that it was for fun? Some are interested in a sideways BB for a step-clock-violation-walk, too. (Thornley likes the idea of circling a BB here instead.) But not everyone is a fan of flipping the letters sideways.
“I don’t think I’m going to do that,” says Jason Lee, who hits for both the Nationals and the Orioles. “That seems a bit excessive to me.”
Lee considers commenting on a K or BB that occurs on a foul with “PC” for the “pitch clock.” Another option here would be to add an “A” for automatic. And surely other possibilities will arise: some scorers have not yet considered the question.
“Thanks for bringing this up. It’s something I hadn’t even thought about,” says another veteran scorer when asked about his plans. “I have to be ready with my new notes. “
Of course, these walkouts and strikes won’t be very common. Violations are expected to decrease over the course of the season as players adjust. (In the minor leagues, the offenses eventually dropped to less than one every two games, and the majority of those occurred in the middle of a plate appearance rather than a decisive final pitch.) Thornley also hit for Triple A St. Paul Saints, who tested the pitch clock last year like all minor league teams: Never scored in a game where a plate appearance ended in a foul. But even if it’s rare, it’s worth having a plan for how to record it, just in case. That’s part of the beauty of keeping score: It’s a record of a game that can recall its events years or decades later. Thornley kept his card from the very first time he kept score (June 23, 1963: Orioles 4, Twins 1) and each game still resonates.
The new rules offer an unusual look at how personal scoring styles can develop. Yes, there are basics that are (almost) universal. But there are little tricks, flourishes and notes that can make a scorecard as uniquely tied to a person as their fingerprint. This is a chance to see these quirks as they develop.
“There are some conventional practices that are done,” says Lee. “But I’ve seen dozens of different ways people keep score, and I always think it’s really cool to see other people’s scorecards.”
There are other questions here: How will these violations be recorded for those pitching? What about other rules that can affect the count or put a man on base, such as breaking the shift ban or pickoff movement restrictions? MLB’s official scorers will have their answers before Opening Day. Everyone else can find theirs at their own pace, in their own time, for their own reasons.
“There’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to go into it. For me, it’s always been about completeness, being able to be detailed enough to reconstruct an entire game play-by-play and maybe even pitch-by-pitch,” says Thornley. “People ask how it should be done. I say as you wish.”