In baseball, there are earned runs and unearned runs.  All count equally towards the final score of the game.  However, they do not count equally when calculating a pitcher’s earned run average, which represents the number of earned runs they allow per 9 innings.  As you can see from the title and this cursory definition, unearned runs are not included.  So if a pitcher were to give up 100 unearned runs and 0 earned runs, his earned run average (ERA) would remain zero.

This, to put it bluntly, is silly.  Now, it is not the silliest thing about baseball stats specifically or baseball in general.  But the mindset behind it, to me, seems uniquely silly.  The Major League Baseball rule book defines an earned run as that which the pitcher is “accountable” for.  But sports is full of situations where a player is credited (positively or negatively) regardless of how “accountable” he actually was.  Why do we set runs apart?

In basketball, if a defensive player accidentally knocks the ball into his own hoop, by rule the points are credited to the nearest offensive player.  Was he accountable for the defenders blunder?

In football, if a QB hits a RB coming out of the backfield who, in an attempt to allude defenders, works his way backwards for 10 yards, those lost yards are credited to the QB’s passing yards total. Was he accountable for the backwards jaunt?

In hockey… well, I’m sure something happens in hockey that fits the bill but who really cares about hockey anyway?

So, it is sort of silly that baseball and baseball alone attempts to determine that which a player is accountable for and this which they are not.

But, wait, they only do it with runs!!!  All of the hits that a pitcher gives up which he presumably would not have otherwise save for the error count just the same.  The extra strikeout he rings up counts like all the others.  The offensive players who scored the unearned runs get credited with regular ol’ runs in their tallies.  Yet, for some reason, we see fit to excuse pitchers and pitchers alone from being held accountable for that which they might not actually be accountable for.


One man. Two boys. Twelve kids.


  1. Might it be argued that ERA was a precursor to advanced stats? In football, as you cite, judging a player’s performance based solely on yards (or catches or interceptions or whatever) is pure folly. That’s why they created stuff like DYAR and DVOA.

    These types of stats (and I’m inclined to lump ERA in there) tell us much more about a player’s (or a team’s) performance.

    • That’s a great point. Long ago, before I even knew about advanced stats, I realized that ERA was a better stat than Ws were. Which is something folks still debate, believe it or not. So, yea, in some ways, it might have been the first advanced stat. Though I’m tempted to think that the rationale was less forward thinking, more likely the result of giving in to whiney pitchers than anything else. But that’s pure speculation on my part.

  2. It was a first, feeble attempt to judge performance (as something which has predictive power) rather then results (which, as an epiphenomenon, does not.) You’re right that it’s not particularly logical or consistent.

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