Baseball Forensics – Just a Pitch in the Dirt?

People ask me all the time if my game-used baseball jewelry business started as a hobby.  “Kind of,” I answer.  Baseball history is my hobby, not jewelry-making.

Game-used baseball jewelry was a business idea from the start for me, so I taught myself how to braid, work with leather, and wrap wire.  I’m constantly learning or teaching myself a new craft.

What has come completely naturally on the other hand, is the extra research I do on all of the baseballs I acquire.  I’ve been geeking-out on baseball data, since I first started collecting Topps baseball cards in 1978.  The games I made up from the stats on the backs of baseball cards helped me learn math.  The colorful characters and stories on both sides of the cards ignited in me, a deep passion for the history and romance of the game.

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Major League Baseball has the most extensive authentication program of any professional sport.  Authenticators are on hand as everything from baseballs to dirt are removed from each game and ballpark, and then labeled with a special tamper-proof hologram sticker and logged into the MLB data base.  All of these items end up for sale in team stores or put up for auction.  Most of the game-used baseballs I acquire are from Major League Baseball’s own auction website.

Regardless of where it was purchased, the tamper-proof MLB authentication hologram sticker is the key to the baseball’s provenance, and it’s where the story starts for every one of the pieces I make.  Each hologram sticker includes a unique serial number consisting of two letters and six numbers, (ex. HZ 350221).

When that number is entered into the MLB Authentication Database, the story of the baseball begins to unfold.  In some cases, there’s very little information – just the two team names and the date of the game.  In other cases, there’s a LOT of information – down to the type and speed of every pitch, and the exit velocity and launch angle, if the ball was hit.  In other cases, like with the ball pictured above, the information is somewhere in-between:

Kershaw

In this case, we can see only 6 points of data:

  1. Teams: San Diego Padres at Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. Date: September 8, 2014
  3. Batter: Rene Rivera (SD)
  4. Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw (LA)
  5. Inning: Top of 6th
  6. Outcome: Pitch in the dirt

This is where the fun begins for me.  Just a pitch in the dirt?!  There’s always more to the story.  Time to call The Inspector!

Bill "The Inspector" Caudill

My favorite tool for baseball research is Baseball Reference.com and here, it doesn’t take me long to find the results of the game –  a 9-4 victory for Kershaw and the Dodgers. I then clicked into the box score, scrolling quickly past the Dodgers batting box, to the pitching line, when I see Kershaw went 0-4 at-bat that night.

This is where my pitch in the dirt starts to get interesting.

Batting BoxPitching Box Score

A quick look at the pitching box score told me two things right off the bat:

1 – The victory for Kershaw gave him a win/loss record of 18-3 in early September, with a very low 1.67 Earned Run Average.  This reminded me to check the annual MLB season awards to see if he won the Cy Young award in 2014… I probably should have checked this FIRST.

2014 was a RARE season for Clayton Kershaw.  Not only did he win the Cy Young award as the National League’s best pitcher, he also won the MVP.  Only ten times in Major League history has a pitcher been recognized with both awards.  The Cy Young was his second of back-to-back awards and 3rd overall, having won it in 2013 and 2011.

So this wasn’t just any pitch in the dirt… It was a pitch in the dirt by a man in the midst of one of the 10 greatest pitching seasons in baseball history.

2 – The other thing that immediately stood out to me about Kershaw’s pitching line was  that he gave up 3 runs in the game, but only 1 of them was earned.  That meant there were some defensive miscues behind him.  He actually pitched better than the score alone would indicate.

Fortunately for “statheads” like me, BaseballReference.com doesn’t stop at box scores, so the next thing I review is a detailed account of the Top of the 6th Inning.  This is where I can start to see exactly how my ball was used.  Inning Info

Here we see the Rene Rivera at-bat consisted of five total pitches, the last of which he hit for a flyball out that somehow scored two runs on THREE Dodger errors. This definitely begs further investigation but first to learn more about MY baseball, I clicked into the at-bat to find a pitch-by-pitch account.

At Bat Info

Fortunately, only one ball during the at-bat was blocked by the catcher, so I can say with full confidence, that my baseball was the 4th pitch.  With just a little more research into the game and Clayton Kershaw’s career, I have a full story to tell my customers…

If he were to retire today, Clayton Kershaw would go down in the record books side-by-side with another southpaw Dodger legend, Sandy Koufax.  In fact, some might even say Kershaw is better than the Hall of Famer, accomplishing in only 11 seasons, what Koufax did in 12:

  • 1 MVP Award
  • 3 Cy Young Awards
  • 5 Earned Run Average (ERA) Titles
  • 7 All-Star Appearances

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This baseball was pitched by Dodgers superstar Clayton Kershaw during his historic 2014 season in which he won the National League MVP and Cy Young awards for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

On Monday, September 8, 2014, Kershaw pitched this ball to the Padres’ Rene Rivera in front of 41,886 fans at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine. Thrown in the top of the 6th inning, the pitch was blocked in the dirt by catcher A.J. Ellis. It was the 74th pitch of the game, but only the 19th ball. Kershaw would go on to with the game, notching his 18th victory of the year, and 95th of what is sure to be a Hall of Fame career…

…or was it just a pitch in the dirt?

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Now, about those three errors on one play? Click here to watch the very next pitch after my ball was removed from the game.  (It’s a good excuse to listen to another Hall of Famer, Vin Scully.)

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