I Keep Score: A primer for fans

Keeping score at a baseball game engages a fan in a way that nothing else can. It broadens their understanding and by default deepens their love of the game, but it's an art that is quickly fading. Here's a primer to get you started down the path of reviving the age-old tradition.

"The world is divided into two kinds of baseball fans: those who keep score at the ballgame...and those who have never made the leap." Paul Dickson in The Joy of Keeping Score

I keep score. It's a tshirt I saw somewhere and the moment I saw it I laughed, out loud. To some people it may mean that the wearer keeps score in life, to me, however, it was representative of what I do while watching baseball. I keep score.

Henry Chadwick, a sportswriter, is generally given the distinction of being the creator of scorekeeping sometime in the 1870s. He is also credited with creating box scores and being the guy who assigned the "K" to mean a strikeout. He is my hero.

I'm a firm believer that keeping score in baseball teaches you more about the game than you would realize. It gives you a clear understanding of trends, of streaks, of adjustments and improvements. Some would say I could just look up the numbers the next day or that night captured in a box score or in the splits on Baseball Reference, but that would be cheating. I like to have my own record of the game.

There is something about sitting down at the ballpark and writing in the names on the lineup cards that engages a spectator in the game of baseball like nothing else. But scorekeeping is fast becoming a lost art as the giant HD boards in the stadium tell you everything you could possibly want to know and apps like MLB At Bat give you the play by play in near real-time. But I can't have a player sign my cell phone to capture their MLB debut or their first HR. I can have them sign the scorecard I kept of that game. I keep my own baseball history in a scorebook.

As the draw of sabermetrics has widened in baseball, it seems the interest in scorekeeping has waned. Interesting in that it is the scorekeeping that feeds the numbers - how many hits, runs, RBIs, homers, etc are all tallied on a baseball scorecard. Obviously, there are many things tallied today that aren't denoted on a scorecard, but without Chadwick keeping score, we don't have the stats that have become the backbone of modern baseball.

Over the last few years I've noticed more and more people ask me about scorekeeping at games. They'll ask me why I do it. They ask me how I learned, do I do it every game, do I keep score if I watch on television. There is a modern curiosity about this age-old baseball tradition.

It's that curiosity that brings me to this - a primer of sorts on scorekeeping. I'm going to give you the basics, you can take them and use them as you'd like. Not every scorecard will look the same and not every scorekeeper's symbols will be identical, but the basic concept of capturing the plays you watch before you on a piece of paper are universal. In the coming weeks I'll give you a peek at other fans' scorecards so you can see the variety of styles. But if you want to be able to score tonight's rubber match in Anaheim, this will get you there.

If you want to score a game all you need is a scorecard, a pencil (some people use pens, but I still think a pencil is best) and the time to watch a little baseball. There are many varieties of scorecards, but if you're at the ballpark, walk into the shop and buy one. At Minute Maid Park you can get a scorecard and a freshly sharpened pencil for only $1. It might be the only thing left that you can buy at the ballpark for $1 and I hope that price never increases.

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There are scorecards that are meant to keep all manner of statistics including pitch count, and balls and strikes, but for today's lesson, we'll cover the basics. You can add in more as you become more proficient at scorekeeping and find yourself curious about other metrics.

Before you start an actual game there's some shorthand you'll need to know. The positions are referred to by their number on a scorecard. You've seen or heard reference to a 6-3 out? That's the shortstop throwing a runner out at first.

The Positions

1-pitcher, 2-catcher, 3- first base, 4-second base, 5-third base, 6-shortstop, 7-left field, 8-center field, 9-right field. The designated hitter doesn't get a number as he's never a player on the field. In the lineup you simply denote him with "DH."

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Most scorecards will let you record date, time, ballpark. Some will give you places to list which umpires worked the game, the weather at game time, the attendance numbers at the ballpark. There are lots of opportunities to denote personal historical value to a game such as "Billy's first Astros game."

When the game begins and the first batter is at the plate, it's time to make sure you have your pencil ready. A batter can either get on base, or get an out. Let's look at how to score outs first.

Scoring Outs- each time a player is out, denote that with how the player got out and either a 1, 2, or 3 circled telling you which number out that is of the inning.

Strikeouts - If a batter strikes out swinging, write "K." If the batter strikes out, but does not swing on the third strike, that strike out looking is denoted with a backward K.

Fly balls - If a batter hits a fly ball that is caught, it is easily denoted with an F and the number of the position that caught the ball. For example a fly ball to center field is recorded as F8. Some people leave off the F and just write the number of the position that caught the ball - your choice. I like to denote line drive versus fly ball, so I will sometimes use L8 as a way to indicate a caught line drive to center.

Ground outs - If a batter hits a ground ball that is then thrown from one player to another to get the batter out at first you denote who touched the ball and in what order. If the ball is stopped by the third baseman and then thrown to first, that is a 5-3. If it's a double play that goes from shortstop to second base to first base, write 6-4-3. Again, you're recording the order of the positions that touch the ball, the final one being the position whose possession of the ball resulted in the out.

Caught Stealing is another way for a player to get out. If they are stealing second, you'll draw a line halfway from first to second on the diamond, then add a short perpendicular line at the halfway mark of the base path and add "CS" to indicate they were caught stealing second.  (If the lines don't make sense yet, just sit tight, we'll get to base path lines in a minute)

There are several ways a player can get on base and ways to record all of them. First, a small difference in scorecards. Some scorecards will have a light diamond drawn in, some will be empty squares for each at bat. For either, the markings you'll make are the same, but one gives you a bit more guidance as you can simply follow the base path of the diamond as the player moves around it. Not everyone draws out base paths, but I recommend it as it gives you a much clearer picture of how the game really went later on if you were to look back.

Getting on base

Hit - A base hit is denoted in one of two ways. If a batter reaches first base, you draw the line from home plate to first base and write 1B OR you draw the line from home plate to first base and place one hash mark on the line from home to first. If it was double, you draw the line from home to first, first to second and write 2B OR draw those same lines, but add two hash marks on the line from home to first to indicate that the original play was a double.

Walk - To indicate a walk, draw the line from home to first and write "BB" for base on balls. If the walk was an intentional one, you can write "IBB." (and then roll your eyes and wonder if anyone ever really likes to watch an intentional walk.)

Error- If the batter reaches base on an error, you draw the line from home to first and denote the error with an E and the number of the position of the player that made the error. If the shortstop mishandles a ball or drops it, that's an E6.

Fielder's Choice - If the batter reaches base on a fielder's choice, still draw the base path they took and add FC and if you'd like you can add the players who touched the ball, such as 4-3 (second, first).

Hit by Pitch - If a player is hit by a pitch, draw the base path from home to first and add "HBP."

Hit with an Error to Advance - If the batter gets a single but is then able to advance to second because of an error on the play, draw the base path from home to first and first to second. Write "1B" or the single hash to indicate that the batter is only credited with a single, but then by the line from first to second record the error - E3 if the error was on the first baseman.

Advancing the Runner

Once a batter gets on base, you hope if it's your team that they'll continue to round the bases. We like to record stats about that as well, so here are the ways a runner can advance and how to keep track on your scorecard.

Advanced by a hit - If a runner advances to second because a hitter behind him got a single, simply draw the base path of where the runner went - from first to second. You can indicate the jersey number of the hitter that advanced the runner, but it's not necessary and most fan scorekeepers don't add that tidbit. I can generally tell by my scorecard who advanced which runner.

Stealing base - When a runner steals a base, draw in the base path they took and add "SB" near that base path line.

Home run - A home run is indicated by drawing lines for all of the base paths, filling in the diamond and adding "HR" to the scorecard.

Scoring a run - When a runner advances to home plate, the diamond of the base paths are all completed and you can fill in the diamond to indicate a run. You can add the jersey number of the player that batted the run in on that square OR alternately to record an RBI you can place a dot in the lower left hand corner on the square of the hitter who hit the ball to advance the runner to home plate.

What Else?

There are some notations that aren't covered in the advancing and hitting and scoring...things like showing where an inning ends and what to do with a team batting around, etc. Let's talk about those.

End of the inning - At the end of an inning, simply draw a slash diagonally across the bottom right hand corner of the square recording the last batter of the inning. Some scorekeepers will add numbers on this line denoting the number of total pitches and strikes for the pitcher up to the end of that inning. That is optional and I suggest, not worrying about pitch count when you're first learning to keep score - that can come later when you become proficient and obsessed.

Batting Around and Extra Innings - Yes, Astros fans, a team can have more than 9 batters come to the plate in an inning. When that happens, you simply continue the inning into the next column, meant for the subsequent inning. Scorecards will generally come with more than 9 columns. You'll also use those columns should you be lucky enough to witness a game with FREE BASEBALL, otherwise known as extra innings. If the game gets crazy-long, you might have to go to a second scorecard.

Player Substitutions, Pinch Hitters, Pinch Runners - When a player substitution is done, you'll draw a vertical line after the last at-bat of the previous player and add the name of the new player under the original player who was in that spot in the order. For pinch hitter or pinch runners, add "PR" or "PH."

At the end of the inning you can tally the numbers, recording totals for hits, runs, runners left on base, errors, etc. to make your totaling at the end of the night easier.

Play Ball!

And there you have it. You're ready to keep score at tonight's game. Next week we'll take a look at some variations in scorebook styles as well as variations in how different people keep score based on why they keep score. You'll get a peek inside the scorebooks of announcers, fans and pros.

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