The worst thing a batter can doby John Walsh
March 20, 2009
The worst thing a batter can do is ground into a double play with the bases loaded. Actually, hitting into a triple play is evidently more costly, but that happens so rarely and besides, I'm sort of fascinated by the double play lately. On average, grounding into a double play costs the team almost a full run, or about three times more than an ordinary out. However, when the bases are loaded the cost is much higher.
For example, with the bases loaded and one out, the batting team on average will score around 1.6 runs before the inning is over. A double play, of course, ends the inning without any runs having scored, so the cost of the double play is 1.6 runs. Even more costly is a double play that occurs with the sacks full and no outs. In that case, the run expectancy is 2.35 runs. Let's say the DP goes 5-2-3, leaving runners on second and third with two outs (and no runs scored), a situation with run expectancy of .61 runs. So, the cost of the double play is the difference between those two numbers, or 1.74 runs.
Maybe I'm simply a misanthrope or, worse, someone who takes delight in the failure of others, but I'm sort of fascinated by the double play. Who hits into them most often and (this is my positive side breaking out) who does the best job of avoiding them? That's what motivated me write my previous piece, wherein I worked out a method for determining a player's double play performance, taking into account how many times he actually came to the plate with a runner on first base and fewer than two outs.
This time I want to use that little tool to look at the best and worst double play batters of all time. "All time" signifies "since 1953," which is the start of the Retrosheet Era, the years for which Retrosheet play-by-play data is generally available.
More than one way to skin a cat
Before handing out the awards for best and worst, though, I wanted to mention a curious (to me, anyway) fact I noted in the first part of this analysis. Namely, that big slow guys do not always hit into lots of double plays. In fact, big slow guys like Jim Thome and Jason Giambi were seen to be among the best at avoiding the rally killers.
This may not be news to many of you (and some of you let me know!), but I have lived most of my life thinking that you had to be fast to avoid hitting into double plays. Bill James enlightened me on the subject (as he has on many others). Here's what he wrote about Darren Daulton, a pretty good hitting catcher for the Phillies back in the '80s:
An interesting thing about Daulton is that although he had knee surgery every winter, in his career he was 50-for-60 as a base stealer—the fifth-best stolen base percentage in history—and almost never grounded into a double play. ... In his career he grounded into only one double play for every 104 at bats—the best GIDP rate in history for a catcher (since they began keeping GIDP totals in the 1930s), and one of the lowest ever. Richie Ashburn grounded into double plays more often and he was a left-handed leadoff hitter who could fly. Lou Brock, Maury Wills and Rickey Henderson grounded into double plays more often than Daulton.James compares Daulton to two other catchers of the era who had similar profiles: Gene Tenace and Mickey Tettleton. They were also good at avoiding double plays. James goes on to give two reasons for their success in avoiding the GDP:
There's a third reason that James does not mention: They were not afraid to strike out with a man on base, either. Note that James' figures give GDPs relative to at-bats, not to DP opportunities like I am doing.
A lot of double plays come when a hitter reaches for an outside pitch that he ought to take and hits a ground ball to shortstop or second base.
- They hit fly balls, rather than grounders, and
- They're not afraid to take a walk with a man on base.
Reading about Daulton and guys like that got me to thinking: who are the best and worst all-time at avoiding the double play? Was Darren Daulton really among the very best, or did he simply have fewer opportunities than most? Does the all-time list contain its share of lead-footed behemoths, as our current players list did last time? Let's get to it.
Better than the rest
So, I ran my little analysis on the complete play-by-play data set available at Retrosheet, going back to 1953 or so. Can you guess the name of the very best player at avoiding the double play? Here are two hints: 1) he's widely regarded as being one of the smartest to have played the game, in a baseball-smarts sense, and 2) he currently works as an announcer and inspired a Website (now defunct) dedicated to removing him from his job.
Yes, Joe Morgan was better at avoiding the GDP than any player in history (Retro-history, I mean). In his long career, Morgan came to the plate 2,046 times with a man on first base and fewer than two outs. An average player would have grounded into 235 double plays, while Little Joe got twin-killed less than half that number, 102 times. That savings of some 133 double plays was worth roughly 63 runs for his team, or around six wins.
Joe Morgan was a fascinating player. He was the kind of player who sometimes is under-appreciated, for the simple fact that he does many things very well, without necessarily finishing atop the league leaderboards in the major stat categories. Joe Morgan never led the league in hits, never won a home-run or batting title. He never paced the league in doubles or even stolen bases. He did lead in triples once and runs scored only once. His Bill James "black ink" score is 15, about half of that of the average Hall of Famer.
But the stats that most (or many) people care about change over the years and some of today's most-valued stats were Joe Morgan's stock in trade: He led the league in OBP four times, walks four times, slugging percentage once and OPS twice.
Of course, if Joe Morgan was under-appreciated, it wasn't by much. He did win two MVP awards and five Gold Gloves, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He was considered the best player on Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, a two-time World Series winner, and often considered one of the best teams of all time.
Still, you sometimes get the feeling that Morgan was even better than you or I know. Bill James quoted somebody (I couldn't dig up the quote) saying that Joe Morgan, when leading off first base, was never, ever fooled by a pitchout. He just seemed to know when the pitchout was called and he simply would not try to steal on that pitch.
James also concluded that Morgan was the best "percentage player" in history and a study I did a few years ago, using James' method, found Morgan to be among the very "smartest" ballplayers of the last 50 years. And now we have filled in another piece of the puzzle of the greatness of Joe Morgan. He, more than any other player, avoided those rally-strangling double plays.
Here are the Top 20 players in avoiding the GDP in the Retrosheet era. DPA stands for Double Plays Avoided and represents the number of double plays a player avoided compared to an average player with the same number of opportunities. See my previous piece for more details.
+-------------------+------+------+---------+------+---------+ | Name | Opps | GDP | DP_rate | DPA | DP_runs | +-------------------+------+------+---------+------+---------+ | Morgan_Joe | 2046 | 102 | 0.050 | 133 | 63 | | Bonds_Barry | 2356 | 165 | 0.070 | 96 | 45 | | Davis_Willie | 1969 | 127 | 0.064 | 95 | 45 | | Mantle_Mickey | 1766 | 103 | 0.058 | 94 | 44 | | Mathews_Eddie | 1784 | 106 | 0.059 | 93 | 44 | | Evans_Darrell | 1930 | 132 | 0.068 | 91 | 43 | | Damon_Johnny | 1373 | 75 | 0.055 | 79 | 37 | | Clark_Will | 1607 | 100 | 0.062 | 77 | 36 | | Gibson_Kirk | 1309 | 73 | 0.056 | 75 | 35 | | Carter_Joe | 1877 | 133 | 0.071 | 75 | 35 | | Pinson_Vada | 2138 | 166 | 0.078 | 73 | 34 | | Strawberry_Darryl | 1220 | 64 | 0.052 | 72 | 34 | | Jackson_Reggie | 2214 | 183 | 0.083 | 72 | 34 | | Thome_Jim | 1856 | 137 | 0.074 | 71 | 33 | | Griffey_Ken | 1531 | 106 | 0.069 | 70 | 33 | | Griffey_Ken Jr. | 2346 | 190 | 0.081 | 70 | 33 | | Rivers_Mickey | 956 | 45 | 0.047 | 67 | 31 | | Anderson_Brady | 1179 | 65 | 0.055 | 65 | 30 | | Abreu_Bob | 1626 | 119 | 0.073 | 64 | 30 | | Williams_Billy | 2341 | 199 | 0.085 | 64 | 30 | +-------------------+------+------+---------+------+---------+This is a list of some pretty good ballplayers, in fact all 20 of them were stars and several are either in the Hall of Fame or will be. It's kind of cool to see Ken Griffey pere et fils right next to each other. And speaking of underrated, there is Darrell Evans, sometimes cited as the most underrated player in history.
Rally killers par excellence
Here's the list of the all-time trailers, the guys who killed more rallies than anybody in the last 55 years:
+-----------------+------+------+---------+------+---------+ | Name | Opps | GDP | DP_rate | DPA | DP_runs | +-----------------+------+------+---------+------+---------+ | Franco_Julio | 1854 | 310 | 0.167 | -102 | -48 | | Scott_George | 1606 | 279 | 0.174 | -96 | -45 | | Torre_Joe | 1611 | 277 | 0.172 | -95 | -45 | | Pena_Tony | 1321 | 235 | 0.178 | -86 | -41 | | Rice_Jim | 2066 | 315 | 0.152 | -76 | -36 | | Konerko_Paul | 1197 | 209 | 0.175 | -74 | -35 | | Rodriguez_Ivan | 1922 | 287 | 0.149 | -73 | -34 | | Simmons_Ted | 1865 | 287 | 0.154 | -70 | -33 | | Clayton_Royce | 1326 | 217 | 0.164 | -69 | -33 | | Adair_Jerry | 730 | 149 | 0.204 | -68 | -32 | | Piniella_Lou | 1257 | 211 | 0.168 | -65 | -31 | | Carty_Rico | 1181 | 199 | 0.169 | -65 | -30 | | Castilla_Vinny | 1438 | 224 | 0.156 | -64 | -30 | | Ausmus_Brad | 1192 | 196 | 0.164 | -63 | -29 | | Concepcion_Dave | 1737 | 264 | 0.152 | -62 | -29 | | Robinson_Brooks | 2120 | 300 | 0.142 | -61 | -29 | | Bailey_Bob | 1200 | 197 | 0.164 | -61 | -29 | | Ripken_Cal | 2598 | 350 | 0.135 | -60 | -28 | | Coomer_Ron | 657 | 131 | 0.199 | -59 | -28 | | Davis_Tommy | 1443 | 219 | 0.152 | -57 | -27 | +-----------------+------+------+---------+------+---------+I must confess, I have a soft spot in my heart for Julio Franco. Although he and I were born in the same year, he stopped playing baseball around 35 years after I did. But let's not let misty-eyed sentiment get in the way of the task before us. Let's tell it like it is: Julio Franco, bless his soul, killed more would-be rallies than any other player in history.
This list of GDP sluggards is more of a mixed bag the the best-of list that precedes it. There aren't many really bad hitters here, although part of that has to do with bad hitters not accumulating enough at-bats to make a list like this. A couple of the below-average hitters (Ausmus, Clayton) were in the lineup for their gloves. There are some good hitters here, too. Three Hall of Famers (Rice, Brooksie, Ripken) plus Pudge Rodriguez, who'll be enshrined one day (or maybe not, you can't be too sure these days), are accompanied by three more near-misses (in terms of ability, if not votes garnered): Torre, Simmons and Concepcion.
This seems like a good time to mention the influence of batter handedness on double play tendencies. As several readers pointed out after my first article, left-handed hitters have a real natural advantage in avoiding the ground-ball double play. This point, which I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't noticed on my own, is starkly confirmed by the above tables. Of the Top 20, all are left-handed swingers except for Mantle, who was a switch-hitter, and Carter, who batted right. Conversely, the Bottom 20 list contains 19 right-handed hitters and one switcher (Simmons).
We can come up with several likely reasons for this: (1) left-handed batters are closer to first base and therefore beat out the relay more often; (2) lefties can take better advantage of the "hole" on the right side, created when the first baseman holds the runner on. Most ground balls are pulled, so lefties will hit the hole more often; (3) perhaps double plays started on the right side—4-6-3 and 3-6-3 are more difficult than their 6-4-3 and 5-4-3 counterparts. I have not studied this, but my intuition tells me that (2) is the most important effect here.
When you look down the list of career double play performance, ranked by DPA, say, you see some unlikely players as neighbors on the list. For example,
| Name | Opps | GDP | DPA | | Whitaker_Lou | 1772 | 142 | 58.7 | | Trammell_Alan | 1804 | 155 | 50.4 |These guys were one of the best double-play combos in history, on the defensive side of the ball, of course. They weren't too shabby on the other side, either. They each grounded into some 50-odd fewer double plays than an average player would have.
| Name | Opps | GDP | DPA | | Beltran_Carlos | 1212 | 100 | 37.0 | | McCarver_Tim | 1203 | 99 | 37.0 |These two would not seem to have much in common, except that they hit into almost exactly the same number of DP in the same number of opps. Well above average performance, which we expected for the speedy Beltran. For the catcher McCarver, not so much.
| Name | Opps | GDP | DPA | | Henderson_Rickey | 1774 | 173 | 26.8 | | Stairs_Matt | 1193 | 107 | 26.3 |Rickey Henderson was above average at avoiding the DP, but he wasn't nearly as above average as you might have expected for the greatest base stealer in the history of the game (or at least, the most prolific). I once wrote an article for this site on the triple and I noticed the Rickey hit far fewer triples than I was expecting. He apparently was not quick out of the box, being a right-handed hitter who took a vicious cut. Whatever the reason, the most feared base stealer in the game was as good as avoiding the DP as Matt Stairs, the Wonder Hamster.
| Name | Opps | GDP | DPA | | Davis_Eric | 1171 | 112 | 17.3 | | Luzinski_Greg | 1409 | 147 | 17.2 |Another odd couple consisting of an explosively fast baserunner and a slow outfielder with distinctive facial hair. It should be noted that the Bull had a few more opps to reach his 17 double plays saved. I'm just sayin'...
| Name | Opps | GDP | DPA | | Vaughn_Mo | 1332 | 135 | 11.4 | | Powell_Boog | 1558 | 164 | 11.3 |I claim these two huge left-handed first basemen were quite similar players, even though neither one appears on the other's list of similar players at bb-ref.com. I'm thinking double-play tendency should be added to the similarity criteria. Both of these slugging sluggards were above average in avoiding the double play.
| Name | Opps | GDP | DPA | | Hrbek_Kent | 1456 | 166 | -2.1 | | McGee_Willie | 1383 | 157 | -2.2 |Willie McGee was the fleet-footed center fielder for the Whitey-ball Cardinals of the 1980s. The man could fly. But he hit a lot of ground balls with men on base, a lot of ground balls and he couldn't beat 'em all out. Kent Hrbek could not fly.
| Name | Opps | GDP | DPA | | Jeter_Derek | 1614 | 195 | -14.2 | | Boggs_Wade | 1974 | 236 | -15.2 |Both great hitters, both hit into more than their alloted quota of double plays. Boggs did it by being slow, while Jeter got there by hitting lots of grounders and batting from the right side.
| Name | Opps | GDP | DPA | | Rose_Pete | 1997 | 251 | -22.4 | | Ramirez_Manny | 1832 | 230 | -24.8 |One was Charlie Hustle, the other was just Being as in Manny Being Manny. Didn't somebody say once that "perfect speed is Being there"? Either way, Pete and Manny are there in the bottom half of my double play list.
| Name | Opps | GDP | DPA | | Clemente_Roberto | 1884 | 252 | -41.1 | | Piazza_Mike | 1685 | 229 | -41.6 |When Piazza was on the Mets, he was often criticized for his propensity for grounding into the double play. I don't think I ever heard anyone complain about Clemente in that regard.
After writing two articles comprising some 5,000 words on the double play, maybe it's best to make a quick summary. Most batting stats, even the advanced ones, don't include grounding into double plays, which is the worst thing a batter can do. For most batters, GDPs don't make a big difference in their overall value, but for some they do. Well maybe not a big difference, let's say a medium-sized difference. To properly evaluate a player's GDP performance, though, you need to consider how many DP opportunities he came up in, which requires more work than simply calculating Base Runs or something.
The other thing to take away from all this is that sometimes a player will fool you—the big slow guy (Luzinski) will be good at avoiding the GDP, while the speedster (McGee) will not. Avoiding the DP is not only about speed, but about putting the ball in play (or not), ground ball tendencies and which side you bat from.
The scene: the 2525 All-Star Game of the Dead, played on a cornfield in Iowa. It's the bottom of the ninth, with the Spirits down by a run, but they have Phantom closer Firpo Marberry on the ropes: the bases are full with only one out. Spirits manager Brian Bannister knows, without even having to consult the run expectancy table that he keeps in his back pocket, that his team is expected to score about two runs. But the double play is to be avoided at all costs. Bannister gathers his courage and calls Clemente, who is on deck, back to the dugout. Trying to avoid Clemente's glare, the Spirits manager looks down the bench. "Hamster!" he calls out. "Grab a bat, you're on."
References and Resources
The citation from Bill James was taken from the New Historical Baseball Abstract. See the entry for Darren Daulton.
John Walsh dabbles in baseball analysis in his spare time. He welcomes questions and comments via e-mail.