Double plays are one of the least appreciated but most important plays in baseball. We sometimes overlook the impact of double plays, because they aren’t included in typical baseball stats. Batting average, On-base Percentage and Slugging Percentage don’t include them. Fielding stats like Fielding Percentage, Range Factor and Zone Rating don’t include them. But pitchers understand that double plays can turn a ballgame around.
Let me give you an example, using something called Win Expectancy. With the score tied and the visiting team at bat in the top of the eighth, runner on first and none out, the home team typically has about a 42% chance of winning. Wipe out the runner and batter with a double play, and the home team’s chances jump to 58%. There are very few defensive plays that have that kind of impact, and infields that can turn a groundball into two outs are priceless.
Unfortunately, identifying the best double play combinations can be tricky. Groundball pitchers will naturally have more double plays turned behind them. So will bad pitchers, because they have more runners on first base. Even ballparks can have an impact; for instance, artificial turf is more likely to yield double plays because groundballs reach infielders more quickly. Bottom line, you’ve got to really look deeply at the stats to identify the best DP combos.
Let’s start by looking at double plays as a percent of total assists for all infielders with at least 300 innings played at an infield position. By dividing double plays by assists, we adjust for the impact of groundball pitching staffs. Here are the top DP playmakers, with at least 21% of assists involving double plays.
Player Team Pos Innings DPs DP/A M McLemore OAK 2B 336.1 33 29.7% T Graffanino KC 2B 630.1 65 27.9% O Infante DET 2B 871.2 72 25.5% A Cora LAD 2B 1007.0 84 25.2% J Castillo PIT 2B 869.0 72 24.6% A Soriano TEX 2B 1256.0 103 24.2% J Wilson PIT SS 1236.0 113 24.2% M Scutaro OAK 2B 867.0 67 24.1% R Furcal ATL SS 1032.0 93 23.7% B Boone SEA 2B 1182.0 81 23.4% D Eckstein ANA SS 1057.0 70 23.0% S Hairston ARI 2B 650.2 45 22.3% M Loretta SDP 2B 1217.0 96 22.0% A Berroa KC SS 1011.0 79 22.0% D Jeter NYY SS 1226.0 87 21.8% W Harris CHW 2B 601.2 45 21.7% N Green ATL 2B 539.0 41 21.5% J Vidro MON 2B 887.1 66 21.4% M Cairo NYY 2B 745.0 52 21.3% B Roberts BAL 2B 1168.0 83 21.3% R Sanchez TBD 2B 657.0 50 21.3% C Guzman MIN SS 1199.0 91 21.2% M Young TEX SS 1259.0 87 21.1% M Giles ATL 2B 691.0 54 21.0%
The first six players are second basemen, which probably makes sense. Second basemen are obviously in the middle of virtually all double plays, but they also typically handle less overall chances than shortstops. Second baseman Mark McLemore, who’s played 336 innings at second for the Athletics, occupies the number one spot on this list with nearly 30% of his assists coming on double plays. The A’s other second baseman, Marco Scutaro, is also high on this list but shortstop Bobby Crosby, at 19.2%, is below the cutoff point.
Other notables include KC’s Tony Graffanino number two spot at second base and Angel Berroa’s number five ranking among shortstops. And Pittsburgh’s infield stands out, with shortstop Jack Wilson the highest rated shortstop and rookie second baseman Jose Castillo high on the list. So Oakland, Kansas City and Pittsburgh look like three key teams to follow.
Thanks to our partners at Baseball Info Solutions, we have access to some unique double play stats. In particular, BIS keeps track of who started each double play, who turned it and who finished it. Let’s look at the double play turners first, expressed as a percent of total assists again. This list consists entirely of second basemen:
Player Team Inn DPTurned DPT/A M McLemore OAK 336.1 28 25.2% T Graffanino KC 630.1 43 19.6% A Cora LAD 1007.0 61 19.0% J Castillo PIT 869.0 50 17.9% P Polanco PHI 831.0 45 16.7% W Harris CHW 601.2 34 16.4% O Infante DET 871.2 44 15.8% A Soriano TEX 1256.0 66 15.8% J Vidro MON 887.1 42 15.5% B Hall MIL 418.1 17 15.5% M Scutaro OAK 867.0 41 15.4% M Giles ATL 691.0 38 14.8% J Spivey MIL 517.2 26 14.7% M Kata ARI 320.2 16 14.4%
McLemore blows away the competition on this list, and Graffanino is also at the top. LA’s Alex Cora also rates highly. Now, let’s look at a similar list, based on the greatest number of double plays started as a percent of total assists:
Player Team Pos Innings DPStarted DPS/A M Cuddyer MIN 3B 305.0 10 21.3% M Ensberg HOU 3B 829.2 26 17.0% R Mackowiak PIT 3B 411.1 15 16.7% J Wilson PIT SS 1236.0 69 15.6% C Woodward TOR SS 492.2 25 15.3% A Berroa KC SS 1011.0 49 14.5% B Boone SEA 2B 1182.0 43 13.2% D Eckstein ANA SS 1057.0 35 13.0% B Crosby OAK SS 1217.0 58 12.9% J Valentin CHW SS 955.1 45 12.9% O Vizquel CLE SS 1165.0 47 12.8% J Rollins PHI SS 1244.0 45 12.7% G Blum TBD 3B 356.0 9 12.5% K Greene SDP SS 1186.0 47 12.4% C Izturis LAD SS 1252.0 48 12.3% M Young TEX SS 1259.0 47 11.8% R Freel CIN 3B 376.0 12 11.8% R Martinez CHC SS 529.2 20 11.5% T Womack STL 2B 1013.0 41 11.5% C Gomez TOR SS 629.0 23 11.4% R Furcal ATL SS 1032.0 43 11.3% C Guzman MIN SS 1199.0 46 11.3% D Cruz SFG SS 674.1 25 11.3% D Jeter NYY SS 1226.0 40 11.0% N Green ATL 2B 539.0 21 11.0%
Third basemen are at the top of the list, which also makes sense given the low number of balls they typically handle. There are sample size issues, however, as only one of these guys (Ensberg) can be considered a regular at the position. Note that another Pittsburgh infielder, Mackowiak, is third on this list. Pittsburgh’s Jack Wilson also really stands out as the shortstop most involved with the DP, and Angel Berroa is once again close behind.
Bobby Crosby shows up on this list. Looks like he starts the double plays and McLemore and Scutaro turn them. Presumably there’s a strong tendency for groundballs to be hit to the right side in Oakland because 55% of the A’s innings have been pitched by lefties, vs. the league average of 37%. Lefty pitchers mean righty batters, and righty batters pull groundballs.
Bret Boone is the only 2B near the top of this list. This is curious because the Mariners also have a lot of pitches pitched by lefties (45%). But, for whatever reason, Bret Boone is the leader at starting double plays from second base.
The trouble with all of these stats is that they don’t adequately reflect the number of opportunities each player might have had. To turn a double play, there has to be a runner on first base with less than two outs. As you can imagine, this is not a predictable number, nor can you easily tease it out of the stats.
Luckily, Baseball Prospectus tracks this data on a play-by-play basis, and they make it available on their site. I was able to copy this data and compile it for each team, giving us a total number of double play opportunities for each team. Next, I compared the number of double plays turned by each team to the league average rate, and adjusted for the groundball tendencies of the staff. The resulting number is the Expected number of Double Plays, given league-average DP conversion rates and staff-specific Groundball/Flyball ratios.
Let’s compare actual double plays to expected double plays to find the best DP teams in both leagues. First, the American:
Team DP Opps Exp DPs Act DPs Diff CHW 1063 133 151 18 KC 1060 134 149 15 OAK 1095 145 155 10 CLE 1115 136 140 4 SEA 1133 128 131 3 MIN 1074 137 139 2 ANA 978 113 115 2 DET 1140 151 149 -2 TEX 1113 143 138 -5 NYY 1108 141 136 -5 TBD 1105 131 124 -7 BAL 1251 154 145 -9 TOR 1106 144 132 -12 BOS 1001 129 116 -13
We had Kansas City and Oakland on our radar, but it turns out that the number one double play team in the American League is the Chicago White Sox. Although Jose Valentin and Willie Harris (Juan Uribe, even) weren’t especially high on our previous lists, the White Sox have been tops in the league. Valentin has been an overlooked shortstop for quite awhile, and both Uribe and Harris have great range at second.
Let’s see if the National League also holds some surprises:
Team DP Opps Exp DPs Act DPs Diff MON 1054 136 159 23 PIT 1169 152 171 19 FLO 935 116 133 17 LAD 982 117 129 12 SDP 993 129 139 10 PHI 972 118 124 6 STL 971 138 141 3 CHC 947 114 114 0 HOU 999 122 121 -1 ATL 1110 153 152 -1 SFG 1080 142 134 -8 MIL 998 127 116 -11 COL 1193 159 144 -15 ARI 1123 145 129 -16 NYM 1120 148 130 -18 CIN 1094 136 113 -23
Same story in the National. We expected Pittsburgh to be high on this list, and maybe the Dodgers, but who’d have guessed that the best DP team in the majors plays before the smallest crowds? That would be the Expos of Montreal/San Juan.
In past articles, we’ve noted the impact that :DER: can have on runs allowed. This typically reveals itself in the difference between ERA and true pitching performance, as measured by :FIP:. But Les Expos are a team that buck this trend — despite a league-average DER they still have a positive variance between ERA and FIP. Could it be the double plays? Could be…
References & Resources
If you don’t subscribe to Baseball Prospectus and you’re a baseball fan, you should resolve your cognitive dissonance and subscribe today.
Tangotiger’s Win Expectancy is an extension of work performed by previous analysts, including Jay Bennett, the Mills brothers and the Big, Bad Baseball Annual. It’s a great tool for assessing the impact of plays, players and managers, and I expect you will hear more about it as time goes on.