The Three Best Double Plays Ever

…since 1974, when our play-by-play database begins.

On Monday, I posted about the three worst double plays ever according to Win Probability Added (WPA). From 1974 through yesterday’s games, there have been 89072 double plays caused by groundouts (I’m leaving out other sorts of double plays as, from the hitter’s perspective at least, they have more to do with dumb luck). Of those, only 51 have a positive WPA. However, it does happen from time to time, and while the shifts aren’t as dramatic in terms of WPA, the circumstances make them more interesting (at least to me) than the negative WPA occasions.

Before starting, I would encourage you to read the glossary article on Win Probability Added linked above if you haven’t already. WPA was not designed with the intention of being used to value players. It is just a “story stat,” a way of quantifying the ebbs and flows of the game. That’s not so much a limitation of the metric as its nature. It is useful for telling a story, which is what is of interest in posts like this. While the three plays discussed here are from the 1970s and 80s, the fourth- and fifth-best GiDPs (which I do not discuss) were from the early 2000s, when the run-environment was much more hitter-friendly.

3. Steve Jeltz, +.088 WPA,June 17, 1988, Phillies (3) versus Mets (1). The Mets were in first on this day (and would win 100 games and the division), and the Phillies were 11.5 games. However, the Phillies managed to beat Doc Gooden despite his dominating performance: eight strikeouts, one walk, and five hits over eight innings. The generally noodle-batted Jeltz played a major part in Philadelphia’s win despite himself. All of the Phillies’ runs came in the fourth inning. With one out, Mike Schmidt (in his penultimate season) hit a solo home run. After Doc hit Chris James with a pitch and Phil Bradley doubled, Gooden gave Milt Thompson a free pass, which, even with WPA not taking into account Jeltz’s abilities, looks good: +.005 WPA. The Mets seemed to get what they wanted, as Jeltz did ground into an inning-ending double play. However, before that third out, the Phillies somehow managed to get not just one, but two runs across the plate, which were the winning runs of the game. I haven’t dug up any information about whether this happened due to great baserunning or some other factor, but it is an unusual feat either way.

Hey, did you know that Steve Jeltz “holds the records for most games played, at bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, runs batted in, walks and strikeouts among players born in France” according to Wikipedia?

2. Ron Hodges, +.102 WPA, June 7, 1978, Mets (3) versus Dodgers (2). The Mets make the list again in this 1978 classic, which pitted Joe Torre versus Tommy Lasorda in a battle between two of the (eventually) most overrated managers of our time. Torre lead the Mets to a 6th place finish this season, but Lasorda’s Dodgers did win the National League West and made it to the World Series, where they lost to the Yankees.

On this day, however, the Mets were the victors. The game had been knotted up at 2-2 since the fourth inning. In the bottom of the eighth, with runners on first and third and one out, Hodges, a lifelong member of the Brotherhood of Backup Catchers, grounded into another inning-ending double play. However, before the last out of the inning, Steve Henderson managed to score what turned out to be the winning run of the game.

1. Lamar Johnson, +.262 WPA, September 1, 1979, White Sox (4) versus Brewers (3). So long ago that the Brewers were still in the American League… This is a particularly curious one, and I thought about “disqualifying” it, but since I think these plays are interesting more for the circumstances than anything else, I decided to leave it in. Do you see anything unusual on this WPA graph?

Lamar Johnson was a decent hitter, but he wasn’t anything particularly notable as Chicago’s first baseman and DH for a few years in the late 1970s. This particular double play doesn’t seem to be all that special, either: it came in the bottom of the fifth inning with Tony LaRussa‘s White Sox up 4-3. With a runner on first and no outs, Johnson grounded into a double play. Big deal. Wait, how did that end up being +.262 WPA? Well… check the graph againn. The game got called (I assume for rain), and suddenly this was the “winning” play for the White Sox, just as if their closer had gotten the last out or something.

Some might say this is just a glitch caused by the game being called, something that WPA isn’t designed to handle. I think the answer lies elsewhere, however: Tony LaRussa is a genius.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

31 Responses to “The Three Best Double Plays Ever”

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  1. James says:

    Re: Jeltz play. They threw it to first then Thompson got in a run down.

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  2. BDF says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Mentioning Steve Jeltz is a guaranteed way to get me to comment. Which I know is your primary concern.

    Kind of funny because he’s been “in the news” recently as another Philly (shortstop) to have homered from both sides of the plate, as Jimmy Rollins did recently. We need to bring back Steve Jeltz’s hair.

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  3. AustinRHL says:

    I felt sure that at least one of these plays would be as follows: top of the ninth/tenth/eleventh/etc., runners on first and third, one out, infielder throws to first, baserunner originally on first avoids tag in rundown for long enough for runner on third to score. #2 was sort of close to that, but not quite what I imagined.

    It’s a shame that there’s never been such thing as a walk-off double play.I suppose it’s theoretically possible, but it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which a team would be stupid or confused enough to let it happen.

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    • Temo says:

      Sure, runners on first and second, no out, ground ball to 1B, who steps on first for the first out. 2nd base runner advances to third, first base runner is now in a run down. Runner at 3rd takes off for home, but with plenty of time for fielder in run down to make the tag, then fire home.

      Either the fielder misfires, or catcher drops the ball, etc., and the runner scores the walk-off run. There you go, walk-off double play.

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      • Jacob says:

        with one out wouldn’t he just throw to 3rd for the lead runner though.

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      • Jacob says:

        none out *

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      • Jon says:

        I think this is the most likely and straightforward way to have a walk-off double-play:

        Bottom 9, runners on first and third, none out. Hard ground shot to the third baseman, who checks the runner, then throws to second. Second baseman picks up that the runner hasn’t gone yet, and goes to first to complete the double-play. The runner on third sees this and makes a late break for home. The first baseman’s throw is just a little bit off-line, and… it’s a walk-off!

        So simple I can’t believe it’s never happened.

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    • Anon says:

      Here’s a way to get a true walk-off GIDP.

      Tie game, bottom 9, runners on 1st and 2nd, none out. Defense turns a normal grounder into a 6-4-3 double play, but the speedy runner on 2nd manages to score during the play.

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      • jacob says:

        maybe if the catcher and pitcher both go to 1B (incorrectly, someone should cover home). sort of like how you occasional steal 2 bases on the same play due to a shift for a power hitter.

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  4. Hurtlocker says:

    For the defense, the double play is always good. I suspect this is just levels of goodness.

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  5. FYFs LOBs says:

    This is hard to read. Needs major editing; there are typos everywhere.

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  6. J Rich says:

    i like the concept of the article, but seems weird to throw out double plays the runner couldn’t control (ie. line drives leading to double plays) but counting kooky plays involving botched fielding.

    that said, #1 was pretty funny.

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  7. Max says:

    I was hoping there might have been a time when someone lost track of the outs, allowing the winning run to score on a forced GDP. The closest to this that I can remember was Jimmy Rollins (I think it was him) throwing to first for the 2nd out of the bottom of the 9th inning and allowing the runner at third to score the winning run.

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  8. Person says:

    “Joe Torre versus Tommy Lasorda in a battle between two of the (eventually) most overrated managers of our time” – Wait, you can’t just throw this out there without backing it up, can you? Well, you can, but should you?

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  9. TK says:

    Tony Larussa is a genius makes this article. Well done.

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  10. Jacob says:

    bigger question about #1, #2 – is there any chance the play by play logs are inaccurate. Is there any chance there was a rundown or something else the batter couldn’t control.

    #3 highlights a flaw in the methodology. it would be more accurate for the weather to be the reason for the big upshift

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  11. The Only Nolan says:

    Hey, did you know that Steve Jeltz “holds the records for most games played, at bats, runs, hits, doubles, triples, runs batted in, walks and strikeouts among players born in France” according to Wikipedia?

    I actually read this on FranceGraphs the other day.

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  12. CJ says:

    As an Astros fan, the best double play I have seen was in the 9th inning of a NLCS game vs. the Cardinals. I think this is the WPA:

    The tying run would have scored if the GIDP hadn’t ended the game. Bruntlett fielded the ball between 2d and 1st, and it barely touched his glove as has he threw to Everett covering 2d base who then made a lightning fast throw to 1st.

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  13. RC says:

    My god you people need an editor.

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  14. Llewdor says:

    No, that’s wrong. You can’t give Johnson credit for the game getting called. The game was getting called then regardless of what happened.

    You need to recalibrate the WPA for the whole game assuming the game was going to end after 5 innings.

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    • Barkey Walker says:

      If you want to do it right, you can’t use the lookup table WPA numbers because they assume a 9 inning game.

      Well, you can use the table’s numbers, but you have to subtract 5 from the inning and add on something to deal with the unneeded 1/2 inning.

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    • sd says:

      I think they should do it how they would for the first 5 innings of the normal game, then give the weather the extra WPA.

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    • Alan says:

      But if he strikes out and they don’t score any runs that inning they don’t win the game. There was definitely a lot of value in grounding into a double play, given that the game was about to be called.

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      • matt w says:

        Wait, I think not — they were already up when he grounded into the DP.

        For a moment I thought that the DP made it an offical game by finishing the fifth inning, which would’ve been a very valuable DP indeed. But it looks like that’s not how the rules worked; the fifth inning didn’t finish (only two outs after the DP), but the game was official anyway because the home team was winning. Oh well.

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  15. Barkey Walker says:

    As a Twins fan, the best DP is a 3-2-3 but should be credited to 1 because it undoubtedly resulted from the pitcher pitching to the scoreboard.

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  16. jorgath says:

    Best double play? 9u. 5-man infield, men on 1st and 2nd, liner to the right fielder who’s in the infield near second, who tags the bag.

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