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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.