Two, Two, Two Outs in One

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:

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.
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.

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Dave Studeman was called a "national treasure" by Rob Neyer. Seriously. Follow his sporadic tweets @dastudes.

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