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January 24, 2012
Painting the Black
New Rays and Double Plays
“Team identity” is a sugar pill of analytics. It sounds good but means nothing. When a team makes sweeping changes, said identity comes into question. Usually, the vague term is applied to an overall philosophy—is this team all pitching and defense, or do they live and die by the three-run home run sort of stuff. It can also apply to the complexion of the roster and the minutiae that comes with.
Over the past fortnight, the Rays have changed their team identity in at least one way. By adding Luke Scott and Carlos Pena, they have ensured new opening day starters at the positions furthest to the right on the defensive spectrum. The Rays have also tweaked the playing style at those positions. Neither Johnny Damon nor Casey Kotchman, the predecessors at the positions, offered a lot of power, but making a lot of contact can breed fanfare—to the point where many, Damon included, were disappointed to find the Rays pursuing upgrades at the positions.
The most noticeable differences between the pairs revolve around power. Pena and Scott have hit for extra bases in 10 percent of their plate appearances since 2009, while Damon and Kotchman combined for extra bases in seven percent of their 2011 trips to the plate. That power comes with an increase in strikeouts, as it is wont to do. The new pair has struck out 24 percent of the time over the past three seasons, a sizable increase compared to the old duo’s 13 percent in 2011.
No one around these parts needs a lecturing about the merits of strikeouts or why panning strikeouts as the worst of sins is being overzealous. What is worthy of mention is that the Rays’ new pair may succumb to the strikeout more often, but it appears to be better at avoiding another kind of out that is more damaging on a per-unit basis. Despite being more archetypical middle of the order bats than their predecessors are, Pena and Scott have hit into double plays in just 4.7 percent of their situations as opposed to the 8.3 percent by Damon and Kotchman.
Without context, those numbers are meaningless, so here is a table that shows the leaders and trailers in double play rate for batters since 2009 with more than 100 double play situations faced:
Pena, as it turns out, has been one of the best in the game at avoiding double plays—better than former teammate Carl Crawford, better than Damon, and better than almost everyone else too. Since the discussion so far revolves around four players, it is worth disclosing that Scott ranks 34th, grounding into double plays in 6.4 percent of his situations, and that Kotchman ranks 425th (of 481) with twin-killings in 14.6 percent of his opportunities. Those percentages are nice, but contextualizing the upgrade is a matter of utilizing a statistic tracked here at Prospectus called Net Double Plays.
Net Double Plays works like this: for every double play situation a batter encounters, his actual double play tally is compared to an expected sum. Deriving that expected sum is a matter of taking the batter’s number of double play opportunities and using the league-average double play rate to get a baseline for how many double plays the average batter would hit into if presented with the same chances. A negative Net Double Play score means the batter hit into fewer double plays than expected, whereas a positive Net Double Play score means the batter hit into more double plays than expected.
Here are those numbers in practice, with the top and bottom 10 in cumulative Net Double Play scores since 2009:
Pena again finishes near the top of the “good” leaderboard, although this time he comes in behind Damon, who hit into five more double plays over an additional 35 chances. Scott also moves up because of the opportunities faced. Astute readers will note how the lists are comprised almost entirely of batters from either hand—with left-handed batters on the “good” side, and righties on the “bad”. This is true and fits with the knowledge that left-handed batters should reach first base quicker than righties, thus making them more difficult to double-up.
The other prevalent generalizations to make are that the lists are crawling with players who are either top of the lineup or middle of the order bats. The left side holds mostly speedsters and power hitters, while the right side has a few folks who profile as having good speed but could be slow out of the box. Scott and Pena are both power hitters, and by walking, striking out, homering, or making non-double play outs, they are successful avoiding the double play and improving their rates. It also does not hurt that teams shift on Pena, making the traditional double play a daydream.
The next question worth asking is what kind of advantage the Rays are getting by avoiding more double plays. Using run value data provided by Colin Wyers, one can then find out how many runs a player saves (or costs) his team with their double play habits. Here are those numbers for the same players listed above:
In other words, even the best players at avoiding double plays do not average more than three runs saved per season. That could change if the batter is seeing an abnormal distribution of situations—i.e. perhaps more bases loaded, one-out spots than you would expect—but that was not considered for this piece. Our protagonists Pena and Scott have combined to save 13 runs over the past three seasons, while Kotchman and Damon finish at five runs. That works out to an eight-run difference, or fewer than three runs per season, should everything remain static.
Of course, those three runs are not enough to make up for the difference in volume between double plays and strikeouts, and while there is some implied good in a double play ball (that the batter made contact), double plays are still worse than strikeouts on a rate basis. Those giving the Rays heat for adding more whiffs to their lineup can take comfort in knowing the lineup now packs more punch and that rallies should be killed in ways other than double plays when Scott and Pena are due up.