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May 9, 2013

In A Pickle

The Turn of the Two

by Jason Wojciechowski

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Baseball is, it has been said repeatedly, the quasi–team game, the sport that is more than one-on-one and yet, in the conflict that lies at its essence, not. You don't need me to pontificate on that general subject. What you do need me to do is guide you on a stroll through one of the team-oriented aspects of the game, with a promise of some historical greatness at the end. (Don't skip there, though—it's more rewarding this way.)

All stats are through Monday's games.

Ready?

Double plays!!!

Your major-league leader in double plays turned at second base is Jose Altuve, with 33. Two points:

First, your major-league leader in double plays at shortstop is not an Astro, not because Altuve is out there turning them by himself (or with the third baseman) but because the shortstop position in Houston is not quite as solidified as second base. Altuve has started 30 games at second while Marwin Gonzalez has started two. At short, though, it's Gonzalez with 21 and Ronny "Woo Woo" Cedeno with 11. Cedeno and Gonzalez have combined for 31 double plays, in line with Altuve's total, but Gonzalez alone has only 23 of them.

Second, the Astros have allowed a .375 on-base percentage so far in 2013. The old context game is coming, be warned. Here are some players who, through Monday at least, do not have a .375 on-base percentage: Jose Altuve, Evan Longoria, Joe Mauer, Nick Swisher, Kendrys Morales, Taylor Teagarden. The Astros hurlers have put a ton of men on base, which is giving the middle infielders chance after chance to turn the deuce.

Aside: I need some synonyms for "double play." I just used "deuce." "Two-outter"? "Twin-killing" is a classic, I suppose, but I'm a pacifist. "The ol' double trouble"? I've heard "rally killer" but that seems to be more of a particular type of double play than any double play at all. If you've got a man on first and one out, are you rallying? "Doble juego"? "Verdubbelen spelen"? (That's for my honkbal friends.) Maybe I'll just call them "double plays" every time and let the phrase numb your brain to the point where you begin to wonder whether double plays are actually a concrete, identifiable phenomenon or something more akin to unicorns or life.

Back to the main action. Bill Mazeroski turned 161 double plays in 162 games in 1966. The Astros have played 32 games, so Altuve is actually slightly ahead of a record-setting pace. It seems unlikely that the Astros will continue to allow runners at the pace they are now, though, so Altuve has a tall task tough row to hoe to match Mazeroski.

Mazeroski's Pirates team, by the way, allowed a .321 on-base percentage that year. The man's in the Hall of Fame for a reason.

At shortstop, J.J. Hardy is back on his grind, turning 26 double plays this season after leading the American League with 113 last year. He's more Mazeroski than Altuve, though, as the Orioles have allowed a (wait) .321 on-base percentage so far. Hardy does share Altuve's revolving door of keystone partners: Ryan Flaherty and Alexi Casilla have split time about 2/3 and 1/3 after Brian Roberts went down with an acute case of Being Brian Roberts.

On the flip side are the hitters who most often let their teams down. Per Baseball-Reference, the league average so far this year is 13 grounded-into-double-plays per 600 plate appearances. Michael Young, though? He's already got 10 after just 123 trips. The Phillies have scored 119 runs, 24th in baseball, so it's tempting to say Young isn't helping, except: .333/.398/.423. If Young waltzed off into retirement right now, he'd finish the year with his best seasonal on-base percentage ever.

Those double plays are eating into Young's value overall, though: compare his OPS+, a stat that adjusts for park but does not count double plays against a hitter any more than any other out, at 124, fourth-best in his career, to his TAv, a stat that does deduct for double plays, at .265, his eight-best year and one that's actually below his career average. Ten extra outs is a lot.

Double-plays aren't new for Young, which won't surprise you, the discerning and astute fan: he's a contact-oriented hitter without a massive amount of speed. Young has 225 double plays for his career, 55th in baseball history and sixth on the active list behind a really interesting list:

Gosh, maybe Young really is a Hall of Famer if he's in that kind of company.

Shin-Soo Choo is the anti-Young: he's second in baseball in plate appearances (153) and first in baseball in plate appearances without a double play (also 153). As it turns out, though, hitting leadoff in the National League (Choo has led off in 32 games and has not hit in any other position in the lineup) is a real boon as far as piling up at-bats without men on base. Choo is actually a little way down the list of double-play opportunities faced without hitting into one:

And then there's a handful of players at 18, including Choo. Note that Cespedes and Buck, two players frequently compared, are the only hitters on the above list who do not hit from the left side, either sometimes or all the time. (If you wanted to bet that Cespedes couldn't hit a ball 400 feet as a lefty, though, I'd take your money.)

Whether Young is the worst in the league at hitting into double plays when you take into account opportunities faced depends on your plate-appearance or opportunity threshold. Here's the list sorted by double-play percentage. Young is "tops" (41.7 percent) among players who qualify for the batting title, but David Ortiz is healthy and playing (or at least playing) and has exactly the same rate: 5/12 for Ortiz and 10/24 for Young. Reduce your fractions!

Ortiz is not a big double-play guy for his career, despite being a large, large man ("250 pounds") who sometimes looks like he's running with kittens in his shoes that he doesn't want to crush. (SCOUT: Ortiz likes kittens.) His total of 164 is 14th on the career active list, but he's got 17 years in the league -- Robinson Cano, for instance, has racked up 158 in just nine years. And he hits lefty! (Though perhaps the lefty/right issue is overstated. When old pal Dan Turkenkopf studied double play rates a few years ago, he found other factors swamping handedness in their contribution to a player's predicted rate.)

Cano has never hit into fewer than 16 double plays in a season, though of course you remember the team he plays for and said team's affinity for scoring runs (read: getting on base), right? Here are Cano's year-by-year ranks in double-play situations faced and double play-rate (the latter with a 500 plate appearance minimum, where "1" is the highest rate, i.e. the worst rate):

Year Situations rank Rate rank
2005 37 46/145
2006 88 14/148
2007 4 64/156
2008 51 27/139
2009 41 14/143
2010 51 23/138
2011 3 55/135
2012 2 43/139

Cano hits into his share, in other words, just once finishing in the good half of baseball and two different times winding up in the top 10 percent. The picture that emerges, though, is of abundant opportunities, not predilection.

Still, regardless of the whys and wherefores, Cano finished his age-29 season with 153 double plays. If he continues his remarkable run of health (159 or more games every year since 2007), continues hitting high in the order to rack up lots of trips to the plate (634 plate appearances or more every season in that span, and the second-lowest was 669), and plays on teams, whether it's the Yankees or, after this year, someone else, that like to get on base, then 18 more double plays a year until he's 40 is achievable. That's 11 years, counting this season (he's got five double plays in 30 games, on pace to beat his career-high, for whatever that's worth), so add 198 more double plays to the previous 153 and that gives you 351, exactly one more double play than the all-time leader, Cal Ripken. (I swear I didn't pick 18 to make this work.) At the very least, Cano should have his sights set on the all-time lefty record: Carl Yastrzemski hit into 323 in his 23-year career. If we extend Cano's pace out to age 43 (i.e. the same as Yaz) instead of age 40, that's 54 more double plays and he becomes the first man to hit into 400.

I hope Commissioner and President of the United States Jon Stewart recognizes the occasion with banners and ticker tape. I hope ticker tape still exists. I hope we still exist.

The thing of all this speculation is that we forgot about 'bre. El Hombre. Albert Pujols. The Angels first baseman has 258 career double plays, has twice led the league in the category, has eight times hit into more than 20 in a year, and has a contract that takes him into 2021. That contract doesn't mean Pujols can't retire, but especially since the entire lure of the deal with the Angels was that Pujols would have a home, a family, a 10-year personal services contract, he's probably going to be allowed to play out the entire deal, trotting out to DH (can one trot out to DH?) every day until the contract finally, mercifully, ends. All of which means that even if we conservatively give him an average of 15 double plays a year (he's only once hit into fewer than 16), then we're still talking about 128 more double plays in his career (counting this year), pushing him well ahead of Ripken. He only needs to average 16.5 double plays per year to be on pace for 400 before the contract expires.

Who volunteers to make sure Commissioner Stewart is aware that history is going to be made by some Hall of Fame–bound hitter in about a decade? Hello?

 

Jason Wojciechowski is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Robinson Cano,  Albert Pujols,  Jose Altuve

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