May 22, 2014
An Ode to the Double Play Pivot
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Formerly the pregame / postgame radio host for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rocco is now a freelance writer, broadcaster and podcaster. You may remember him from Episode 31 of the Up & In podcast. Follow his tweets here.
I feel like we take the double play for granted.
Not on the order of some other, way more important things...things like clean water, the postal service, and general relativity, which are all really great. But turning a double play in the majors is no mean feat. Just think about all the sssstuff that's happening on a given GIDP opportunity:
Contact. The initial catch. The initial throw. The second catch. The final throw. The final catch. All those things need to happen so fast, and with zero margin for error. That inherent complexity is the reason why only about 34.5 percent of double play opportunities grow up to become actual double plays. (More on that below.)
With appropriate respect for the double play established, I'd now like to unbury the lede and reveal our focus for today: The Transfer, the athletic sleight of hand that lies at the heart of most GIDPs.
The average major leaguer gets from the batter’s box to first base in 4.2 or 4.3 seconds, depending on handedness (lefties are closer, of course, and get there a hair quicker). The fastest guys in the league are generally in the 3.8-4.0 range.
So given that major-league infielders have about four seconds to work with, they've had to resort to some pretty neat tricks to successfully birth a twin killing. And that's where The Transfer comes in.
It's a bit magical, innit, The Transfer. The ball is fielded and thrown to a teammate…and then it is immediately headed in a totally different direction at great velocity. And accurately! Somehow.
Whether it's the shortstop or the second baseman, the recipient of that first throw needs to catch it with his left hand while simultaneously beginning his own throw to first base with the rest of his body. And he needs to do this as quickly as possible (while tagging second base with his foot) because a professional athlete has been paid by an enemy organization to careen at his legs at some great speed.
I've tried to measure, with a stopwatch, the amount of time it takes for a good pivot-man to make his catch-to-throw transfer, but it happens in fractions of a second. My fingers couldn't manipulate the stopwatch fast enough to aggregate reliable data.
As a scouting friend said to me, "We don't time it—it happens too quickly—but you know fast when you see it."
It's here that I'd like to fold into our discussion a man who's best known for a home run—which really isn't that crazy, given the magnitude of said home run. Still, in a just world, when someone heard the name “Bill Mazeroski',” the image it would summon to mind would be not this, but these.
There’s nothing wrong with being famous for a home run. And as home runs go, Mr. Mazeroski's is a pretty good one. (In fact, it’s the greatest home run ever hit.) But Maz, a Hall of Famer, didn't get into Cooperstown because of that swing on October 13, 1960. He got in because, as Bill James put it in his 1988 Baseball Abstract, "Bill Mazeroski's defensive statistics are probably the most impressive of any player at any position."
I've watched more baseball in my 36 years than most humans will in a lifetime. And I've never seen a second baseman with a catch-to-throw transfer as fast as Mazeroski's, as seen in the above videos. It's like Maz is a celestial body and the baseball is being slingshotted around him, using his gravity to accelerate in another direction. As Ben Lindbergh puts it, "The guys who are the best at it seem to just redirect the ball without ever really impeding its path."
So if Maz is among the best of all time on the pivot, who's carrying his torch today? We'll turn to the data hounds at Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) for some answers.
BIS has analyzed double play data from the past three years and come up with second base and shortstop pivot rankings. These don't specifically account for the speed of a player's transfer, mind you, but because a quick transfer is a big part of a successful turn, the player's skill there is fairly well baked into the data. We have a top 10 and a bottom 10 for each position. (BIS also offers this information in the form of "Double Play Runs Saved.)
Some context: League average for second basemen is 63.9 percent; for shortstops, it's 60.8 percent.
Here's Doug Wachter of BIS to explain “Pivot Pct”:
With all that established, let's enjoy some more moving pictures.
Beginning with the shortstop rankings, we'll highlight Pirates SS Clint Barmes. To the eye, his transfer has always seemed really fast and smooth, and it's nice to see the numbers jibe with the eye test.
I'll sidestep a few of the top names on each list, as I'd like to avoid any sample size caveats. But Ian Desmond, for example, has a large body of work at SS over the past three years, and as Nationals fans would attest, he can do some work.
As for the second basemen, Ian Kinsler's transfer is for real. Not at smooth as Mazeroski's, mind you, but Kinsler is quite good.
To Jonah’s point:
We've spent a lot of words on the double play transfer, a magical, yet under-appreciated little action that happens faster than a heartbeat. Probably enough words, especially given the lack of conclusions available about its potential market value.
Along those lines, my instinct tells me that a bell curve exists for this skill across the league, much as it does for any other. I'd also guess that the difference in a league-leading transfer vs. a league-worst would amount to tens of outs over the course of a season. We could be talking about a win here, in terms of spread. Unfortunately, measuring the damn thing is problematic. At least it was for me. In terms of playing some pivot-based Moneyball, I am an abject failure.
Thankfully, we have a happy ending to report, as help is on the way, courtesy of Major League Baseball Advanced Media’s new tracking technology. As an appetite whetter, please enjoy this video.
So, so much delicious data in there. Before you know it, we'll have empirical data on all sorts of difficult-to-measure things. And once the smart guys dig in, we'll be able to assign values even to The Transfer, one of baseball's most fleeting actions.
We've been saying this for over 30 years now, and it's always been true, but a richer, more informed baseball community is just around the corner.
Future quantitative delights aside, I began this piece as a celebration of the double play transfer, so I'd like to end on a similar note. My hope is that the next time you see a tough double play turned, or even just a lightning-quick, Mazeroski-esque transfer, you'll take a moment to appreciate the overlooked wizardry, deft skill, and alacrity taking place in that magical fraction of a fraction of a baseball second.
Thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for his assistance with the embedded videos.