Last week, or maybe it was the week before, I was looking up something in "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" and came across a bit on Donie Bush, a Tigers shortstop in the Ty Cobb era. The Tigers won American League pennants in 1907, 1908 and 1909 -- Bush's first year as a regular -- but never won again despite talented teams. "One key reason they didn't win," James wrote, "was that Bush was awful at turning the double play. I'm sure there are teams which have won the pennant despite being unable to turn a double play, but frankly, I've never heard of any."
James added that if you looked at the list of the worst teams at turning double plays you'd see two types of teams: Donie Bush's Tigers and teams that lost 100 or more games.
We talk a lot about defense these days and we talk some about pitchers who induce a lot of double plays, but we don't necessarily talk about teams that are good at turning two or which players are best at this skill. Then there's this: James' book was published in 2001. The game has evolved since then, with more strikeouts and fewer balls in play and a high percentage of those balls in play that go over the fence. Is the double play still important?
I'm reminded of something James once wrote about the 1950s Yankees. He was amazed that the Yankees always rated high at turning double plays, because Casey Stengel didn't always maintain a set lineup, and the team was constantly changing infielders, especially as shortstop Phil Rizzuto got older. The key, James surmised, was Gil McDougald, the one constant throughout the decade -- except that he'd play third base one year, second base the next, shortstop in another, or all three. Wherever he played, he must have been terrific at the double play.
James had a formula to estimate a team's ability to turn two, based on baserunners allowed and double plays turned. You can't necessarily just look at the raw totals of double plays; poor teams often turn a lot of double plays because they've allowed more baserunners.
We now have more precise measurements. Baseball Info Solutions tracks pivot opportunities and pivots completed, to give us an overall percentage and an indicator of a player's ability on the double play. Here are leaders at second base for 2015, given at least 50 opportunities:
The bottom three: Jason Kipnis (55.6 percent), Howie Kendrick (56.9 percent) and Omar Infante (57.7 percent). Daniel Murphy, Addison Russell and Anthony Rendon actually rated worse than Kipnis, although with fewer than 50 opportunities. Gordon's Gold Glove seems even more deserved after seeing this; interesting that one reason the Dodgers traded him was concerns about his defense. That Kipnis, Murphy, Russell and Rendon would rate low isn't a surprise either, given Kipnis' so-so defensive rep, Murphy's poor one and Russell and Rendon being new to the position.
For shortstops, your top five:
2. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies-Blue Jays: 75.0 percent
4. Jose Iglesias, Detroit Tigers: 72.1 percent
5. Brandon Crawford, San Francisco Giants: 71.2 percent
That seems to be a list of the strongest arms at the position, indicating arm strength is perhaps more important for a shortstop while quickness and reflexes are more important for a second baseman. Of course, your double-play partner can affect your rating depending on how quickly and accurately he delivers you the baseball. The bottom three: Asdrubal Cabrera (44.9 percent), Carlos Correa (46.0 percent) and Jose Reyes (48.1 percent). Note that Russell also rates near the bottom at shortstop; let's see how he improves in this area in 2016.
Anyway, my database at Baseball Info Solutions doesn't have an overall team rating at turning double plays, but we can get a team "double play" rating by adding up all four infield positions from the Total Zone numbers presented at Baseball-Reference.com.
The top three:
1. Braves: +13 runs above average
2. Blue Jays: +8 runs
3. Tigers: +7 runs
And the bottom three:
30. Rays: -10 runs
29. Angels: -7 runs
28. Astros: -6 runs
The other 26 teams are bunched between plus-4 and minus-5 runs, indicating that there isn't a huge spread between teams, unless Andrelton Simmons is your shortstop. FanGraphs also has a double play rating and its numbers range from plus-7.4 (Tigers) to minus-7.8 (Royals). Four of their five bottom teams made the playoffs: Cubs, Brewers, Mets, Dodgers and Royals.
All this seems to add up to saying that double plays aren't especially valuable in baseball in 2016. Compared to Stengel's Yankees of the 1950s, this makes sense. In 2015, the MLB average was 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.9 walks; in 1955, it was 4.4 and 3.7. That means more balls in play and more baserunners in 1955, although even with fewer home runs per team in 1955, the overall number of double plays has remained steady: 121 per team in 1955, 125 per team in 2015. It appears that players now are just better at turning double plays.
Let's finish with this, for a little fun. My top three DP combos for 2016:
1. Ian Kinsler/Jose Iglesias, Tigers
2. Dee Gordon/Adeiny Hechavarria, Marlins
3. Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, Giants
I don't think there's a clear No. 4 after that. Maybe J.J. Hardy and Jonathan Schoop with the Orioles. Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings were very good with the Diamondbacks, but it's not clear what Arizona's DP combo will be. Simmons is now teamed with Johnny Giavotella, who didn't rate well in 2015.