The Surprising Double-Play Machine

There’s a stat on here we don’t talk very much about. It’s a stat that measures double-play value, above or below average, and it’s folded in with the baserunning numbers. It goes by wGDP, and for hitters, a positive number is good, and a negative number is bad. Here’s something about the stat that shouldn’t surprise you: Over the last three years combined, the worst hitter in baseball by double-play value has been Billy Butler, at -10.5 runs. It’s good to make sure advanced numbers mostly agree with your impressions, because that confirms the numbers aren’t imaginary. As double plays go, Butler has everything working against him. So, yeah.

Now I have a quiz for you. You’re given that, since 2013, Butler comes in last by this measure. Who do you suppose is second-to-last? Think about this carefully before you answer. Think about what would cause a player to hurt his team the most via double plays. Think about playing time, and lineup position. I shouldn’t give you any more clues. Here’s the quiz, with all of one question:

Are you all done? Great. Everyone who voted is wrong. The answer is Jose Altuve.

This is something Dave brought to my attention as he was putting together the second base Positional Power Rankings. It’s not like this is enough to change Altuve from being a good player into being a bad player. Butler is last here at -10.5, and Altuve is second-last at -8.5. That’s about nine runs of value, over three full seasons, which makes it three runs a season, which makes it hardly important. There’s a lot else about Jose Altuve that’s more significant than this, but I love this as a fun fact. I’m addicted to fun facts. I’d love for you to share in my addiction.

It only makes sense that Butler would be last. Double plays take more time to develop than ordinary ground-outs, and Butler moves like the baseline is made out of soup. Mike Petriello wrote about home-to-first times using Statcast measurements, and he has Butler as one of the slowest runners in the game. What’s weird about Altuve is that, while he’s second-worst in double-play value, he’s fourth-best in stolen-base value, between Billy Hamilton and Ben Revere. Altuve can motor, and it even shows up in the Fan Scouting Report.

Or you could just consult that same Petriello link. Above the section about the slowest runners, there’s a section about the fastest runners. No one shows up as being faster than Billy Burns. Then, of course, you have Hamilton, and Dee Gordon, and Delino DeShields. But right after DeShields, you see Altuve’s name. Around top speed, Altuve made it from home to first in 3.98 seconds. Around top speed, Butler made it in 4.95 seconds. It’s a difference of, literally, a whole second.

Out of those fastest players, only DeShields and Altuve bat right-handed. A year ago, Altuve bounced into 17 double plays. DeShields hit into one. One of those numbers seems to make more sense than the other.

I’d like to reassure you that this isn’t just some weird advanced-stat miscalculation. Altuve, the last three years, has batted in 319 double-play opportunities. He’s grounded into a double play 19.1% of the time, against a league average of 11.0%. That works out to a gap of 26 extra double plays. Altuve’s rate comes out to seventh-highest in baseball, given a minimum of 100 chances. McGehee runs away with the lead at 26.3%, and that’s one of the worst things I’ve seen in a spreadsheet, but Altuve is a tenth of a point behind Michael Morse. He really does hit into a bunch of these. Double plays are crazy bad for the offense, and from Baseball Savant, here’s where they have gone:


I don’t know what you were thinking that might look like. That looks like anyone’s plot of double plays hit into. There’s not much direct action at first base, since Altuve bats right-handed, but don’t you worry about the first basemen falling asleep or otherwise getting bored — the ball eventually heads their way. It’s frequently gotten there in less than 3.98 seconds.

In all honesty, maybe Altuve isn’t the hardest thing to explain. This all seems strange at first, because you’d think Altuve would have little problem gunning down the line, but this is only in part dependent on speed. It’s also about defensive opportunities, and now think about what else you know about Altuve. He doesn’t walk much. He doesn’t strike out much. He frequently hits the ball on the ground. He, again, bats righty. Speed-wise, Altuve and Butler are from different planets, but the rest of the profiles aren’t wildly dissimilar.

Compared to lefties, righties hit into double plays about 33% more often. That’s maybe point one. For point two, Altuve has a higher grounder rate with men on than with the bases empty, and for point three, Altuve has a lower strikeout rate with men on than with the bases empty. With men on base, 42% of Altuve’s plate appearances have ended with a grounder. That ranks him just outside the top 10, and the league average is 31%. (Chris Carter has been at 15%.) The biggest thing working against Altuve here is that the defense knows it’s probably going to get a chance, and the chance will probably be in the infield. Altuve hits his grounders pretty sharply, and he hits a lot of them into the double-play alignment. His legs, I’m sure, have spared him additional outs, but so many times, they just aren’t a factor. Double plays go fast.

Because Altuve runs so well, you wouldn’t expect him to be a double-play machine. But because he’s a righty, and because he’s so insistent on returning every pitched baseball delivered his way, the numbers are less surprising than they seem at first glance. He’s not the only good runner who’s had the problem; there’s also, say, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Andrelton Simmons. If you’re a grounder-hitting righty, the double plays are going to add up. It doesn’t mean making contact is worse than striking out. It doesn’t mean that foot speed doesn’t matter. It just means there are a lot of ways to break this game down. You wouldn’t believe how many things a player can be bad at.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

I thought this article was going to be about Matt Duffy: he hit into 22 double plays last year. He and McGehee combined to set the record for most DPs from third base in a single season.

In addition to the GIDP issue, Altuve was crazy bad on the basepaths last year. He ran into 19 outs on the bases (ignoring CS, which he led the league in). No one else ran into more than 13.

8 years ago
Reply to  RJ

Despite his high number of CS, he was still a net positive base stealer. Though he definitely seemed like a TOOTBLAN machine last year.