The Anatomy of a Mike Trout Double Play

Probably should have seen this one coming. Last week, FanGraphs overlord David Appelman announced some minor improvements to the way WAR is calculated on the site, one of them being the inclusion of a double play avoidance stat (wGDP). Shortly thereafter, managing editor Dave Cameron wrote a post regarding The Thing Adam Dunn Was Surprisingly Great At (hint: it was avoiding double plays) and mentioned, in passing, that Mike Trout happened to be the very best at that particular thing last season.

As a quick refresher course, I’ve created an entirely underwhelming flowchart which I believe accurately represents the state of Major League Baseball in the year 2015. My sincerest apologies go out to Sean Dolinar, for I assume this single-handedly ruins all the hard work he’s done over the past couple months in an effort to unify and improve the site’s graphics.

Behold:

TroutFlow

So that’s how we got here. A new stat was born, and, like clockwork, Mike Trout just so happened to be the best at it. Well, he was last year at least. In 2014, Trout led the MLB by creating an additional three runs above average by avoiding the double play. If you want take it back a bit further, here’s what a top-15 leaderboard looks like over the last three years, or since Trout has been a full-time regular:

Double play avoidance, 2012-14
Name wGDP Spd
Curtis Granderson 6.6 5.0
Chris Davis 6.3 2.6
Brandon Belt 5.9 5.0
Jay Bruce 5.9 4.7
Mike Trout 5.7 7.5
Adam Dunn 5.7 1.5
Drew Stubbs 5.7 6.8
Jason Heyward 5.0 5.3
Colby Rasmus 4.9 3.9
Brandon Moss 4.7 3.5
Bryce Harper 4.4 5.6
Ichiro Suzuki 4.3 6.0
Michael Bourn 4.2 7.0
Lucas Duda 4.1 1.6
Chase Utley 4.1 5.5

Trout hasn’t been the very best during this timeframe, but given his No. 1 finish last year and his No. 5 finish since 2012, it’s safe to say this is yet another thing Trout is among the best at in baseball.

And you might remember this from the great MVP debates of 2012 and 2013. Miguel Cabrera hit into a ton of double plays, costing his team extra outs that largely went unnoticed. Trout, on the other hand, avoided them almost completely, rarely causing more than one out per plate appearance. It’s something he’s done about once every 100 plate appearances. It doesn’t shift the needle much, even over the course of a season, but it’s a skill, and a skill that’s certainly not without its value.

From a Dave Cameron post the first go-around:

If you’re going to quote Cabrera’s RBI advantage, you must also quote his massive disadvantage in GIDPs – they are the fruit of the same tree.

From a subsequent Cameron post:

It comes back to double plays. I noted a few weeks ago that Cabrera had hit into an AL leading 28 double plays. Turns out, a bunch of those were big-time rally killers. 12 of the 28 double plays Cabrera hit into lowered the run expectancy by at least one run; Trout only had two plate appearances all season where the run expectancy went down that much in a single play.

This isn’t in any way about an MVP debate from two years ago, so let’s bring it back to the table above, because it’s is an interesting table. When one thinks of avoiding double plays, it’s likely one thinks of speed, and in names like Bourn, Suzuki, Stubbs, and, of course, Trout, one finds elite speed present. One also finds many a plodding slugger, and while that might seem a bit odd on the surface, one must remember that beating out a double play is only part of avoiding them. Certain players avoid the double play scenario altogether by hitting fly balls and striking out rather than hitting grounders — characteristics frequently inherent of those plodding sluggers.

Trout’s case is unique because he’s both fast and fly ball/strikeout prone all at once, creating something not unlike the perfect storm of a double play avoidance profile. What is perhaps more unique, though, isn’t obvious in the above table. You might already have noticed it, but, if not, here’s the handedness of those 15 players:

  • Lefties: Granderson, Davis, Belt, Bruce, Dunn, Heyward, Rasmus, Moss, Harper, Suzuki, Bourn, Duda, Utley
  • Righties: Trout, Stubbs

Maybe the best way to avoid grounding into double plays is to just be a left-handed hitter. The batter’s box is closer to first base, and there’s typically a nice hole waiting on the pull side of the infield created by the first baseman holding on the baserunner. Trout, as is often the case, is an exception to the rule. Reasons for this exception being what’s already been listed above — speed, strikeouts and fly balls — but one also imagines exit velocity playing a role. Hard-hit ball data isn’t publicly available, but given Trout’s league-best production on ground balls over the last three years, one can reasonably assume that Trout hits grounders harder than most all other players in baseball. A hard-hit grounder does give the batter less time to beat out a potential double play, but more often than not it either finds a hole in the infield or gives the defender a tough play he can’t make.

Of course, sometimes, those hard-hit balls are fielded cleanly and it’s a relatively easy play:

troutgdp1

Other times, it takes a deflection and a nice play by a defender:

trout2

Just for funsies, I ran a BaseballSavant search of ground balls, which led to outs, with a runner on first and less than two down. The goal was to gain a rough estimate of how often a batter beats out potential double play balls. The search netted both double plays and fielders choices. Dividing the double plays by total grounders tells us that, on average, grounders defined by the parameters above turn into double plays 33% of the time, for the league. At the bottom of the leaderboard is the very slow Michael Morse, at 60%. At the top of the leaderboard is the very fast Rajai Davis, at 14%. Three spots behind Davis is Trout, at 17%.

More often than not, this is what happens on what would be a routine double play ball against most other players in baseball:

troutfc

Even the routine ones where they do get him, look like this:

trout4

Trout’s grounded into a double play just 23 times in his career, against 22 different pitchers. Bud Norris is the only guy to get him twice. Looking through them all, I noticed the names of extreme ground ballers like Justin Masterson, Dallas Keuchel and Brandon League, so I explored. The group had a 48% ground ball rate. The league has a 44% ground ball rate. That’s something, but it’s probably not much, considering we’re looking at a data set of exclusively ground balls.

I also noticed that strong double play combinations kept popping up. Andrus/Kinsler a few times. Aviles/Pedroia a couple. Rollins/Utley. Beltre/Odor. Peralta/Infante. We keep track of double play runs above average for fielders (rGDP), which is partially a measure of a player’s footwork around the bag, but more than anything else serves as a measure of an infielder’s throwing arm relative to other defenders at that position. Of the 23 double play combos in the group, 18 of them were above average at turning double plays. It would stand to reason that strong-armed infielders would be required to successfully turn a Trout double play, but it’s nice when the numbers reaffirm our intuitions.

In all reality, the recipe for a Trout double play isn’t much different than the rest of the league. You’ll need at least one runner on the bases, and less than two outs. You might need that first fielder to make a great play. Having a ground ball pitcher on the mound certainly increases your odds, and it’s definitely important that the guy who makes the throw to first has a strong arm. Oh, and you’ll probably need Trout to hit the ball pretty hard, but not hard enough to where the defender can’t field it cleanly.

Trout avoids double plays as well as any player in the league, due in part to his ridiculous speed, but also due to his consistent hard contact and overall batting profile. Over the course of a season, this skill only adds up to a few runs worth of value, and we already had an idea that Trout was one of the best, so it’s not like we’ve unlocked some major revelation about his game. But it’s another thing, and it’s another thing we now know Trout is the best at. Let this post simply serve as a reminder — not that we need another — that anything you can do, Mike Trout can probably do better.

We hoped you liked reading The Anatomy of a Mike Trout Double Play by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Metsox
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Metsox

Never too many Trout articles….

Nice stuff…