Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

Double Trouble (from Happy Flight)

[The following is an article from Happy Flight: The Story of the 2011 Cardinals.]

By Matthew Philip

The 2011 Cardinals’ dramatic run to make the playoffs and subsequent rally to win the World Series was nearly overshadowed by fans’ and the media’s obsession with a more dubious team pursuit: a record 169 grounded into double plays in a season.

If you read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or listened to any games on KMOX – that is, if you had even a passing interest in the team this year – you probably had the sense that the Cardinals were grounding into a double play every other at-bat. To hear the often-apoplectic Mike Shannon and John Rooney tell it, you would’ve thought that the Cardinals even occasionally led off with a GIDP. With headlines in the Post like “Meet the double-play kings of the NL” and “Cards on record pace for hitting into double plays” as early as August 21, the negative narrative became clear: The Cardinals hit into too many double plays.

How could the Cardinals lead in GDPs as well as scoring?

Yet despite their record 169 double plays, the Cardinals led the league in scoring, with 4.7 runs per game. How could this be? At first glance, one is tempted to exclaim, “wow, just imagine how many runs they would’ve scored had they not had that many twin killings!” To be sure, no one likes a double play (except the opposing team). They kill rallies, both qualitatively and quantitatively. But to act as if an offense is deficient because of a high number of GDPs is like complaining that your hockey team shoots and misses too often. After all, you can’t shoot and miss if you don’t have a scoring opportunity. They’re a function of something good, something elemental to scoring: getting on base. So it’s more accurate to say that “along with a record 169 double plays, the Cardinals led the league in scoring.” After all, it’s tough to both score and hit into a double play if you never have runners on base. The reality is that double-play rates even correlate positively with runs per game (fairly strongly in 2011 at .37). Researcher Michael Richmond looked at the relationship between winning and grounding into double plays and concluded the following:

The reason we see a positive correlation is because the only way a team can ground into many double plays is if it has many runners on base. And teams that have many runners on base will, on average, score more runs and win more games than teams that don’t have many runners. The increase in GIDP is a side effect of putting so many runners on base.

The misguided concern about double plays in 2011 is the other side of the coin of the anxiety that fans and media expressed previously about how many runners the Cardinals were leaving on base.

Fortunately, several observers have already asked the question of what causes double plays and researched the topic. A few points:

  • Strikeouts negatively correlate with GPs
  • Net steals negatively correlate with GPs
  • High on-base percentage positively correlates with GPs

Let’s start there and check out the Cardinals’ rank in each category.

  • Strikeout rate: 15.7%, second-lowest in MLB
  • Net steals: 57, second-fewest in MLB
  • OBP: .341, third-highest in MLB

That’s pretty much your basic recipe for leading the majors in GDPs. So it’s no surprise that the Cardinals set a record this year, nor that they led the league in scoring.

One other factor also likely came into play: The Cardinals’ propensity for hitting ground balls. Like OBP, a high GB rate is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it leads to more runs than, say, fly balls (run expectancy of a GB is .053; for outfield flies, it’s .046). Indeed, the Cardinals were second-highest in groundball rate.

Team Leaders

In particular, erstwhile first baseman Albert Pujols led the team with 29 GDPs. But, as the team’s third-place batter, he also had the most opportunities to hit into them, with 133. He wound up with a relatively high 22% GDP rate, but the fleet Ryan Theriot had the highest on the team at 24%.

Avoiding DPs as a skill

The cries of fans and media upset with the barrage of GDPs became shrill to the point of wonder about why players couldn’t simply willfully avoid double plays. But this wish is unreasonable, as Jonah Keri and Baseball Prospectus showed in their book “Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong.” They write that “the correlation of a player’s DP percentage (the number of times he grounds into a double play per opportunity) from year to year is extremely low, indicating that much of a player’s skill in avoiding the double play is luck.” Unless Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday decided to swing at and miss pitches, they’re not going to be able to intentionally avoid the occasional double play.

Impact on strategy

Did the double-play rap end affecting the team’s strategy? It’s possible. Certainly in the World Series, the team – or more specifically, Albert Pujols – notoriously ran itself out of two innings in Game 5.For being such a potent offensive club, the Cardinals also attempted an abnormally high number of sacrifice bunts. After an August in which he had only eight sacrifice attempts, Tony La Russa might’ve felt pressure to avoid potential double plays by exchanging a sure out for an open base. In September, that number climbed to more than double, with 20 attempts.