Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Double plays and the shift

At one point in Tuesday's Twins-Astros game the Twins were in a shift against a right-handed hitter in a double-play situation and Dick Bremer started talking about the complexity this alignment posed for second baseman Jonathan Schoop. On a grounder to the left side, Bremer noted, Schoop would have to go away from the throw to serve as the pivotman.

To which Bert Blyleven replied with something along the lines of: That's why the shift is reducing the number of double plays.

Blyleven has not exactly established himself as a scholar of baseball stats, but this assertion seemed at once plausible (the specific alignment the Twins were in does figure to make turning two more complicated) and unlikely (in most double play situations, a shfiting team moderates the shift so that the second baseman or shortstop has easier access to the base). 

So I did a quick-and-dirty check on double play totals to see if there is any basis for Rik Aalbert's assertion, or if he's just making it up.

I looked at DP totals the past three seasons, as shifts became increasingly common, and at DP totals in 1999-2001, before the analytics revolution began to take hold.

2018: The Angels led the majors in double plays turned (173). The Yankees were last (95). And the average team turned 136.

2017: Padres, 177; Yankees, 102; average, 147

2016: Rangers. 190; Dodgers, 101, average, 144

2001: Royals, 204; Cubs, 113; average, 148

2000: Angels, 200; Red Sox, 120; average, 157

1999: Rays, 198; Expos 125; average, 156

This is hardly a comprehensive study, but it does suggest that indeed there are fewer double plays turned today than there were 15 to 20 years ago. 

But there are other factors in play than the the shift. Strikeouts are much more common; the percentage of outs that come without a ball put in play has never been so high. And hitters in recent seasons have largely focused on hitting the ball in the air; the obsession with launch angle may be playing itself out now, but it has certainly been a thing in the 2016-18 time frame.

My suspicion is that those have played a larger role in the bulk decline of double plays than have shifts. I'm confident that there are indeed fewer double plays turned today than there were when Tom Kelly was a manager. I doubt the shift is the reason.

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