One of the great things about baseball’s statistical revolution is that you can confirm your observations. For example, last Sunday the Red Sox had a good chance to win their seventh game in a row and sweep the pitiful Mariners. Instead, they lost 5-0. Worse, perhaps, was that Boston’s offense didn’t show up. Or at least that’s how it seemed at the time. However, against Mariners starter/reliever Christian Bergman, the Red Sox did get runners on. In the bottom of the first after a Mookie Betts ground out, Dustin Pedroia doubled and Xander Bogaerts singled. Then Andrew Benintendi grounded into a double play. In the second inning, Hanley Ramirez was hit by a pitch, but after a Mitch Moreland out, Jackie Bradley grounded into a double play. In the third inning Sandy Leon walked to lead off the inning but then Deven Marrero grounded into a double play. In the fourth inning (yes this is still going) Pedroia led off with a single, Bogaerts made an out then Benintendi grounded into a double play.
For those of you scoring at home, that’s six runners on with less than two outs, and thanks to four double plays, nothing to show for it. Double plays will ruin an inning, but four double plays will ruin a game. This has been a recurring problem for the Red Sox this season. Prior to Thursday’s games, the Red Sox led all of baseball in grounding into double plays, with 59. 59 twin killings in 52 games. That’ll do in some rallies.
However, leading baseball in grounding into double plays isn’t all bad. Well, actually, strike that. It is all bad. It’s terrible, in fact. But what isn’t terrible or even bad is what lies behind the double plays. For instance, to ground into a double play you have to first have a runner on base. That takes skill. Teams that tend to do well in the on-base percentage department tend to ground into many double plays. The double plays aren’t good but the team with more runners on base is going to end up scoring more runs, even with the double plays, ugly and supremely annoying as they may be. As of Thursday morning, the Red Sox, Astros, and Braves led baseball with 59, 58, and 58 double plays, respectively. Sort again by on-base percentage and the Astros are on top (.345), the Red Sox tied for third (.344), and the Braves seventh (.331).
It should be pointed out that that on-base percentage is composed mainly of singles and walks. Boston is third in baseball in singles with 325, only six behind Houston, and they’re eighth in walks with 190.
So part of the reason the Red Sox lead baseball in grounding into double plays is because they are good at getting on base, which is a good thing. Part of that reason is also that when the Red Sox get runners on base, they tend to be runners on first base, which is the traditional set-up for grounding into a double play. Another part of the equation is that, as noted by Chris Teeter on Tuesday at this site, Boston is a very good contact team. Put another way, the Red Sox strike out the least of any team in baseball, 17.6 percent of the time (again, through Wednesday’s games). So we have a team that gets on base very well and puts lots of balls in play. You can see that is going to lead to double plays.
They don’t lead baseball in ground ball rate or anything, but they are 10th, and when you combine that with the above, again, the recipe for GIDPs grows stronger.
Two more aspects to this before we get to trying to solve things. First, the Red Sox hit a lot of balls on the ground. They don’t lead baseball in ground ball rate or anything, but they are 10th, and when you combine that with the above, again, the recipe for GIDPs grows stronger. Lastly, to date the Red Sox somewhat bizarrely have exhibited little home run power. Through Wednesday, Boston is second to last in home runs, just ahead of San Francisco. Home runs score lots of runs fast (as anyone who watched Tuesday night’s game knows), but they also do something else: clear the bases. Home runs are the anti-GIDP, and the Red Sox don’t do ‘em nearly enough. The end result is a team that, according to our stats, has both put themselves in position to hit into a double play a ton (tied for fifth in baseball) and has actually done it as a percentage of opportunities a ton as well (14.4 percent, third in baseball).
Is this a big problem? A fatal flaw? The short answer is: no. The double plays themselves aren’t ideal, but the components that lead to teams hitting into lots of them make them palatable. Last season the team that led baseball in GIDP was Toronto, who went to the ALCS. The Red Sox finished seventh, tied with Cleveland. So, although nobody wants to hit into two outs at once, doing it a lot didn’t prevent three teams last season from being very good and getting into the playoffs, and, in two cases, going pretty far.
But suppose the Red Sox wanted to reduce the number of times they hit into two outs. What could they do about it? That’s tough because they kinda are the team they are. They are a team that hits the ball on the ground a lot, they don’t strike out, and the result is they tend to give teams a good number of opportunities to turn two. However, one thing they could do is look to change up the batting order so that players with high on-base percentages don’t bat directly in front of players with high ground ball rates. For example, batting Bogaerts third could lead to more double plays as Bogaerts has been hitting 53.8 percent of his balls in play on the ground. Perhaps moving Bogaerts to the lead-off spot might help.
I’ll be honest though: I’m grasping at straws a bit here. Bogaerts, despite his ridiculous ground ball rate, has only hit into three double plays, while Benintendi who has the second highest fly ball rate of any regular on the Red Sox has hit into the most on the team (nine). John Farrell could look to reorganize his lineup a bit, like in the example above, and that might help on the margins. Perhaps as the year goes on the team will hit for more power, thereby limiting the opportunities to hit into double plays. Mostly though this is what this team is: a high contact, high on-base team with, to date, below average power. That’s a team that is going to hit into a ton of double plays. It’s not going to hurt them in the long run as long as the underlying skillsets (on-base percentage, low K rate, etc.) hold, but in the moment? Wow, it can be frustrating.
Photo by Neville E. Guard – USA TODAY Sports