Turning Two: Fun With Numbers


Sam Maxwell approached me last week to ask something to the effect of “Hey, have you noticed that the Mets are turning a lot of double plays?

Turns out he’s right. He asked me to dig up some statistics about it, and a few hours of Fangraphs-ing didn’t turn up much. Yesterday afternoon, however I noticed that the folks at baseball-reference maintain fairly detailed batting splits for teams and leagues.

Huzzah! Now I have something to write about (other than Lucas Duda)!

[NOTE: Statistics are through May 8th]

So, it turns out that the Mets have turned 30 double plays so far this season, which seems like a fairly decent amount (that’d put them on pace for an even 162). There could be several reasons for this. The simple explanation would be that the pitchers allow a ton of base runners  – after all, the more opportunities you allow yourself, the more you’ll convert if by nothing more than probability. But what we should be looking at isn’t the number of opportunities, but how efficient they are at converting them.

Let’s define a “double play opportunity” now as a situation with a runner on first, and fewer than two outs – in other words, any scenario in which the pitching team has the chance to net two force outs on a single ball put in play.

Through May 8th, there have been 6835 such opportunities (an average of just under 228 per team). 796 of those plate appearances ended with the batter grounding into a double play (an average of 26.5). The Mets have only had 214, which puts them slightly below average. The 30 they have turned are well above average, leading to an excellent 14.02% conversion rate. The major league average over the past 6 full seasons was 10.8%. Interestingly enough, the Mets have finished below the average in each of those years, having averaged only 10.1% over that span.

This raises a good question: why are the Mets so good at turning double plays so early? Are they just getting more ground balls? Are they playing better defense?

Apr 29, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy (28) leaps up to throw to first base in the 11th inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Though difficult to argue quantitatively, the Mets infield defense has played a part in this. Daniel Murphy, most notably, has shown significant improvement at second base (especially compared to this time last year). Between his improved fielding and Ike Davis’ once again excellent defense at first base, it makes plenty of sense that the Mets are getting more double plays strictly from having made the machine more efficient. That’s only a small part of the equation though. The famed “Greatest of All Time” 1999 Mets infield only turned 11.49% of their opportunities; successful pitching plays an integral part here. And to be successful here requires getting ground balls.

Unfortunately, baseball-reference and Fangraphs splits are only so detailed (as far as I know), and they don’t provide ground ball rates in double play situations. The short answer though, is yes, the Mets are getting more ground balls. Their ground ball rate is stands at 48% which would be their highest mark since at least 2002. However, it doesn’t necessarily correspond with more double plays: the 2010 Mets turned 135 (11.36%) and had a 44.8% GB rate; the 2011 team had a higher 46.1% rate but turned 23 fewer double plays (9.51%). Team WHIPs of 1.36 and 1.38, respectively, also do little to provide explanation.

What we can do is look at each pitcher, and see what they’re getting on the season. Below is a chart of each pitcher to have had an opportunity to generate a double play and a breakdown of their success rate:

May 10, 2013; Flushing, NY,USA; New York Mets relief pitcher Scott Rice (56) pitches during the ninth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Mets brought Scott Rice to Queens because he was a ground ball pitcher, and such a style would suit them well. Clearly, they knew what they were looking for. Rice’s >60% ground ball rate is astounding, but it’s unlikely to stay that high (particularly not if Rice continues to be worked at the rate he is). In the meantime though, he’s done an excellent job of getting balls hit toward infielders.

Both Matt Harvey and Jeremy Hefner have done excellent jobs as well, pounding the bottom of the strike zone and spotting  breaking pitches to limit the damage they could suffer. Harvey, granted, has been good at everything this year, but the ability to generate ground balls when necessary will do him very well in his quest to become more efficient. Hefner, an ideal swing-man / long reliever, lacks strikeout stuff and needs to generate poor contact to succeed.

An interesting caveat to all this, however, is the 15-inning game played in Miami on April 29th. That game saw the Mets turn five double plays. Removing those five from the sample would reduce the ground ball success rate to 11.96%, which is decidedly similar to the 11.64% major league average so far this season. On one hand, this would suggest that the Mets ought to expect a decline in their double play rate going forward (which is certainly reasonable and somewhat likely). With 12 more games to play against the Marlins though (and how they’re playing), it’s not out of the question to see similar outcomes.

It will be interesting to see how they fare going forward. Probability suggests regression toward the mean, but many of the Mets’ pitchers have struggled so far in 2013, so improvement from struggling rotation members could represent an uptick (particularly with a ground ball pitcher like Dillon Gee). If I were to make a prediction, I’d posit that it’ll end up somewhere around 12%. Above average, but within reason.

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