Baseball is full of little nuances. The Diamondbacks are succeeding on the field this year for some very obvious reasons, but there are some very small reasons for their success, too. It’s easy to point to All Star performances from Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray and Jake Lamb (YAY!!!), but it’s easy to miss some of the small nuances. Those nuances add up at the end of the day, and with 162 games to be played, the small stuff can end up really making a difference. The team is excellent at running the bases, as The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh recently pointed out. But another area where the team is finding extra value is in their ability to avoid hitting into double plays.
Sequencing is a huge part of baseball. The order in which events happen matters tremendously. If there are two singles in an innings, a home run, a strikeout and two groundouts, they can result in dramatically different outcomes.
- Home run, single, strikeout, ground out, single, ground out — one run scored
- Ground out, single, strikeout, single, home run, ground out — three runs scored
The hard part comes when you acknowledge that you largely can’t control the sequence of events. Sure, you can bunt, try to hit behind runners, etc., but by and large, the order of events is essentially random. FanGraphs has created a standings page for this phenomenon, which they call BaseRuns. It essentially “adjusts” each team’s record based on how lucky or unlucky they’ve been with sequencing, based upon the “normal distribution of events.” It’s possible for teams to drastically over or underperform their true talent levels based upon this distribution to the tune of several wins. Take a look at where each team stands entering Wednesday’s action (positive figures imply a team has been lucky, negative numbers imply they’ve been unlucky):
By this math, the Rockies and Orioles have been the most fortunate in terms of stringing events together to score runs. The Phillies, Rays and Rangers have been the least fortunate. The Diamondbacks, as you probably noticed, have been even, helping us to believe in the team’s output thus far. They’re projected to win 92 games after 84 played, which should result in a Wild Card berth. But, as stated above, one event they’ve been able to avoid is grounding into double plays.
From 2012 through 2016, the team averaged nearly 127 double plays grounded into per year. That’s just a bit above league average, which stands at about 123 per season over that same span of time. But this season? They’ve grounded into only 49, the second-fewest in baseball. They’re on pace for 94.5 double plays grounded into, far fewer than their average over the past five years. Avoiding those extra outs helps keep innings alive and runners on base, runners that can eventually come home to score.
The team has avoided the costly penalties associated with double plays by being excellent with runners on base. Across the league, teams hit grounders 44.1% of the time with the bases empty. With runners on base, that number moves to 44.3%, a very small change that’s likely impacted by pitchers attempting to get ground balls that will turn into easy outs, if not double plays. With the bases empty, the D-backs have hit grounders 46.6% of the time with the bases empty. But with men on base and less than two outs, the team has hit the ball on the ground just 44% of the time. That gap means fewer opportunities for double plays than average.
But that’s not the only factor helping them avoid double plays. With men on base and less than two outs, the Diamondbacks are among the league leaders in hitting the ball hard. They’ve done so 34.9% of the time, placing them fourth in baseball behind the Tigers, A’s and Red Sox, respectively. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering the team hits the ball hard third-most in any circumstance, but by doing so they avoid easy grounders that can be used to turn two. They make soft contact 7th-least with runners on and less than two outs, again helping them avoid easy twin killings.
And, if you recall, Ben Lindbergh excellently detailed how good the Diamondbacks have been on the bases. They stretch singles into doubles, take extra bases whenever possible, and advance on fly ball outs more often than just about anybody else in the league. By doing so, they’re able to stay out of double-play possibilities more often. All of those extra bases help score more runs, but they also help avoid more outs. If that’s not a win-win, I don’t know what is.
The last item worth mentioning has to do with double-play opportunities themselves. Of Arizona’s 764 hits on the season, 463 of them have been singles. That’s good for 60.6% while the league average is 64.9%. The D-backs’ mark is good for the 6th-lowest percentage of hits that are singles in baseball this season, meaning that when guys do collect hits, they’re ending up on second, third or right back at home (thanks to the long ball) more than just about any team in baseball. That helps keep them out of double plays just by the very nature of the play itself. By not ending up at first base as often as the competition, they’re not able to be doubled up as often as other teams.
Without looking into every at-bat, it’s difficult to place a run value on how many extra runs the Diamondbacks have scored by avoiding double plays. They’re well below their recent historical figures, however, and it’s helping them score more runs, more often. They’re able to keep innings alive and provide extra opportunities for themselves to score runs. Those opportunities are adding up, and while there are more obvious reason for the D-backs’ success, avoiding those double plays is just another drop in the bucket for a team that’s getting the job done.
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