Photo courtesy of Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
The first month of baseball is in the books, and the Chicago Cubs, at 12-8, are nicely in the thick of things. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much after just 20 games, but, hey, it’s been a while since we could say the Cubs were very much still in the race by the time May rolls around.
Given the record, you’d expect the Cubs to be up there in various measurements of ability and performance, and they are. But there are plenty of other articles out there about that, and I’d instead like to take a look at something at which the Cubs have been the worst in baseball so far: turning double plays.
If it felt to you like the Cubs weren’t turning very many so far this year, that’s not just your gut lying to you. Through those 20 games, the Cubs have turned just eight double plays, by far the lowest total in baseball. As of Thursday, the Rockies had turned 29 double plays, leading the league. Just ahead of the Cubs are the Cardinals and Angels with 12 apiece. Even on a per-game basis, the Cubs are way behind: their 0.40 double plays per game is behind the 29th-ranked Angels at 0.57. The Rockies are on top at 1.38 double plays per game. I’d also add that, for the Cubs, two of those eight double plays weren’t even traditional double plays—they involved a caught line drive and a runner going with the pitch.
I probably don’t have to sell you on the idea that double plays are a pretty fantastic thing for the defense. Not only do they record two outs in one play, but they also erase at least one runner from the basepaths with fewer than two outs, when we know the likelihood of scoring is significant.
So, then, it stands to reason that the Cubs’ stark lack of double plays thus far has harmed them, relative to other teams in baseball. The questions I have: is it the Cubs’ fault? And is it going to get better?
I consider myself a far better observer of these kind of phenomena than a successful deconstructionist, but I did plumb the depths of my brain to come up with—and analyze—some potential explanations for just how un-double-play-y the Cubs have been so far this year. It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something obvious, in which case I invite your feedback.
Among the possible explanations …
Maybe the Cubs are just terrible at turning double plays?
The catch-all, non-fluke explanation, and I suppose it’s theoretically possible. I’d call it fairly unlikely, given that, in the past 10 full years, even the very worst double play teams had at least 50 percent higher double play rates, on a per-game basis, than the Cubs.
Furthermore, it’s not like the Cubs have been an absymal defensive team overall this year and are costing themselves double play opportunities by throwing the ball away. Their 16 errors thus far are just eighth most in baseball, and they are the 20th best team by defensive efficiency.
Could the Cubs be bad defensively in a way that is specifically inhibiting double plays? Sure, it’s possible. They look to be a below-average defensive team so far. But that, alone, doesn’t seem to explain the lack of double plays. Even anecdotally: with just 20 games to observe, if the Cubs were routinely booting double play balls a la Alex Gonzalez, we would have noticed and discussed.
Maybe the Cubs aren’t allowing many balls in play or baserunners?
It stands to reason that, because a double play requires (1) a ball in play and (2) at least one runner already on base, if you’re not allowing those things all that much, you might not get many double plays.
At 24.1 percent, Cubs pitchers do have the fifth-highest strikeout rate in baseball, so that may be a small piece of the puzzle. Then again, the Dodgers have struck out 26.2 percent of the batters they’ve faced—highest in baseball—and they’ve turned over 50 percent more double plays than the Cubs. The other four teams ahead of the Cubs in strikeout rate—the Yankees, the Pirates, and the Indians—are all 16th or better in terms of double plays per game. Clearly, strikeouts aren’t the entire story.
At 1.15, the Cubs also have the sixth best WHIP in baseball, so that may be another small piece of the puzzle.
Maybe the Cubs are erasing players on the basepaths in other ways before they can become double play targets?
Well, we do know that the Cubs have made at least one heady play to remove a baserunner, but their caught stealing percentage—5.88 percent (holy crap the Cubs have been bad at that)—is the worst in baseball. The Cubs do have two pickoffs, so that’s something.
Maybe the Cubs aren’t generating many groundballs?
Since most double plays come on grounders, if the Cubs aren’t getting groundballs …
Nope. I’ll stop you there. That’s not it. At 46.7 percent, Cubs pitchers are getting the 11th highest groundball rate in baseball.
Maybe the Cubs haven’t played many innings, relative to other teams, yielding fewer double play opportunities?
While that wouldn’t have a huge impact on the per-game rates, the Cubs’ 1638.0 defensive inning so far are the fifth lowest in baseball. But that’s barely 15 percent lower than the most in baseball, so, eh, probably not a huge part of puzzle.
Maybe it’s just a small sample size fluke?
Given all the above, is the lack of double plays clearly just a small sample size fluke? And the Cubs’ rates will positively regress, getting them out of more dangerous innings going forward? Are you saying the Cubs will definitely make the playoffs on that basis alone?!?
I wouldn’t quite go that far. And I think when you piece all of the above together, there are statistical/performance explanations for some of the Cubs’ absurdly low double play total thus far.
But there is a little something to which I can point in favor of sample size fluke/positive regression. Currently, through just one month of baseball, the spread between the “best” double play team (the Rockies, at 1.38 double plays per game) and the “worst” double play team (the Cubs, at 0.40 double plays per game) is nearly a full double play per game. Historically, over full seasons, that’s quite high.
The spread between the “best” and “worst” double play teams in baseball has been relatively consistent, and relatively narrow over the past 10 years:
In 2014, it was 0.46 per game.
In 2013, it was 0.39 per game.
In 2012, it was 0.56 per game.
In 2011, it was 0.27 per game.
In 2010, it was 0.43 per game.
In 2009, it was 0.31 per game.
In 2008, it was 0.45 per game.
In 2007, it was 0.42 per game.
In 2006, it was 0.42 per game.
In 2005, it was 0.40 per game.
Throw out the extremes in 2012 and 2011, and the average of the other eight years is just 0.41. If this year winds up looking like past seasons, we can expect that 0.98 spread between the Rockies and Cubs to shrink significantly, with the Rockies pulling back (sell-sell-sell!) and the Cubs climbing (buy-buy-buy!).
All in all, I think it’s fair to say that the Cubs will probably start turning double plays at a slightly higher rate going forward, but they’re not likely to be one of the top double play teams in baseball.