One of the most aesthetically-pleasing plays in baseball, in my opinion, is the 4-6-3 double play. There’s just something almost majestic about the artistry middle infielders display. The footwork and creativity needed to get the ball to the bag. The lightning-quick hands to get the ball from glove to hand. The arm strength to fire the ball another 90 feet. And it’s all happening in less than four seconds. It’s simply a beautiful play.
Unfortunately, that play hasn’t looked nearly as beautiful to the Royals this season.
The team is finding themselves on the wrong end of double plays far too often. In 145 plate appearances with at least a man on first, and less than two outs, the Royals have grounded into 23 double plays. That’s a rate of 15.9 percent, second-highest in all of baseball. Last year, they were still in the top ten, but their double play rate was just 12.3 percent.
There are a few culprits. Mike Moustakas has already grounded into five double plays, after hitting into 14 of them all of last season. What’s worse, Moose has only had 15 double play opportunities, meaning he has a double play rate of 33.3 percent. Only four hitters with at least 50 plate appearances have a higher rate. Kendrys Morales sits at 24th on that list, at 22.7 percent. He’s also grounded into five double plays, but he’s had more men on base in front of him. I wonder why.
You know who hasn’t grounded into any double plays? Omar Infante. Apparently he’s doing his best to simply avoid that play altogether, whether at the plate or in the field.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s noticed the numerous double plays the Royals defense have been unable to complete this season. I didn’t realize they had only turned 12 double plays so far. Only three teams in baseball have turned fewer. Only one team, the Reds, have converted fewer of their double play opportunities into actual double plays. The Royals’ rate is at 6.7 percent, down from 10 percent last season.
Much like the offense, the blame for the lack of double plays can be spread around. Chris Young and Ian Kennedy have combined to induce one double play, but if you’re familiar with both pitchers’ batted ball profiles, this should come as no surprise. Kris Medlen is doing his part, as he’s gotten opponents to roll into four double plays in 20 opportunities. Yordano Ventura has been close to average, getting a pair of twin killings in 22 opportunities.
The real difference is with Edinson Volquez. In 2014, Volquez induced 18 double plays, with a double play rate of 12 percent. In 2015, Volquez induced 20 double plays, with a double play rate of 12 percent. In 2016, following last night, Volquez has induced two double plays, with a double play rate of 6 percent. That’s a 50 percent decrease from last season. You can trust me, because I know math.
This isn’t to suggest the pitchers are solely to blame, of course. As I mentioned earlier, the defense has failed to complete several double plays. There were a couple of them against the Angels last week. I remember a couple against the Tigers. I think the Twins even avoided a double play or two. Sometimes, the ball is hit too softly for the defense to get the turn, but for the pitchers to start racking up the double plays like they’re capable of doing, the middle infielders (especially the infielder just to the right of second base when looking at the field from behind home plate) will need to convert those opportunities when they present themselves. The lack of double plays isn’t causing the run prevention to tank, but there’s clearly room for improvement.
And that improvement is needed even more, considering the state of the offense. In addition to the double plays the Royals are grounding into, they have a .665 OPS with a man on first and less than two outs. Even when an at-bat doesn’t end in two outs, it’s ending poorly more often than not. Some of that is poor luck, occasionally hitting the ball hard right at a defender. But you don’t get to 23 double plays in 24 games solely due to bad luck. Some of those double plays are the result of swinging at a bad pitch, or putting a bad swing on a good pitch.
Double plays don’t have to crush an offense. The 2015 Blue Jays grounded in to 140 double plays and still managed to score half a billion runs. Approximately. This year, the Pirates, Diamondbacks, and Orioles are all scoring runs at a high rate, and have hit into their share of double plays.
A double play is not a death knell, but an offense that struggles to get on base must take advantage of those times they do reach base. An offense that doesn’t have much power is at an even bigger disadvantage, which is why the Royals’ double plays have been such a big factor. They’ve overcome that lack of power in the last few seasons by being the best in baseball at taking the extra base on hits, but it’s literally impossible to take an extra base on a ground ball double play. The umpires don’t allow it.
A lot can happen when runners are on base. Unfortunately for the Royals, their offense has been making bad things happen while the defense is allowing bad things to happen. It’s a bad combination. If there’s an upside here, it’s that a regression to the mean is likely coming. The Royals may still be near the top of the double play rate leaderboard, but their rate shouldn’t remain quite that high. The highest double play rates in the league last year were right around 13 percent.
The baserunners could also help avoid double plays by being a bit more aggressive when a stolen base opportunity arises. Other than Alcides Escobar and Jarrod Dyson, the Royals have been somewhat passive in those situations, and Escobar has only attempted a steal in 23 percent of his chances to do so. Obviously they still have to be smart, but they could stand to test opposing batteries more frequently.
The pitching side should also start leveling off some as well, because the lowest double play rate last year was roughly nine percent. Even accounting for the fly ball tendencies of Kennedy and Young, the Royals will climb up as the season progresses. The defense should start to convert more chances, and things will balance out. This pitching staff won’t lead the league in double plays, but they’ll improve.
This is an offense that is going to ground into double plays. That’s a feature of this lineup, not a bug. However, the rate at which the Royals are grounding into double plays is beyond what can be reasonably expected. Despite how painful it can be to watch a rally cut down by a 4-6-3 twin killing, or how frustrating it is when an opponent is able to keep an inning going because of a poor transfer and throw at the keystone, it won’t be like this all season. With the way the offense is going, let’s hope that positive regression comes much sooner rather than later.