Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Synchronized Baseball: The Double Play

Chinese Olympic Synchronized Divers

Within the last week fans around the world have been dazzled by the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England.  Unlike professional sports, Olympians work hard and train relentlessly for the euphoric, yet hypothetical moment when they might be named the top athlete of their sport in the world.  Professional sports and Olympic athletic events often clash in that many professional leagues do not allow all of their athletes to compete in the Olympic games. Overall, most fans watch the Olympics for those sports that are rarely spoken of in common sports vernacular.  One of those sports with which I have become enamored is synchronized diving.  Synchronized diving?!! Yes, yes, I'm speaking of the sport in which a pair of men or women, propel themselves, sometimes from extreme heights, contort themselves, and perform flips in mid-air before they comfortably land in the water.  Oh, and by the way, the two athletes are supposed to perform the same dive at exactly the same time.  A perfect dive is not only executed well, but should appear as though one diver is performing the feat in a mirror.

Judges base their scores on execution and synchronization.  This caused me to wonder if there were any similarities between synchronized diving and baseball.  Not long after posing this question to myself I found the answer.  The double play.  Double plays, like many defensive plays in baseball, involve two key attributes, physical ability and baseball intelligence.

The 6-4-3 Variety

Double plays constitute some of the most beautiful and elegant plays in the game of baseball.  Double plays occur quite often, in fact, pitchers will change their strategies when a runner is on-base in order to induce a ground ball to result in a twin killing.  Double plays, like jeans, come in all shapes and sizes.  Common double plays include the 6-4-3, the 4-6-3, the 5-4-3, and the 3-6-3.  The most commonly involved players are the shortstop, second baseman, and first baseman.  Double plays, unlike most other defensive plays in baseball, involve a tandem of players who must prepare mentally and strategically, and then work together to physically carry out their intended task.

Just like the judges in an Olympic synchronized diving competition, we often grade the participants of a double play in two categories, mental preparation and execution.  In addition, the execution of an Olympic dive is partially graded based upon the difficulty of the dive.  This concept also applies to the double play.  Not all double plays are created equal.  Most baseball aficionados would consider a conventional double play one where a ground ball is hit directly at the shortstop.  He fields it cleanly, throwing the ball to the second baseman who has already occupied second base.  The second baseman catches the ball before the runner slides into the base, and throws a strike to the first baseman, thus achieving two outs in one play.

There is no way around it—double plays are a defensive goal and devastating to the offense.  This season, the team that has collectively grounded into the most double plays is the Minnesota Twins.  Not surprisingly the Twins also lead the major leagues in ground balls hit.  The Twins play in a pitcher/defense-oriented park, don't have a great offense, and have a number of fast players who would consistently hit the ball on the ground.

How about the other side?  I could not find a website that tracked the team that caused the most double play situations, but in lieu of that the baseball world uses a pitcher's ground ball percentage.  The pitcher with the highest GB% this season with a minimum of 70 innings pitched is Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Trevor Cahill with a 61% ground ball percentage.  The team with the highest ground ball percentage thus far in 2012 is the St. Louis Cardinals at 48.9%.  More double plays have occurred this season in the 6th inning than any other, while the fewest double plays have occurred in the 9th inning.  In addition, more double plays occurred in high leverage situations than any other.  Finally, pitchers created the most double plays this season in a no-ball one-strike count.

Sometimes double plays are quite odd.  This 4-2-1 double play occurred in a game between the Red Sox and the Rays in 2010 (Video).  Not all double plays involve only infielders.  For example, an outfielder may catch a fly ball, and consequently throw out a runner attempting to tag up.  Check out Rick Ankiel catching a fly ball in center field and throwing out a runner at third base, completing the 8-5 double play (Video).  Like many of the Olympic events, including synchronized diving, double plays often require athletic prowess.  In order to avoid a base runner sliding into them, and thus breaking up the double play, shortstops will often jump over the incoming runner and throw simultaneously to first base.

Gold Glove
Turning a double play is a crafty business.  Coaches position players in specific spots, including the positioning of the shortstop and second baseman at "double play depth," in order to help the players turn a double play.  Once a player is positioned correctly, the athleticism and split-second decision-making must kick in.  Oftentimes players need to know the circumstances when a double play would not be strategic.  Sometimes players will err when trying to complete a twin killing due to a level of extreme difficulty.  Note that errors are not awarded to fielders because in baseball, you can never assume a double play.  Even when a double play seems imminent and it looks like the fielder erred, he does not receive an error.  Instead, the play is scored as a fielder's choice.

Gold Medal

Double plays are a huge part of a baseball game.  Sometimes they go around-the-horn (5-4-3), while other times they move all over the infield, as in my favorite double play, the 1-2-3 variety.  The ability to complete a double play will often change the strategy of one or both of the managers.  Certain pitchers with abilities to produce ground balls are called upon in situations when a double play is likely to occur.  Overall, one thing is certain: the ability to get two outs in one play is invaluable.  It is comparable to going to the grocery store to buy laundry detergent and seeing that there is a buy-one-get-one free sale.  In sum, double plays are elegant, difficult to execute, and require team coordination, attributes that make the double play oddly similar to a synchronized dive.  Although the fielders do not win gold medals, double plays do help them win gold gloves.    

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