The Double Play Avoiders (Acuña, Buxton, and... Who?)
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the correlation between sprint speed and baserunning value. In it, I noted one way to really elevate your baserunning value is to simply not ground into double plays.
I used Ozzie Albies as the prime example of players with GIDPhobia, but there were actually three players who had over 250 PAs and never grounded into a double play in 2021. While the first two, Ronald Acuña Jr. & Byron Buxton, aren't shocking, the third one is who made me do this deep-dive.
Acuña Jr. and Buxton's ability to avoid GIDPs makes sense. The two stars only played a combined 143 games and had GB% lower than the league average. They were also elite speedsters, with Buxton and Acuña Jr. ranking 8th and 24th in sprint speed, respectively. For them, even a routine groundball to short could be an infield single.
This year's GIDP avoidance wasn't an outlier for the two outfielders, either. Acuña Jr. and Buxton have combined for fewer GIDPs in their career (a combined 25 across 888 games) than the 2021 GIDP King, Jose Abreu, hit into this season (28).
Of course, this doesn't mean that they didn't come close. Buxton had 9 groundball outs that had the potential to be a double play in 2021. Some, like this fielder's choice against the Tigers, had slim chance of being a double play:
With a low exit velocity (only 78 MPH) and an extreme launch angle (-40°), the Tigers' best play was at home, which worked out in their favor.
On paper, this groundball looks prime for a DP in terms of EV (106.4 MPH) and LA (-5°). However, when you actually watch the play, it's clear how Buxton avoided a double play.
Sometimes, the shift just doesn't work out.
The only groundball that truly looked like it should be a double play off the bat is on this play against the Mariners. With an EV of 87.7 MPH and a LA of -1° and a ball hit directly at the shortstop, I would've bet this was a Twin-killer.
The only problem is that Buxton has god-tier speed.
Buxton also managed to hit 3 infield singles in groundball situations. All 3 had low EVs and were in tough spots for defenders to get to, like this one against the Tigers:
Acuña Jr.'s 2021 GIDP avoidance was even more surprising than Buxton's because he only hit two groundball outs that had the potential to be a double play. There were no infield singles, either. Just two poorly struck grounders where defenders only had one chance at an out.
Acuña Jr. avoided GIDPs by simply never hitting grounders. I can't think of a more optimal strategy.
... DOM NUÑEZ?
The third GIDP avoider, unlike Acuña Jr. and Buxton, wasn't an elite superstar with blazing speed. It was Dom Nuñez.
Nuñez backed up Elias Díaz behind the plate for the Rockies last year. Their play was split roughly 60-40, which just gave him enough PAs to qualify for this list (263 PAs). This is still plenty of PAs to ground into a pitcher's best friend. Matt Duffy had 15 GIDPs in just 322 PAs.
Nuñez's ability to avoid double plays is interesting for numerous reasons, but let's first start with his batted ball profile.
As you'd expect for someone who went through an entire season without a GIDP, he doesn't hit the ball on the ground. With a 32.1% groundball rate, Nuñez managed a rate 10.8% better than league average and had the 22nd lowest rate in the majors, tied with Kyle Seager and Jorge Polanco.
Seager and Polanco weren't a part of this trio of GIDP-avoiders, but I wanted to see how these players matched up with Nuñez on the rally killer front.
It's important to note that both Seager and Polanco had over 640 PAs, more than twice the number of Nuñez. Nonetheless, both players were excellent at avoiding GIDPs, with Seager hitting into 7 and Polanco hitting into 4 giving them wGDPs of 2.1 and 1.9, respectively.
Another way Nuñez avoided GIDPs was by simply striking out. A lot.
(check out that 3578 RPM (!) slider)
K'ing 34.6% of the time, Nuñez had the 8th highest rate in 2021 among players with 250 PAs. Couple that with an above-average BB% at 12.9% (27th in the league) and you have a player who doesn't put the ball in play for nearly 48% of his PAs.
On its surface, this seems to explain how Nuñez avoided GIDPs in 2021, but it's not the whole story.
I decided to look up the outcome of every PA Nuñez had when there was a potential DP. This is how those PAs ended:
In the 44 chances Nuñez had at a GIDP, his K% and BB% both went down (K% by 11% and BB% by 3%). Of course, this makes it feel like he should have been more likely to hit into one, not less, right?
Not exactly. This pie chart doesn't give a great indication of his batted ball profile with a runner on first and less than two outs (unless you're very good at quick math). We should also look at that:
This is wild. If Nuñez came to the plate with the potential of a DP, his FB% shot up from his season average of 49.6% to 63%. His LD% stayed relatively stagnant (18.2% on the season to 17 in this scenario) while his GB% dropped to 20%.
For reference, Acuña's FB% was 50% in this scenario, while Buxton's was 37.1%.
Unlike Acuña Jr. and Buxton, Nuñez's ability to avoid GIDPs isn't at all due to his speed. Even for a catcher, he's slow at 25.3 ft/sec (55th of 86 qualified catchers).
Instead, Nuñez avoided GIDPs by doing this:
and sometimes this...
(Nuñez hit 3 bombs in this DP-potential situations)
Nuñez only hit 6 groundballs in double-play situations. He hit two singles, like this one up the middle that avoids the shift:
But what about the other four grounders were outs – how close were they to being GIDPs?
Not close at all, as it turns out.
All four groundball outs Nuñez hit in 2021 had an extreme factor that made double plays impossible. This -2° LA, 66.4 EV groundball was the closest Nuñez came.
With a shift that takes Giants first baseman Brandon Belt off the base and a ball hit on the far side of the shift at only 66.4 MPH off the bat, Crawford doesn't even make a throw to first.
The other three outs had LAs of -31°, -37°, -48° – the definition of a chopper. This one against the Dodgers had -48° coupled with a 65.3 MPH EV. If Nuñez was just a little faster, this could've been a hit.
IS NUÑEZ ELITE?
When I started this article, I was surprised that Dom Nuñez hadn't popped out as an outlier when I was working on my sprint speed article. The whole article was looking out outliers, which Nuñez certainly is. After all, 263 PAs and no GIDPs should certainly garner a high BsR for a player with below-average speed, right?
When I went back to check and see how I had overlooked him, I found that his 1.6 BsR didn't pop off the plot:
His BsR was certainly better than others in the same speed bracket, but it didn't stand out as much as Starling Marte and his 12.3 BsR does.
A 1.6 BsR is good, especially for a catcher, but it wasn't as high as I expected it to be, especially for someone who avoided GIDPs all season. But it didn't stand out as elite to me.
Until I did the math.
One flaw with the standard sprint speed leaderboard is that you only need 10 opportunities to qualify. It's also an average of sprints. Inversely, BsR is a cumulative stat.
This means that while BsR leaders are typically players who play the majority of the season, sprint speed leaders only need to play as many games as it takes to get 10 sprints in (which isn't all that many).
Nuñez played 82 games and only managed 263 plate appearances. Had he received 550 plate appearances (roughly a full season), he would have managed a 3.7 BsR. Fangraphs doesn't believe this is elite, but I think it is. Only 38 players (7% of sprint speed qualifiers) had a BsR above this.
Nuñez is, frankly, an underwhelming player overall. He managed only 0.5 fWAR, a 69 wRC+, and 1.6 FRM (framing runs). He only caught 20.4% of base stealers and DRS pegged him at -6.
And yet, he was elite in the one area you wouldn't expect a catcher with underwhelming speed to be.
With Nuñez's batted ball profile, it wouldn't surprise me he continued to avoid GIDPs, though maybe not to the extreme that he has.
However, whenever he finally hits into his first, it won't be the first time he'd hit into a double play. He bunted into one in May of 2021.
Just another reason not to bunt.
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