Despite having some of the better offensive numbers in the American League, the Detroit Tigers have been plagued by double plays this season. They hit into three twin-killings in yesterday's 4-0 loss to the Oakland Athletics, stretching their total to 51 double plays on the season. Seemingly every time the Tigers get a runner or two on base, someone hits into a 4-6-3, 6-4-3, or any other combination of scoring plays resulting in a pair of outs.
In previous seasons, we expected the Tigers to hit into a lot of double plays. They had a slow roster that got on base frequently. They scored plenty of runs, but would also ground into their fair share of double plays, as their hitters were not able to get down the line fast enough to challenge the defense. Those troubles were supposed to be over in 2015 with more speed than ever throughout the lineup. The Tigers lead the league with 41 stolen bases, and several of the plodders they had on their rosters in seasons past are now gone.
Yet, the Tigers are hitting into more double plays than ever before. With yesterday's performance, the Tigers are on pace to hit into 180 double plays this season, which would break the major league record of 174 set by the Boston Red Sox in 1990. Why is this faster roster hitting into so many double plays?
Conventional wisdom suggests that the Tigers have grounded into more double plays because they get more runners on base. There has been a loose positive correlation between on-base percentage and double plays over the past four seasons, but not one to fully absolve the Tigers of any wrongdoing.
The Tigers have consistently been among the league leaders in both on-base percentage and double plays, ranking among the top three AL teams in both categories since 2011. They currently lead the AL in both categories in 2015. There's more to this, though. The Tigers have hit into double plays at a higher rate than their opponents in similar opportunities, and have done so for the last several years.
The Tigers have grounded into double plays at an above league average rate for each of the past five seasons. This makes sense given the makeup of the roster in previous years, but it still doesn't explain why this year's team is hitting into so many. With more speed on the roster, shouldn't the Tigers be staying out of more double plays than they hit into?
Part of the answer may be in how the Tigers are hitting the ball. Their 44.3 percent ground ball rate is the eighth-highest in the American League, but tied for the highest rate that the Tigers have had since 2011. They are hitting the ball on the ground as often as the 2012 team, which was a high watermark for double plays during their current reign over the AL Central. The Tigers are also swinging at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone, which can lead to weak contact.
One other reason why the Tigers are hitting into so many double plays is because of the dearth of power on their roster relative to recent seasons. Their .147 ISO is seventh-best in the AL, but their lowest figure as a team since 2010, the last season they did not finish in first place. The Tigers are not collecting as many extra base hits as in previous years, which is leading to more opportunities for runners to be doubled off.
One last reason why the Tigers may be hitting into more double plays than other teams, much to the chagrin of saber-inclined individuals on this site, is their low sacrifice bunt rate. The Tigers have attempted just 51 sacrifice bunts since Brad Ausmus took over as manager, one of the lower totals in the American League. By refusing to sacrifice runners over -- a smart move, based on run and win expectancy values -- they are setting themselves up for more double play balls than the average team.
Will the Tigers start to taper off of this record-setting double play pace? One would think so. For one, they may not maintain a .345 on-base percentage, as only three teams have managed that over a full season since the start of 2011. We are still expecting a power surge from some of the heavy hitters in their lineup, and Victor Martinez's absence from the lineup removes one of their most double play-prone players from the equation. The double plays have been a problem for the Tigers this season, but I would not worry about them too much yet.