Anatomy of The Biggest Double Play

It’s difficult, I think to overstate the importance of the double play Joe Panik started in the third inning of Game 7.

And here’s the double play like nobody’s ever seen a double play, courtesy of MLBAM’s StatCast:

One could go on, so I will …

First, it’s just a tremendous grab, and glove-flip, by Panik. Which is obvious, I know. But what I think is easy to miss is that the unlikeliness of Panik’s twin actions changes the behavior of the baserunners.

Someone noticed that Lorenzo Cain doesn’t do much to hinder Brandon Crawford’s relay throw to first base. Well, that’s true. But I think it’s because Cain just wasn’t anticipating any throw at all. It does look odd, though; it looks like Cain was going to execute a take-out slide before he actually veers toward the middle of second base, making things easy for Crawford. What I think Cain was actually doing was preparing for his trip to third base. Which was so rudely interrupted!

Everyone noticed that Hosmer slid head-first, and StatCast shows dramatically that Hosmer actually slowed down significantly to make that slide. Which might well have cost him the base. And while I know that many people have been preaching against the head-first slide into first base for many years, maybe StatCast will finally kill it? Now that players have even more proof that the slide doesn’t actually work?

What everybody didn’t notice, at the time, was that Hosmer also took an indirect line to the base. Upon striking the ball, his first move was outside the baseline … perfectly natural, since that’s what you’re supposed to do on a base hit to the outfield. That’s what I meant when I said everything started with Panik. Ninety-some percent of the time, Hosmer’s ball would have been a hit. So you can’t really fault him for thinking this one would, too.

It’s just sort of amazing how many things had to happen just so for this to become a double play. Once the ball was struck, Panik had to actually field the ball. Which was possible, in part, because he was already leaning toward second base, because Cain was heading in that direction. Once Panik did have the ball, Crawford had to be waiting on second base for the flip. Which was, in part, because Cain was already on his way. For Crawford to make a perfect throw to first base, Cain had to stay out of his way. Which he did, because (I think) he was so surprised by Panik’s play. And for Crawford’s throw to retire Hosmer, a) Hosmer had to take the wrong line to first base, b) Hosmer had so foolishly slide, and c) Bud Selig’s video-review system had to be in place.

That’s a lot of ingredients for 2014’s most important double play.

How important was it, really? Well, that’s hard to say. The run expectancy with runners on first and third and nobody out is roughly 1.8 runs. Looked at another way, with runners on first and third and nobody out, you’re typically going to score at least one run around 85 percent of the time. Of course, sometimes you’ll score none at all, and sometimes you’ll score seven.

But those are averages. Even with Jeremy Affeldt on the mound, the Royals would probably have scored at least once. Which utterly changes the complexion of the game; hell, they might still be playing. But while first-and-third probably does change history, Hosmer on first with one out probably does not. With a runner on first and one out, the run expectancy drops to just half a run, with a 25-percent chance of scoring at all. We know that Billy Butler came up next and hit a ground ball that would have been an easy 6-4-3 double play if Hosmer had been on first.

Granted, with a runner on first base everything might have been different. Affeldt would have thrown different pitches, Butler might have launched a fastball into the cool Missouri night … We can’t know. I’m just saying that when Joe Panik somehow snared Hosmer’s screamer and somehow got the ball to Crawford in time to retire Cain, the inning went from great for the Royals to just decent for the Royals. Or to put this another way, Panik deserves a lot more credit than Hosmer deserves blame.

Which doesn’t mean I wouldn’t bench any player who slid into first base.