Is there a right way to rank baseball's 17 different double plays?
I'm not talking about your bespoke 4-3-7-2s and 5-2-6-5s, or your extremely rare 1-unassisteds. These are 17 routine, repeated sequences you've seen hundreds of times apiece, enough to develop feelings about. I ranked them. Then I lost those rankings and re-ranked them a couple days later. Then I found the original rankings and saw my rankings had changed, and I was embarrassed at the stupid earlier version of myself that got the double plays all wrong.
I was surprised how natural it felt to put one double play ahead of another, how confidently I knew one type was better than another. They're all worth two outs, but there are within those two-out acts certain qualities that are unambiguously good. Baseball finds a way to make you love it.
There are at least two undeniably elite double-play experiences, and neither of them is the 1-2-3. But the 1-2-3 is the best double play, for the following reasons:
It has the most kinetic energy. There are definitely more fluid double plays, but the 1-2-3 is a pinball caught between two walls, the ball ricocheting back and forth (pitcher to batter to pitcher to catcher) before squirting off at a different angle (first base) to burn out its final energy.
Baseball is an ensemble cast, but the pitcher is the closest thing the field has to a single hero, and the 1-2-3 is the steepest narrative arc this hero takes: He has worked himself into an almost impossible situation (by definition, bases are loaded with fewer than two outs; usually none); but, with the 1-2-3, he directly gets himself out of it by fielding the ball and throwing it home. Other than a triple play, there aren't really any swings in run expectancy higher than a 1-2-3 double play, and here the pitcher basically says, "I'll do it myself, and then let's go home."
It's 1-2-3! I don't know how this affects my enjoyment of it, but if for some reason the catcher was position 1 and the pitcher was position 2 and a 1-2-3 GIDP was actually a 2-1-3 GIDP it wouldn't have the same punch.
(By the way, if these numbers all mean nothing to you, here's what each position is numbered for baseball's record-keeping purposes.)
2. Fly out, runner thrown out trying to score after tagging
The first out, on the catch, is generally a given, but we have to wait for the fly ball to reach its summit and then fall back to earth before the second stage begins. The most tense thing you can do to a battle is to pause it, to force everybody to simply stare at each other until they're allowed to attack, and that's what a routine fly ball does to the man on the third.
The expectation on any sacrifice fly attempt is that the runner will be safe. The vast majority of the time, he is, and even a throw that beats the runner requires accuracy, a clean catch at home, a true tag and for the catcher to hold onto the ball through contact. As soon as that runner takes off from third, the viewer has almost conceded that run, so that a a fly out/throw out double play doesn't just prevent a run from scoring but takes one off the mental scoreboard.
3. Strikeout plus caught stealing
There's a great power in naming things, not just what we name it but the very fact that we name it. The strike 'em out, throw 'em out double play is one of only two double plays we named, and by doing so we set it apart from all the double plays that are merely sequences of numbers.
But it's not just the name that makes it awesome. It's named because it's awesome. Just watch:
In two seconds, we get to see both the A storyline and the B storyline reach their final act resolutions, and each storyline is revealed to be (for the offense) tragedy: A batter disgusted at his failure to protect with two strikes, a runner disgusted at his failure to avoid a tag. The best of these are on called third strikes: Along with the mirrored disgust of the batter and baserunner, we get the mirrored punchouts of two umpires.
Bonus joy of the strike 'em out, throw 'em out double play is the knowledge that, in many cases, the runner was trying to steal so his team could stay out of the double play.
We've obviously ranked the 4-6-3 higher than 6-4-3, and here's why:
The little shovel throw the second baseman makes is an underrated delicacy. It doesn't really exist anywhere else in baseball. When we were kids, we'd practice that play all the time, and the shortstop coming across the bag would catch the ball against the outside of his glove, pinning it to the broad backside of the glove to make a faster transition. Nobody in real life does that, but still.
The 4-6-3 is the closest thing baseball has to a crossing pattern, or a screen, or a set play at all. Obviously, there are relays all over baseball, but those are relays: I want to throw it over there, you're on the way to over there, so I'll throw it to you and then you'll keep the line moving. Even a 5-4-3 or a 6-4-3 is basically just moving the ball toward first, with a quick stop on the way. But the 4-6-3 is a strategic anomaly, the only routine play that crosses over itself: The second baseman throws the ball away from its ultimate destination, knowing the shortstop is coming toward him to redirect it. The journey of the baseball from home plate, on pretty much every baseball play, can be drawn as either a straight line or as an upside-down V. But the movement of a 4-6-3 double play draws a 4:
And that's beautiful.
5. 3-2, with the first baseman stepping on the bag before he throws
Because the ball hit to the first baseman always looks like it's going to be a double down the line, making this one of the fastest perception-turnabout plays:
Also because -- well, go to the next one:
6. 3-6, with the first baseman stepping on the bag before he throws
Because double plays where the force has been removed are always extra fun. That moment of recognition you had when you first learned the rule ("see, because now that a base behind the runner has been vacated he isn't 'forced' to go forward anymore") has never totally lost its aha! spark. You see the first baseman step on the bag, and your brain is flooded with now he needs to tag him neurochemicals, not unlike what gets released when you eat Sichuan peppercorns or see your own birthday in a historical document.
The throw home is higher stakes and the tag at home is more chaotic, but the first baseman throwing to second has a higher aesthetic ceiling, especially if he's a left-handed thrower. The first baseman has got that really awkward throwing lane right over the baserunner's left shoulder, and so he probably drops down a little bit, and his left-handedness becomes especially horizontal and visible.
A left-handed first baseman's left-handedness really comes through on this throw -- he looks as distinctly left-handed as Phil Mickelson hitting a flop shot.
There's a high error rate on this play. There's a chance the runner will stop and try to get into a pickle. Just a great play.
The other double play with its own name, though the name probably refers more to the act (throwing the ball around the horn, whether in the context of a double play or not) than to the double play specifically. Still, the 5-4-3 is a good, crisp double play, two right angles, two firm throws from a back-foot pivot. The ball's movement doesn't draw a 4, but it does draw a little night-stand that looks like it could bear a fair amount of weight:
The first baseman throws home and then jogs over to cover his base. We'll lump any other infielder-to-home double plays here (6-2-3, 5-2-3, 4-2-3), but the 3-2-3 has the cleanest lines. It's not the most beautiful, but it ranks high for the stakes and the required hustle; there is almost certainly a close play at first here, and the threat of the runner coming home on the slide clipping the legs out of the catcher's pivot.
The first baseman throws to second, then hustles back to cover his base. It doesn't usually require the same tightrope throw to second that the 3-6 (tag) double play does, because the first baseman probably isn't throwing directly through the running lane. And the lack of the challenging tag at second base takes away the suspense. And, relative to the similar 3-2-3 play, the stakes and rewards and dangers are a little lower. That said, it's a much harder task for the first baseman to retreat to his base after his throw, find the base with his foot, spin, and catch the throw -- which very well might have been released before he was even looking toward second base. It might be the only routine act in baseball in which a player throws the ball at somebody who isn't yet looking at him. I love this little moment of blind faith.
10. 5-3, third baseman touches the bag
This has the benefit of producing some gorgeous hucks, as the third baseman gets a running start into his throw, and the throw then perfectly bisects the infield diamond. For aesthetics it would rank higher, but half of 5-3 double plays come with nobody out, which means that a triple play is possible. When that ball is hit right toward the bag, you start to dream big. The moment that the third baseman throws to first, instead of second, is your dream gutted.
11. The fly ball, runner doubled off before he can get back
This ranks fairly low because most of them are boring: The runner either reads the ball wrong or forgets how many outs there are, and a fairly routine catch becomes a slow-motion double play. You can tell this is a boring defensive play because after the second out is made the TV broadcast will cut to the doubled-up runner's abashed face, rather than a fielder. It's just a botch that the defense is fortunate enough to be present for.
But the ceiling of this double play might be higher than any other. There is something Planet Earth-like about seeing a race between a 100 mph throw and a 20 mph runner, and the tension is made all the greater by the fact that (unlike when the runner is trying to advance) it's a forceout -- no tag ambiguities, just a straight-up race, with your brilliant human brain calculating the odds as two parties on radically different scales converge. Oh, boy, can it be fun to watch:
12. The sac bunt double plays: 1-5-3, 2-6-3, 3-5-4, etc.
Really satisfying. More than any other double play, this one requires two really strong throws -- no short throws and frequently no time to spare. Any x-5-x version is especially amped, with the third baseman almost firing off his bag to catch and make the throw to first.
This is the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance double play, so I might be out of the mainstream here, but I don't like the pivot at second base. Even the fastest ones slow everything down. Looks like a kink in a hose to me. Great double play, though.
14. Lineout/double play
You know, there's no real reason for lottery tickets to have multiple numbers. They could just say "pick a number between one and whatever billion and we'll tell you whether that's the number," but instead they've got the six numbers or the three scratch-off fields or the second-chance games, because it's no fun to know immediately whether you win or lose. You want drama, a little narrative of buildups before the result is all the way known. The lineout double play is a one-punch fight: Within, oh, a half-second of the bat crack, the play is basically over. Sometimes there's a race back to the bag, which can be enjoyable, especially if it's a race between the first baseman with the ball and the scrambling runner. But more often, the play looks like this:
Look at everybody else on the field. That's how little drama there is in this. They didn't even bother to write secondary characters into the story.
Also, these tend to be profoundly unjust.
Too scary! Pitchers are rarely asked to do anything too athletic, but this is a play that is so athletically daunting it could almost be its own niche sport: Tune into the world championships of Covering First, where athletes sprint at full speed for 57 feet, then come to a complete stop in the last three feet, stabbing their feet at a hard rubber base while spinning 135 degrees to catch a throw fired 85 or 90 mph through a congested baseline, all while a faster runner running on a non-parallel line tries to step on roughly the same spot on the hard rubber base. If you designed baseball and said, "Oh, but the problem is that pitchers all get hurt," everybody would guess that they were getting hurt not by throwing but because of 3-6-1's.
16. 6-3 (or 4-3), with the middle infielder tagging the base himself and throwing to first
So far, we've alluded to close to a dozen factors that can make a double play especially loveable: The athleticism on display, the strength of the throw, the challenge of the catch, the delicacy of the tag, the particular stakes, the turnaround it represents, the tension of the timing, the closeness, the angles/fluidity/aesthetic beauty, the potential for reaction (on either side), or that some skill is used for this double play that is basically only used for this play. But this double play has none of that, except in particularly athletic examples. Otherwise, it's a routine ground ball and a routine throw, with no drama on either out and limited interaction between teammates.
The ball is fielded so quickly the entire play comes down to "can a pitcher throw a ball to second base?" and about 80 percent of the time the ball ends up in center field.
Thanks to Daren Willman and Meg Rowley for assistance.