Few rival Wilson's ability to make twin killing

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The Pirates' Jack Wilson has made more double plays in fewer games than any shortstop in the past half-century.

Wilson's tally -- 830 after only 1,125 games in nine seasons -- is also the most prolific in the century-plus history of the National League.

The only shortstops to pile up twin killings faster were Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto and Lou Boudreau, and Eddie Joost, an All-Star for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1949 and '52.

"Wow," Wilson said when he saw his name atop a list computed at the Post-Gazette's request by Sean Forman, founder of baseball-reference.com. "That's crazy.

"You don't even think about it. It's part of the game and, obviously, I've been blessed to have some great second basemen with me ... and getting the pitchers to throw the ground balls."

This is often the point in a DP story where an avid baseball fan scoffs and says this only happened because the pitchers put so many runners on base. As if great range, good hands, a strong arm and a quick release are meaningless.

Modern baseball statistics blow away that theory. Baseball Prospectus says the Pirates have had the fewest DP situations in the NL this year, yet they are second to Houston in total DPs.

The team's success is a credit to the entire infield, but mainly the duo flanking the keystone sack. Getting back to simple addition, Freddy Sanchez leads all NL second basemen with 61 double plays. Wilson is second among shortstops to Houston's Miguel Tejada, 62 to 68, despite Wilson playing about 200 fewer innings. Since his rookie season in 2001, Wilson has made the most DPs of any NL shortstop.

How many times have such rally-snuffing plays prevented runs or been the difference in a ballgame? Erik Manning recently wrote in Fangraphs.com that Wilson is "by far the leader" in runs prevented through double plays since 2002, but that number is only 15.6 runs above average.

It might be best to think of the DP as simply another indicator of a shortstop's skill, in the way, say, Albert Pujols' RBIs are an indicator of his power. Pujols can't knock base runners in if they aren't there, and Wilson can't help a pitcher out of a jam if the guy isn't in one. But no player can top a list such as this without being awfully good at his job.

Fangraphs suggests that Wilson would save more than 18.6 runs above the average shortstop in the course of 150 games, putting him comfortably ahead of everyone else. That Ultimate Zone Rating measures the arm, range, hands (absence of errors) and DP skills, but today's subject is simply what Wilson does at a historic rate.

I asked him what he thinks about in a DP situation, how he decides whether to go for the lead runner or go to first base.

"The speed of the runners: the guy on first and the guy at the plate," Wilson said. "Most importantly, it's the speed of the ball. How hard it's hit is going to tell you if you have a chance to turn two."

"Once that ball's hit," he said, snapping a finger, "you know right away. If it's a slow roller, I have to get the guy at first."

Game situation matters, too. Wilson will take more chances early. That's not something he has to think about. "It's embedded in there," he said.

Wilson was quick to mention his second basemen. In his nine seasons, the man across the bag has gone from Pat Meares to Pokey Reese to Jeff Reboulet to Jose Castillo to Freddy Sanchez. Of those, Sanchez has played the most games at second (443) and also made the most DPs (342).

Sanchez walked over as we were talking, and Wilson told his buddy, "He's talking about our double plays and how much we rock."

Sanchez immediately brought up one he recently had messed up and wished he had back. They figured they work on the play 40 or 50 times before each game. They'll purposely make some bad throws so they'll be ready to handle bad feeds at crunch time.

"Every time there's a runner on first," Sanchez said, "the only thing that's on my mind is to turn a double play."

Sanchez is, of course, a successor to the greatest defensive second baseman in baseball history, Bill Mazeroski, who finished with 1,706 double plays, the most in baseball history, in 2,094 games for the Pirates.

Could Wilson chase the same record for shortstops? Right now, he's somewhere around 60th all-time, but keeping pace with the leaders.

Omar Vizquel leads all shortstops in career double plays with 1,713, Ozzie Smith is second with 1,590 and Cal Ripken third with 1,565. But the baseball-reference.com report showed that all trailed Wilson's .737 DP/G at similar points in their careers. Ripken was at .685 after eight seasons (12th best), Vizquel at .674 after nine seasons (18th) and Smith at .668 after eight seasons (21st).

Wilson and Sanchez are in contract limbo, but those weren't numbers we got into. What is the market price of an extraordinary-field/middling-hit shortstop? Wilson entered the game last night batting .267 with a .300 on-base average and .391 slugging average. The average NL shortstop was at .263/.321/.386. Wilson's Achilles' heel always has been on-base average; he doesn't walk enough.

Solution: Continue to bat him eighth, where the NL keeps its gloves, and count the blessings. (They often arrive in pairs.) A low-strikeout, pitch-to-contact pitching staff needs a shortstop exactly like Wilson.

Double vision

Jack Wilson has made more double plays per game than all but three shortstops in baseball history, and more than anyone in National League history at similar points in their careers. Baseball-Reference.com checked where shortstops ranked after playing between 1,020 and 1,220 career games at the position, and these are the top five:

RankDebutDouble Plays
Per Game1. Phil Rizzuto19410.7722. Lou Boudreau19390.7543. Eddie Joost19360.7394. Jack Wilson20010.7375. Neifi Perez19960.729

Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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