April 13, 2021

"Making A Great Defensive Play Then Leading Off The Next Inning"

. . . a diving catch by Willie Davis of a line drive hit by Jay in order to stop one Red rally.

"Willie Davis will lead off the next inning," announced Scully as the Dodgers ran to their bench, where Davis was applauded. "Naturally."

Scully meant this as an aside, probably, but it's eerily true that a man, after he's made an outstanding defensive play, will often bat first in the next inning, earning fresh, loud applause. (Abner Doubleday and Destiny apparently agreed on this matter when they formulated the rules of baseball.)

Pennant Race, by Reds pitcher Jim Brosnan (1962), writing about the 1961 season*. This was Brosnan's second book, after The Long Season (detailing his 1959 season). While Brosnan's books were not fully-sanitized accounts, they were nothing like Jim Bouton's Ball Four in 1970. Brosnan chose to retire after the 1963 season rather than sign a White Sox contract which included a clause forbidding him from writing any additional books.

Making A Great Defensive Play Then Leading Off The Next Inning
John Dewan, Bill James Online, November 5, 2013

Announcers are always saying, "Isn't that amazing! Dokes just made that incredible play, and sure enough, here he is leading off the next inning. That sure seems to happen more often than not."

Of course, the probability that the player who made a great play in the previous inning coming up to bat lead-off is one out of nine. . . . But does it actually happen more often than that? I recently had an email conversation with Craig Wright on this subject where he said "We have the old adage that when you make a great play you often lead off in your team's next at-bats. It seems like a false connection simply made up in our minds, but who really knows without actually checking it out? Maybe the more distant we are from our last at-bat the more focused on defense we are and likely to make a great play."

We can check that! Baseball Info Solutions tracks plays defensively on a scale of one to five, with five being impossible plays (hits that fall in that no one could possibly have fielded) and one being the most routine of plays. The most difficult playable plays are scored a four. Last year, plays scored a four were only turned into outs about once per game. This is truly a great play.

Looking at our data, if we exclude plays made in the final half-inning of the game (where there was no opportunity to bat the next inning) and plays that occurred in the same inning as each other (such that one player could preclude the other from leading off the next inning), there were 2,290 times during the 2013 season that a fielder made an out on a play scored a four. How often did that player bat lead-off the next inning? 233 times. That's 10.2 percent, or a little less than the one out of nine (11.1 percent) chance he had of leading off the next inning anyway. If we limit ourselves just to plays that were scored a four and were the third out of the inning, there were 735 of those, after which the fielder that made the play led off the next inning 70 times. That's 9.5 percent. So it doesn't look like there is any truth to that old adage after all.

A couple of the commenters point out that the chance of the fielder leading off the next inning is likely better than 1-in-9, because a highlight-reel play to end an inning is rarely made by either the pitcher or catcher. Having a DH in the lineup alters the 1-in-9 percentage, as well.

If the adage is ever uttered by an announcer now, it is said ironically, with the speaker fully aware that it is a well-worn cliche. . . . Probably. . . . I'll bet some announcers still believe it.

Commenter KaiserD2:

One of the funniest things I've ever heard in a baseball broadcast was uttered by Lanny Frattare, the Pirates' broadcaster, sometime in the late 1980s, I believe. Someone came up with two outs in the bottom of an inning after making a spectacular play in the top of the inning. "Have you ever noticed," said Frattare with a straight face, "how often a guy who makes a great play comes up third?"

*: I checked BRef for the Reds-Dodgers series (April 21-23, 1961). There was no instance of Willie Davis leading off an inning after recording the third out in the previous half-inning.

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