Craig Biggio: Double Play Escape Artist

Craig Biggio came about 7% of the vote shy of spending late July of this year in Cooperstown giving a tearful speech about his playing career, but it’s likely he’ll get a chance to make that speech sometime in the next couple of years. Biggio was a very good major-league player over 20 seasons and ranks 83rd all time in WAR. He has 3,000 hits, which is generally a gold standard among voters, and ranks higher than a number of other current Hall of Famers in WAR such as Tony Gwynn and Roberto Alomar.

Certainly, some of Biggio’s value is based on longevity and the second half of his career was not nearly as productive as the first. Even if Biggio doesn’t make the Hall of Fame by your own personal standards, he’s likely to get in and is at least worthy of a conversation on the subject.

I’ve always been fond of players who play multiple positions like Ben Zobrist (who does it while being an excellent hitter) or Don Kelly (who does it while being something around replacement level). It’s a type of player I enjoy watching, and Biggio’s 428 games at catcher, 366 games in the outfield, and 1989 games at second base put him in that category. As I often do with players who peak my interest, I spent time exploring his career statistics and one particular season stands out as his best, but it also stands out for another reason entirely: Biggio grounded into exactly zero double plays that season.

The year was 1997 and Biggio’s Astros were heading toward an 84-78 record, a Central division title, and a brief appearance in the postseason before being swept at the hands of the Braves. Over the course of the campaign that would end with Biggio finishing fourth in the NL MVP race, he lead MLB with 9.3 WAR narrowly topping players named Griffey, Walker, Piazza, and Bonds. Biggio accumulated those wins with an extremely balanced attack.

In 744 PA, he hit .309/.415/.501 for a .401 wOBA and 148 wRC+. His Total Zone was 19 and his baserunning runs above average came in a 5.2. He stole 47 bases, hit 22 HR, scored 146 runs, and was hit by 34 pitches. Pretty much everything he did that season was his career best or very close to it. It was easily the best season he ever had and one of the most valuable seasons in recent memory, coming in 36th in WAR since 1961.

Biggio’s 1997 season is remarkable because it’s the biggest feather in the cap of a very good player and one of the more balanced and interesting stat lines you’ll see, but it’s also remarkable because Biggio did it without grounding into a single double play.

Baseball-Reference appears to have complete data on the matter going back to 1939 and since then only seven qualifying hitters have gone an entire season without grounding into a double play. This list itself is truly amazing.

Pete Reiser, 1942 (4.4 WAR)

Dick McAuliffe, 1968 (5.2 WAR)

Rob Deer, 1990 (1.2 WAR)

Ray Lankford, 1994 (2.4 WAR)

Otis Nixon, 1994 (0.3 WAR)

Rickey Henderson, 1994 (2.8 WAR)

Craig Biggio, 1997 (9.3 WAR)

First of all, you’ll notice that three of the seven seasons on this list came in 1994 when the season was cut short due to a strike, so while these seasons count they should be taken with a grain of salt because the guys on this list played 85-105 games each instead of 162. Aside from those three, this has only been done four times in major league history and one of the times was by Rob Deer. You can’t make that up.

Reiser and McAuliffe had very good seasons during the years they didn’t ground into any double plays, but they didn’t have the kind of year Biggio did. McAuliffe was four wins behind the leader in 1968 and Reiser was seven wins behind Ted Williams in 1942. Biggio accomplished this feat, which is exceedingly rare, while being one of the league’s very best players. From 1939-2012 there have been 8,636 qualifying seasons and just seven instances of a player avoiding a double play all season long.

Only .08% of all major league seasons have ended with a player not grounding into a double play. Three of them happened in the same strike-shortened season. One during a below-average season from Rob Deer. Two came during very good seasons more than 40 years ago. One came during Biggio’s amazing 1997 campaign in which he did just about everything you could ask a baseball player to do.

In 1997, Biggio came to the plate in 78 situations in which grounding into a double play was possible. In those situations he hit an impressive .403/.487/.677. Of the 40 times he didn’t get a hit, walk, or get hit by a pitch, he hit 13 ground balls. Two of those ground balls turned into errors and he got down the line fast enough the other 11 times to prevent the defense from converting the second out.  It is worth noting, however, that Biggio did line into a double play once during the season, but that hardly seems fair given that it isn’t considered a GIDP and is more the fault of the baserunner than the batter. Additionally, he was the strikeout half of one strike-em-out-throw-em out double play in 1997, so he wasn’t completely without his faults.

Craig Biggio is a likely Hall of Fame player with 3,000 hits who had one of the most impressively balanced seasons in recent memory in 1997. If I were the one responsible for writing the text on his Cooperstown plaque, I would be sure to find room for the phrase, “One of seven players in MLB history to go an entire season without grounding into a double play” because I’m not sure he’s ever done anything on a baseball field more noteworthy than that.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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10 years ago

“…because I’m not sure he’s ever done anything on a baseball field more noteworthy than that.”
I’ll assume you didn’t mean that to sound as disparaging as it did…

10 years ago

“I’m not sure he’s ever done anything on a baseball field more noteworthy than that.”

Biggio’s 50 doubles and 50 steals in 1998 puts him in an even more exclusive club – he’s the ONLY one to do it in the last 100 years.

Ian R.
10 years ago

The 0 GIDP is still pretty interesting because it’s an absolute lower bound – no one could ever hit into fewer double plays than that. It’s pretty meaningless in a grand sense – it’s not much better than 1 or 2 or even 5 GIDP – but it’s interesting in a trivia sense.