Light Chanukah Reading for the Analytically Inclined

    As of sundown on December 18, Chanukah has officially begun. Meanwhile, barring any more surprises from Steve Cohen, the peak of the hot stove season is winding down. There are still several talented players up for grabs, but the top 10 of our top 50 free agents are all off the board, and only three remain from the top 25. After a busy month, things are starting to settle into place.

    Thus, as the holidays begin and the busiest part of the offseason comes to a close, now seems like the perfect time to share a couple of minute and trivial statistical tidbits with a Chanukah connection. Here is a close look at grounding into double plays, the three true outcomes, and baseball miracles in honor of the Jewish festival of light. (No prior knowledge of Chanukah, Judaism, or the Talmud required.)

    Franco Grounds His Way Into the History Books

    Chanukah is the celebration of an extraordinary eight-day streak. As the story goes, the Jewish people had only enough oil to light the menorah at the Temple in Jerusalem for one day, but somehow it continued burning for eight days and eight nights. As baseball fans, we can surely relate to such a tale; the numbers 56 and 2,632 are sacred, and DiMaggio and Ripken are practically gods. It sounds so simple, but there really is a miraculous quality to things that last so much longer than we expect them to.

    The 2022 season gave us plenty of new streaks to root for. There was Framber Valdez and his record-setting 25 consecutive quality starts. There was Zac Gallen and his franchise-record 44.1 scoreless innings. There were also six different teams that went on double-digit winning streaks, including the Mariners and Braves, who each won 14 in a row. The streak I’m going to focus on today, however, didn’t receive much attention, like Chanukah on the Hallmark channel.

    At first glance, this streak doesn’t look nearly as unusual as it is. It also wasn’t the kind of streak fans were rooting to see continue. Nevertheless, it was rather remarkable from a statistical standpoint. So, in honor of Chanukah, let’s take a look back at Maikel Franco’s historic run of grounding into double plays:

    From April 30 to May 6, Franco grounded into a double play in six straight games. It was the longest GIDP streak of the season and of his career. But it was a whole lot more than that, too. No other player has even had a five-game GIDP streak since A.J. Pierzynski and Casey McGehee in 2015. Over one million batters have stepped to the plate since then, and those batters have grounded into nearly 25,000 double plays, but Franco’s streak stands alone.

    To find another six-game GIDP streak, you have to go all the way back to 1998, when White Sox first baseman Greg Norton grounded into a double play in six straight games from September 12 to 20. It should be noted, however, that this streak was interrupted by a game on September 14 in which he walked in his only plate appearance. Technically, this didn’t end the streak, because he didn’t receive a legitimate chance to extend it. Even so, it’s fair to say Norton’s streak wasn’t quite as pure as Franco’s, which took place over six straight Nationals games.

    Before Norton, the last player with a six-game GIDP streak was Sid Gordon of the New York Giants, who accomplished the feat from July 4 to 11, 1943. However, like Norton, his streak was also interrupted by a game in which he appeared but did not get the chance to bat; he was in the starting lineup on July 10 but was removed in the middle of the first inning after making a costly error at third base. And prior to Gordon? No one. Franco, Norton, and Gordon are the only players (on record) to ground into a double play in six straight games. No hitter has ever done so in seven straight, at least since the mid-1930s. (Partial GIDP data at FanGraphs and Baseball Reference goes back to 1933, and we have access to complete GIDP data from 1939 onwards.)

    What makes Franco’s streak even more unusual is that GIDP rates have declined substantially in recent seasons. Over the past five years, groundball double plays are at their lowest point since the early 1940s:

    Non-pitchers grounded into double plays in 1.86% of plate appearances in 2022, compared to 2.00% in 1998 and 2.03% in 1948. Thus, if you adjust for the era he played in, Franco has the longest GIDP streak of all time.

    On top of that, Franco also came ridiculously close to an eight-game GDP streak, which would have been even more appropriate for this Chanukah post. He grounded into a double play in every game from April 30 to May 6 and also grounded into a double play on May 8. Had he done so on May 7, the streak would have reached eight games — and he almost did!

    That groundball wasn’t hit particularly hard, but Franco isn’t fleet of foot. Had a runner been standing on first base, that’s almost certainly another double play.

    Special thanks to the Stathead streak finder tool.

    Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel

    The game of dreidel is incredibly simple. Players take turns spinning a four-sided top, each side of which displays a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. These letters — nun, gimel, hei, and shin — represent the four possible results of each turn. The person who spins either takes all the coins from the pot (gimel), takes half the coins from the pot (hei), puts a coin of their own into the pot (shin), or does nothing at all (nun).

    Now, while there are technically four possible outcomes in a game of dreidel, practically speaking, there are really only three. Nun is more like a lack of outcome, since nothing happens and the game continues as is. Thus, the game of dreidel actually maps onto the three true outcomes of baseball quite nicely: home runs are like gimel, walks are like hei, and strikeouts are akin to shin.

    Discovering this parallel got me thinking about which baseball players would make the best dreidels. A dreidel is a three-true-outcome machine. But more specifically, a dreidel is a perfectly random TTO machine. A well-designed dreidel should land on each letter an equal number of times. Therefore, the baseball player who makes for the best dreidel is one who is equally likely to record a strikeout, a walk, or a home run in any given plate appearance.

    You’ll be unsurprised to hear that such a player does not exist in today’s game. The qualified hitter with the lowest strikeout rate last season, Luis Arraez, still struck out 7.1% of the time. The only qualified hitter to homer in more than 7% of his plate appearances was Aaron Judge, and he struck out nearly three times more often than he knocked one out of the park. If there’s one player closest to a dreidel in 2022, it would be Nolan Arenado. The NL MVP finalist hit 30 home runs, drew 52 walks, and struck out 72 times, meaning he was only 2.4 times more likely to strike out than to homer, the lowest rate in the league. He’s joined atop the podium by Judge and José Ramírez, who attained dreidel status in two very different ways:

    2022 Golden Dreidel Finalists
    Player
    PA
    HR
    BB
    SO
    SO/HR
    Nolan Arenado
    620
    30
    52
    72
    2.40
    Aaron Judge
    696
    62
    111
    175
    2.82
    Jose Ramirez
    685
    29
    69
    82
    2.83
    Yordan Alvarez
    561
    37
    78
    106
    2.86
    Mookie Betts
    639
    35
    55
    104
    2.97

    If we want to find a true dreidel hitter, we have to look a little farther back than 2022. Indeed, only one qualified hitter has ever finished the regular season with an equal number of home runs, walks, and strikeouts. We’ll get to him in a minute, but first, let’s take a look at some runners-up for the all-time Golden Dreidel Award. Hall of Famer Al Simmons had a couple of remarkable dreidel seasons in back-to-back years:

    Al Simmons Dreidel Seasons
    Season
    PA
    HR
    SO
    BB
    Dreidel Score
    1929
    629
    34
    38
    31
    1.23
    1930
    611
    36
    34
    39
    1.15
    Dreidel Score: Highest of TTO divided by lowest of TTO

    Simmons is the only hitter in major league history to have at least 30 but no more than 40 strikeouts, walks, and home runs in the same year — and he did it twice! He proved to be a lucky dreidel, too, helping the Philadelphia Athletics win the World Series in both 1929 and 1930. Other players with dreidel-like seasons include Jim O’Rourke, Chuck Klein, Bill Terry, and Hank Aaron, among others:

    All-Time Great Dreidel Seasons
    Name
    Season
    PA
    HR
    SO
    BB
    Dreidel Score
    Billy O’Brien
    1887
    479
    19
    17
    21
    1.24
    Jim O’Rourke
    1874
    335
    5
    5
    4
    1.25
    Hank Aaron
    1957
    675
    44
    58
    57
    1.32
    Ted Kluszewski
    1950
    572
    25
    28
    33
    1.32
    John Bass
    1871
    92
    3
    4
    3
    1.33
    Chuck Klein
    1930
    719
    40
    50
    54
    1.35
    Irish Meusel
    1925
    557
    21
    19
    26
    1.37
    Bill Terry
    1932
    677
    28
    23
    32
    1.39
    Dreidel Score: Highest of TTO divided by lowest of TTO

    The dreidels of the 21st century don’t quite match up to those from back in the day, but there are still a handful of players worth an honorable mention:

    Great Dreidels of the 21st Century
    Player
    Season
    PA
    HR
    SO
    BB
    Dreidel Score
    Paul Lo Duca
    2001
    519
    25
    30
    39
    1.56
    Albert Pujols
    2011
    651
    37
    58
    61
    1.65
    Aramis Ramirez
    2006
    660
    38
    63
    50
    1.66
    Vladimir Guerrero
    2000
    641
    44
    74
    58
    1.68
    Aramis Ramirez
    2004
    606
    36
    62
    49
    1.72
    Moises Alou
    2000
    517
    30
    45
    52
    1.73
    Luis Gonzalez
    2001
    728
    57
    83
    100
    1.75
    Carlos Lee
    2006
    695
    37
    65
    58
    1.76
    Albert Pujols
    2015
    661
    40
    72
    50
    1.80
    Adrian Beltre
    2004
    657
    48
    87
    53
    1.81
    Dreidel Score: Highest of TTO divided by lowest of TTO

    Finally, let’s return to the finest dreidel in major league history: the one qualified hitter to walk, strike out, and homer at the exact same pace over an entire season. His name was Paul Hines, and in 1873 he accomplished a feat that has yet to be repeated:

    Paul Hines
    Season
    PA
    HR
    SO
    BB
    Dreidel Score
    1873
    182
    1
    1
    1
    1

    One strikeout. One walk. One home run. The perfect dreidel. Needless to say, this accomplishment comes with a pretty big asterisk beside it; the season was far shorter back then, and stats from that era are a little less reliable. If you want to give Al Simmons the Golden Dreidel trophy instead, I won’t try to stop you.

    But this is Chanukah, the celebration of a miracle. The letters on the dreidel are said to stand for the phrase “a great miracle happened there.” So, in the spirit of the holidays, I’m choosing to believe in the miracle that is Paul Hines and his perfect dreidel season. Happy Chanukah to all!

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