Touching ’em All Minus One: Romancing the Triple

Could Shea Stadium’s layout be a guide to the rebirth of the triple?

The triple is the most exciting play in baseball. Home runs win a lot of games, but I never understood why fans are so obsessed with them.
Hank Aaron

You probably missed it, but the Toronto Blue Jays made baseball history in 2017 while compiling a lackluster 76-86 record. It wasn’t the stuff of headline news, but attention should have been paid. So let’s pay it now.

The Jays had 5,499 at-bats and struck out 1,327 times during the 2017 season. So they made contact 4,172 times. In doing so, they garnered 1,320 hits. Of that number only five were triples. Let’s put that in perspective.

The other 29 major league teams hit 790 triples. The average was 27 per team. Eight players in the American League hit more triples than the Blue Jays. League leader Nick Castellanos had twice as many triples as the Jays. No surprise that their total of five is the all-time low in major league history.

It’s not as though the Jays were a flock of slap-hitters. They had 269 doubles and 222 home runs in 2017, but triples were akin to kryptonite.

Was it due to a lack of speed? Well, the Jays had 54 stolen bases (Kevin Pillar led the way with 15), or one every three games. That was next to last in the majors. The Baltimore Orioles were the anchor team with a mere 32 steals. Hardly a squad of speed demons (Manny Machado led with nine), the O’s came up with 12 triples, which made them next to last in the major leagues.

Well, maybe Rogers Centre, the Jays’ home ballpark is to blame. The outfield fences are symmetrical, so there isn’t much chance for weird bounces. The foul poles are set at 328 feet, the power alleys at 375 and center field at 400. Not much chance for balls getting hit over the heads of the outfielders, or tweeners getting too far beyond them.

Even so, the Jays played 81 games on the road. Surely, some of those parks were more conducive to triples. In fact, the Jays hit 18 triples in 2016 while playing half their games at Rogers Centre, so why the drop-off in 2017?

Was third-base coach Luis Rivera faint of heart, throwing up the stop sign whenever a double could possibly be stretched into a triple? Well, conservative coaching is more conducive to job security. Any third-base coach who has too many base runners thrown out at third or home is just asking to be fired, so reluctance to send runners is understandable. Typically, when a coach puts up the stop sign, fans respond with mild booing and shouts of “Send him!” or “Oh, come on!” or other phrases expressing their disappointment. Should the runner be thrown out, however, that same crowd will assuredly respond with lusty booing.

To be sure, there are situations where it isn’t worth the risk of stretching a double into a triple. How many outs are there? What’s the score? God forbid you should make the third out of an inning at third base…but five triples in 162 games?

Actually, the Jays’ anemic total of triples, while notable, is not a total surprise. It is merely the nadir of a longstanding decrease. Call it a downward fluctuation in a downward trend. Yet no matter how you explain it, the paucity of triples goes against the grain.

Ideally, we would expect to see more singles than doubles.

And there are.

We would expect to see more doubles than triples.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

And there are.

We would expect to see more triples than home runs.

But there are not. In fact, it’s not even close.

Ah, but in days of yore…well, let’s fire up the wayback machine and go back to the beginning of the 20th century, which, conveniently enough, was also the beginning of the American League.

In 1901, the average major league team hit 77 triples (16 teams, 1,278 total); for home runs it was 28 (455 total). The Orioles led the way in triples (111), while the Cardinals led in homers (39). The narrowest gap was 36 triples and 28 homers by the Boston Braves (then known as the Beaneaters), who had 36 triples and 28 homers.

In subsequent years, the gap was sometimes huge. In 1904, the Pirates had 102 triples and just 15 home runs, while the Reds had 101 triples and 27 home runs. These totals, however, were just the far reaches of normal, since every team had more triples than homers until 1911.

In 1911, the Phillies finished in fourth place. They had 56 triples, placing them 14th of the 16 teams, but 60 home runs, tops in the majors. The Phils had three players in the top 10 in homers (Fred Luderus with 16, Sherry Magee with 15 and Hans Lobert with nine). The discrepancy between triples and homers was not huge, but it was the first time a team hit more home runs than triples.

Through the rest of the first Deadball Era, triples continued to outnumber home runs with few exceptions. In 1915, the Chicago Whales of the Federal League amassed 50 three-baggers and 52 four-baggers. That same year, the Phillies (their first pennant) reversed it again by hitting 52 triples and 62 home runs. The Phillies were likely taking advantage of the dimensions of their home park, the Baker Bowl. The right-field foul pole was a mere 281 feet down the right-field line, making it difficult for any ball hit to the starboard side to result in a triple.

In a sense, the first Deadball Era was the era of the triple, just as the lively-ball era was the era of the home run. In 1920, Babe Ruth’s first year with the Yankees, he astounded the sports world by clubbing 54 home runs, more than every other team in the league (the St. Louis Browns were closest at 50). Altogether, the Yankees hit 115 (the first team to hit triple digits) homers.

Playing in the Polo Grounds, Ruth took advantage of the 258-foot right-field foul line. The Yankees didn’t totally ignore triples (the 483-foot center field guaranteed a fair number), as they hit 71 (Ruth contributed nine). The major league average in 1920 was 79 triples and 39 homers per team.

When Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, it was as much the house built for Ruth (and Lou Gehrig, as it turned out) as it was the house that Ruth built. While Yankee Stadium’s dimensions in left-center and center were conducive to triples, the park was only 296 feet down the right-field line and the fence was only three and a half feet high, making triples down the right-field line much less likely.

The Yankees definitely went against the grain, but as the decade wore on, other teams started to catch up. In 1922 the averages narrowed to 78 triples and 66 home runs per team.

Parity was finally achieved in 1925 when the major league average was 73 for both triples and home runs (the triples still had a negligible edge: 1,171 to 1,169). Triples made a modest comeback the next few seasons but in 1929 home runs forged ahead. The major league average was 73 triples and 84 home runs.

In 1930, the homers came out ahead again, 98 to 89. Then the triples fought back and again achieved parity (67 of each) again, nosing out home runs, 1,070 to 1,069, in 1931.

Alas, it was just an illusion. Call it an upward fluctuation in a downward trend. Since then, the major league average for triples has never surpassed the average for home runs.

To be sure, it wasn’t every team every year. There were some throwback teams, notably the Washington Senators, who played in cavernous Griffith Stadium. Hard to believe, but in 1924, when the Senators won the World Series, they hit just one ball out their home park during the regular season.

No thanks to the Senators, the major league average continued to favor home runs. By 1940 the home run average was on the cusp of triple digits. The average was 98 homers and 58 triples.

In 1945 the second-place Senators were still playing old-school ball, hitting 63 triples and 27 home runs. Only one of those homers was hit at Griffith Stadium – and that was inside the park.

The Senators’ power shortage was less noticeable, as slugging stats sagged during World War II. The number of home runs shrank, backsliding closer to the total for triples. By 1947 the major league team  average for home runs again reached 98. This was almost twice the number of triples (50).

Even after the war, the Senators continued their homerless ways. In 1948 they hit 75 triples and 31 home runs. But the next season they got religion: 41 triples, 81 home runs (Eddie Robinson led the way with 18).

Another team swimming against the tide was the White Sox. In 1949 they had 66 triples and 43 home runs. Traditionally, the White Sox were not a power team. No White Sox player had ever won a home run title (and the team would have to wait till 1971 for Bill Melton to do that). Though symmetrical, Comiskey Park’s distant fences had long discouraged home run hitting.

Nevertheless, in 1949 the three-digit threshold for home run average was crossed for the first time: the average for major league teams that year was 107. It zoomed up to 130 in 1950, 139 in 1955, 143 in 1956. In 1958, for the first-time, all teams were in triple digits in home runs. The average was 41 triples and 140 home runs.

In 1961 AL expansion and the Mantle/Maris pursuit of Ruth bumped up the home run average to 152, while triples hit 42. Thanks to NL expansion, similar figures emerged in 1962: 150 homers and 43 triples.

Then came the rise of the pitcher and the demise of hitting. By 1968, the famed Year of the Pitcher, and the last year before another round of expansion from 20 to 24 teams, the team home run average had shrunk to 100 and triples to 35. So even in the offensive doldrums, the discrepancy continued: roughly three home runs for every triple.

The 1969 expansion added four pitching staffs of questionable quality to the mix, resulting in a rise in the home run average to 130. Yet the number of triples remained at 35. After more expansion in 1977, the number of triples hit 45 and homers 140.

By 1977, triple-digit home run totals were common for most teams (only the Mets and Cardinals underachieved) while the number of triples had stagnated. But just when you thought it was safe to assume no team would ever again have more triples than home runs….

The 1979 Astros had a power shortage. The Astrodome was a notorious buzz kill for sluggers, but the Astros usually had a power hitter or two tucked away in the lineup. In 1979, however, they had no one in double digits in homers (Jose Cruz ledwith nine). At season’s end, the Astros had 52 triples and just 49 home runs. That was the last time any team had more three-baggers than four-baggers. One hesitates to say it will never happen again, but it is the longest of long shots.

By 1987 the home run to triples ratio had hit 171 to 34, in other words more than five to one. Well, without stopping to visit every year over the past three decades, by 2017 the average number of triples per team dipped to 27 while the number of home runs hit 204. So that’s more than seven times as many home runs as triples.

No surprise that the career leaderboard for triples is dominated by 19th century and deadball era players. The all-time leader is Sam Crawford, who hit 309 in his 19-year career. Leading the league in triples six times, his best year was 1914 when he led the majors with 26. His last season was 1917. The next year a fellow by the name of Ruth came along and turned heads by leading the American League with 11 home runs (his Red Sox teammates clouted a mere four) in 317 at bats.

Now if you’re wondering how contemporary players measure up to Crawford, you have to go all the way down to 84th place on the career leaderboard, where Jose Reyes resides (tied with Earl Averill and Arky Vaughan) with 128. At age 34, Reyes probably doesn’t have many triples left in him. In fact, though he led the major leagues in 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2011 with, respectively, 17, 17, 19 and 16 triples, he has tailed off in recent years, hitting just 19 in the last five seasons.

Reyes is the only active player in triple digits. Next in line is Ichiro, tied for 175th place with 96. Given his age (44), he will be lucky to reach 100, but he hit five in 2017, so it could happen.

In third place among active players (tied for 201st overall) is Curtis Granderson with 92. Most of them were accumulated in his younger days (he will be 37 on Opening Day 2018). From the standpoint of triples, his 2007 season was remarkable. Not only did he lead the majors in triples, the total matched his total of home runs. This wouldn’t be so unusual for a slap hitter who might get one or two of each, but Granderson hit 23 triples and 23 homers in 2007! Even in Crawford’s day, 23 triples would have secured you a place on the leader board. In fact, it was the highest total since Dale Mitchell hit the same number for the Indians in 1949. Since 2011, however, Granderson has not hit more than five in one season (2016).

There must have been some sort of unusual planetary alignment in 2007, as both AL and NL leaders had 20 or more triples (Jimmy Rollins led the NL with 20 for the Phillies). You have to go back to 1930 for the last time that happened. In that notable offensive year, Earle Combs hit 22 for the Yankees while Adam Comorosky hit 23 for the Pirates.

At any rate, if you’re compiling a list of records that will never be broken, you can safely include Sam Crawford’s place at the top of the triples list. In fact, in perusing the career leaderboard, I realized how few listed players I had seen play – and I was born in 1950. In the top 50, the only two I’ve seen are Stan Musial, tied for 19th place with Rabbit Maranville, with 177, and Roberto Clemente, tied for 27th place with Sherry Magee with 166.

Actually, Musial’s total is surprising as he was no speed demon (78 stolen bases in 22 seasons). Nevertheless, he led the league in triples in 1943, 1944, 1948, 1949 and 1951. My guess is it was due to the design of Sportsman’s Park (or Busch Stadium I) where he played all his home games. Right field was tailor-made for left-handed pull hitters, as it was just 310 down the line and 354 in the power alley. Center field was another story, as it peaked at 426 in deep left-center. I would guess that a big chunk of the Man’s home-field homers went to right field while the lion’s share of his triples in St. Louis were hit to center field.

A number of classic NL parks were similarly designed. The center field fence at Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium was marked 447 feet. Forbes Field in Pittsburgh topped out at 462 feet. As referenced earlier, the Polo Grounds in New York peaked at 483 feet. All three were in use from the beginning to the end of Musial’s career (the Polo Grounds, however, was dark from 1958 to 1961). Given all that acreage, a hitter didn’t need to be a speedster to hit triples.

Clearly, ballpark design is a big factor in the amount of triples that are hit by an individual, a team or a league. Yet ballpark designers are much more concerned with home runs. It’s all right for a park to be “fair,” but if it isn’t, better it should favor sluggers than pitchers. Most fans dig the long ball; the shorter the fences, the bigger the flies. So why would anyone want to design a park that encourages triples?

Given Hank Aaron’s testimonial at the beginning of this article (if you’re wondering, he had 98 triples in his career) and his credentials as a home run hitter, one might suspect that if he were a consultant, ballparks would be designed so triples are not so badly underrepresented.

First of all, how about getting rid of outfield fences? That’s right. Extend the outfield to the vanishing point…or at least to the parking lot. Keep the batter’s eye but lose the fences. This isn’t all that radical. When Shea Stadium opened in 1963, the stadium promo literature boasted that 97 percent of its seats were before the foul poles. So 100 percent is not much of a stretch, especially with seating capacity trending downward in new stadiums anyway. Of course, fans would have to squelch any dreams about catching home run balls, but precious few fans do that anyway.

The seating chart for Shea Stadium.

On the other hand, more inside-the-park home runs would be assured. Admittedly, a climate-controlled ballpark will never be open-ended. The new park in Arlington will have a retractable roof, so the design will be based on that amenity. But Tampa Bay and Oakland…are you listening?

You don’t like the idea of an “infinite” outfield? Even the most dogged advocate for immigrants might chant “Build that wall!” to keep the outfielders from running themselves ragged. Okay, so include a wall in the design. Just add 50 feet to the league’s minimum dimensions for new ballparks (325 down the lines, 400 to center). Think 50 is too much? Okay, how about 40…30…20 feet? Granted, this would bump up the groundskeeping duties and expenses, but I think it would be worth it.

More importantly, keep left field at 325 feet if you want, but extend the right-field line, as triples are more likely to be hit to the right side of the field. The throw from the left fielder to the third baseman may or may not be a lengthy one, but from the right fielder to the third baseman is almost always a far piece. For good measure, throw in a quirky angle or two down the right-field line or in the power alley to make it harder for the right fielder to follow the bouncing ball. While you’re at it, build the wall higher to knock down potential line-drive home runs.

Deeper center fields would also be a plus. In that regard, some contemporary parks are more triple-friendly than others. The first time I visited Arizona’s Chase Field (then known as Bank One Ballpark) I sat through a week of games and got a good sampling. While not keeping count, it seemed to me that I was seeing more triples than usual. That was due to the ballpark design. The power alleys are not unusual (374 feet) but the fences flare out as they approach center field. Consequently, deep left-center and right-center are 413 feet while straightaway center is 407 feet. This might not sound like much, but over the course of a season, it makes a difference. Can you guess which team led the majors in triples in 2017? If you guessed the D-backs, go to the head of the class. For extra credit, how many did they get? (Hint: less than 40 but more than 38).

Right behind with 38 triples were the Reds and the Rockies. Much has been made of the lighter air in Denver and how home runs fly out of the park. True enough, but the park was designed to compensate for the altitude to some degree by having deeper dimensions. Left field is 347 feet, center field is 415 feet, right field is 350 feet. The left-center power alley is 390. Only the right-center power alley is unremarkable (375). Consequently, balls that are hit well but not well enough to leave the park are potential triples if they are hit to the left side or down the right-field line. So if you like both home runs and triples, Coors Field is your kind of ballpark. You probably know that the Rockies’ Charlie Blackmon won the 2017 NL batting title with a .331 average, but you probably didn’t notice that he led both leagues with 14 triples.

Curiously, the Reds also had 38 triples, though Great American Ballpark is not particularly conducive to same. Here we discover the importance of sheer speed. Billy Hamilton had 11 triples. Hardly a slugger (he had just four home runs), he had 59 stolen bases, just one behind league leader Dee Gordon. Behind Hamilton was Zack Cozart, who had 23 stolen bases and seven triples.

Like species, triples can be “threatened” or “endangered.” But will they ever become extinct? Will there ever come a time when we dig out old videos of batters hitting triples to show to our grandchildren? “See, kids, this is what a triple used to look like.”

Well, every time a batter puts a ball in play, the potential exists for a three-bagger. Triples happen, even if by accident, and even in an era when four-baggers are increasingly common.

If triples had civil rights, they would sue MLB for discrimination. As a remedy, ballpark architects could easily provide some affirmative action if the fans demanded it and team owners agreed. But as we approach the 100th anniversary of the first time Babe Ruth led the AL in home runs, it is highly unlikely.

It’s hard to argue the merits of three-fourths of an enchilada when so many hitters are feasting on the whole enchilada.

References & Resources

  • Baseball Almanac
  • Baseball-Reference
  • Wikipedia

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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87 Cards
6 years ago

I am big partisan of the triple.

I toss some arm-waving, three-bagger love to longtime Jim Leyland associate and third-base coach Rich Donnelly. Twenty-seven years a MLB coach; most years manning the hot-corner box. His teams led MLB in trips five times (’89, ’92 Pirates; ’00,’01 Rockies, ’06 Dodgers) and six other times in the MLB top five.

As Frank Jackson explained, the making of a triple has many parts–perhaps Leyland/Donnelly were purposefully causative in three-base hit production.

6 years ago

Anecdotally, one of the things you notice about modern players is to dog it out of the batters box. That habit of the ‘majestic gaze’ at the ball you just struck makes plays a lot tighter at the base, and takes a lot of pressure off outfielders to take good routes, and make good throws to the cutoff man. Little things that are going to lower the probability of taking a 3rd base.

6 years ago

Luis Rivera’s nickname in some places is “Windmill Rivera”. He’s not one to shy away from sending runners further. In fact, perhaps he should shy away a bit more often.

It’s also funny to see an article on today’s state of the triples, without a mention of the famed Triples’ Alley in San Francisco. I guess it’s not the only triple-friendly place in MLB.

6 years ago
Reply to  Takiar

Or without mentioning Comerica Park with its funky RC wall and 420 to dead center. Cmon, Nick Castellanos lead the AL in triples with avg foot speed. Most of those 3Bs were to RC in Comerica.

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

Removing the fences is a fascinating idea that would fundamentally alter the way the game is played even if only at one ballpark. The defense would employ four outfielders with a “rover” playing deep where the batter’s percentages are greatest. Yes, triples would increase but so would inside the park home runs. Line drive hitters would come at a premium. The traditional big bopper a la Aaron Judge or, better yet, Dave Kingman, would become a sacrifice fly specialist with runners moving from first to second and then to third at much greater frequency. Pitchers would not need to throw so hard or even hard at all. Call it the Jack Chesbro effect. But the difference in style of play would be so great between the park with no field and the others that the league would never countenance it.

6 years ago

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