Endangered Species: The Three-Base Hit

The triple is disappearing from major league baseball. Not suddenly or
catastrophically, but slowly, inexorably. In 2005, the average team
hit fewer than 30 triples during the course of the season, the lowest
number in the history of the game.
Here is a plot of the average number
of triples per team over the last 100 years or so. I’ve scaled all
seasons to 162 games to put each year on equal footing.
triples.png
You can see that since about 1930 triples have been
declining.

So, what’s happening? Well, one obvious reason for the decline in
triples is the increase in home runs. About half of all triples come
off fly balls, and presumably a lot more of those fly balls are
clearing the wall in 2005 than in 1915. So the decrease in triples is
tied to the increase in homers. Much has been written about the
increase in home runs through the years, that’s not a subject I’m
going to tackle in a comprehensive way, but let’s just examine for a
moment one aspect: ballpark dimensions.

Consider Forbes Field, home of
the Pittsburgh Pirates, in 1912. The distance to the fence down the
left-field line was 360 feet, to center field it was 442 feet and the
right-field line distance was 376. The left- and right-field gaps were
both more than 400 feet from home plate. This is one huge playground,
readers. Since outfielders in this era generally played
shallow (by today’s standards), they had a long way to run for balls
that got past them. This resulted in many more triples, even for
batters that were not all that fast.

Other
parks had similar dimensions, although Forbes Field was one of the
bigger ones. Many parks had one short fence but were compensated with
large dimensions in other parts of the park. For example, Griffith
Stadium in Washington had a short right-field fence (328 ft), but it
was 407 ft. (!) down the line in left and 421 in center.

Of course, it isn’t just smaller ballparks that have contributed to the near demise of the
triple over the years. Another important factor is improved fielding. Today’s outfielders are generally bigger, stronger and
faster than the old timers. They run down balls faster, and they rifle them back to the infield more quickly. Another important aspect is that
in today’s game, when runs scored per game are historically high and there is a large emphasis on the home run, there is not that much additional value
in getting to third base, compared to standing on second (especially with two outs). It makes little sense risking getting thrown out at third when there’s a good chance you’ll
be driven in from second.

It’s amusing (sort of) to compare the triples-hitting ability of modern
players with players of the distant (or not so distant) past. Eddie Collins was a speedy
second baseman who played about a billion games from 1906 to 1930 and
amassed a total of 187 triples in his Hall of Fame career. Joe Morgan,
also a Hall of Famer, was a speedy
second-sacker from the modern era who played about the same number of
games. His triples total, 96, was about half that of Collins’ total.
Jimmy Foxx was a slugging first baseman
in the ’20s and ’30s who hit 124 triples in his career. Jeff Bagwell
was also a slugging first baseman, but he was also was more of base-stealer than
Foxx. His triples total: 32, about a quarter of Foxx’s total. Darin Erstad is a pretty fleet center
fielder who has hit 29 triples in 5,600 plate appearances. Walter
Johnson
was a pitcher who in half the plate appearances hit 50%
more triples: 41 three-baggers for the Big Train.

Smoky Burgess was a short squat catcher who
became a pinch hitter when he got too fat to catch. In 18 seasons
(1949-1967) he
stole only 13 bases. Still, in his career he hit more triples than the
following players (despite logging fewer plate appearances): Don
Mattingly
, Eric Davis, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones,
Andruw Jones, etc. Ok, I’ll stop here before Jayson
Stark writes me a nasty note for copying his shtick. But you get the
picture.

Triples Hitters of Today (Such as They Are)

At the start of this season,
Steve Finley was the only active player to have hit 100 triples in his
career. Kenny Lofton has joined him in the 100 Club with four triples already this year.
Next in line is Johnny Damon with 80 and Barry Bonds with 77,
but I have a feeling Barry will not be adding much to that total before he
retires.

The most prolific triples hitter of the post-war era was Roberto
Clemente
with 166. It’s curious how the guy with the arm who cut so
many runners down at third base was so adept at getting there
himself. Other three-bag experts from our times: Willie Wilson (147),
Lou Brock (141) and Willie Mays (140). If we consider triples per
plate appearance, the top modern guys are (min 5000 PA): Lance
Johnson
, Wilson, Clemente, Omar Moreno, Juan Samuel and Vince
Coleman
. Aside from Clemente (and to a lesser degree Samuel), these
guys are all about speed and not so much about power.

Of the youngsters, the best triples hitters are Carl Crawford with 49
triples in 2,266 PAs and Chone Figgins, 31 in 1604 PAs (through 2005).

The Good Old Days

You probably know that the all-time career leader in triples is Sam
Crawford
, whose Hall of Fame career, from 1899 to 1917, pretty much
spanned the Dead Ball Era in its entirety. Although Crawford was fast
(366 career stolen bases), he was known primarily as a slugger and
indeed was perennially among the league leaders in slugging
percentage, home runs and RBIs, as well as, naturally, triples.
Crawford, a strong, left-handed batter, banged out 309 triples, edging
out his teammate and archrival, Ty Cobb, by just 14.

I think “Wahoo” Sam Crawford is my favorite old-time ball player. My
admiration for Crawford stems from my reading of the fabulous book The Glory of
Their Times
by Lawrence Ritter. Back in the ’60s Ritter tracked
down a bunch of old ballplayers and interviewed them for his
book. Crawford, who was in his 80s at the time he talked to
Ritter, comes across as a thoughtful, articulate and intelligent
man. I’d recommend The Glory of Their Times to anybody who has
even the slightest interest in baseball history. Actually, even if you
don’t care a whit about baseball history, you probably will after
reading the book. Great stuff and Crawford’s chapter is the best of the lot.

The single-season leader in triples is not quite so famous as
Crawford: his name is Owen “Chief” Wilson, who legged out 36 triples
for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1912. Not only is that a major league
record, it’s a record for all professional baseball—no minor leaguer
has ever equaled it.

I always thought Chief Wilson was so named because of a
Native American heritage; however, it turns out that Wilson was a
Texan with no Native American blood and was given the moniker “Chief” by
Pittsburgh manager Fred Clarke, who said Wilson looked like a “Chief
of the Texas Rangers.”

Like Crawford, Wilson was a left-handed power hitter with decent
speed, but he wasn’t a base-stealing specialist. He finished among the
league leaders in home runs, total bases and RBIs a few times, but
never in stolen bases. Over his career he was a pretty good triples
hitter, but his 1912 season does look a little flukey. Here are his
triple totals during his peak years: 12, 13, 13, 36, 14, 12, 6. Hmm,
steroids? The pattern in those numbers
resembles this sequence: 13, 12, 16, 50, 18, 18, 24. (Trivia question:
what are these numbers? E-mail me with the answer. Winners will
receive a free complimentary subscription to http://www.hardballtimes.com.)

Wilson was undoubtedly helped by his home park, Forbes Field. We have
already seen that Forbes Field had very large dimensions and in fact,
Wilson hit 24 of his 36 triples at home in his record year. For his
accomplishment, Wilson was elected to href="http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/spalding:@field(DOCID+@lit(spalding00158)):" target="new">
The Spalding Base Ball Guide’s “Hall of
Fame”, which was a yearly distinction given out to the best fielders
at each position, the batting champion, etc. It’s curious that
the Spalding Guide made no mention of Wilson’s triples total being a
major league record. One possible reason for this is that there was
some confusion about the existing record holder. Some sources credited
Nap Lajoie with 43 triples in 1903, although the Big Frenchman
actually hit only 11 triples that year.

Anatomy of the Triple

Who hits triples and where do they go? You might be tempted to answer “left-handed
batters and right-field,” but things aren’t quite so simple. Lefty
swingers do have an advantage in hitting triples. This makes sense
since a hard hit ball by a lefty has a greater chance to go to deep
right field. The very long throw to third base results in more
triples. Here’s the breakdown for triples from left- and right-handed
batters. (The data are for the seasons 2003-2005, courtesy of
Retrosheet, of course.)

+-------------+--------+---------+--------+
| batter_hand | PAs    | Triples | 3B/PA  |
+-------------+--------+---------+--------+
| Left        | 239752 |    1393 | 0.0058 |
| Right       | 322528 |    1327 | 0.0041 |
+-------------+--------+---------+--------+

So, per plate appearance, lefties hit about 40% more triples than righties.

Next, let’s look at where the triples go. I don’t have detailed hit
location information, but I know who fielded each triple. Here’s the
list:

+------------+----------+
|   Fielder  | Triples  |
+------------+----------+
|          8 |     1239 |
|          9 |     1166 |
|          7 |      303 |
|          4 |        7 |
|          3 |        1 |
|          1 |        1 |
+------------+----------+

Looking at the outfield positions, we see that many more triples are
hit to right field than are hit to left field, just as we expected. I
didn’t expect to see center field as the most likely place for a
triple to be hit though. Actually, some fraction of those “center field” triples were
probably fielded in right-center or even in right field (if the right fielder fell down on the
play, for example).
It’s also interesting to see that seven triples were
fielded by the second baseman and one by the first baseman, I suppose
those were pop flies in short right field. But, what about the triple
fielded by the pitcher; what the heck was that? That had me stumped
for a while until I discovered that it came from an inteference play:
Luis Terrero flared one over the mound and Duaner Sanchez, not too
intelligently, threw his glove at it and Terrero was awarded a
triple. That’s a play that happened all the time when I was 10 years
old playing in pick-up games, but I never heard of it happening in
professional ball.

A few words about ballparks. Ballpark effects for triples tend to be
large. Historically, many parks were quite asymmetric and those with
large pastures in right and right-center field usually yielded lots of
triples. I’ve already mentioned the large dimensions of Forbes
Field. In fact, if you look at the all-time leaders in triples, it
almost reads like a Who’s Who of Pirate hitters: Honus Wagner,
Paul Waner, Fred Clarke, Tommy Leach, Pie Traynor and Clemente are all
among the top 30 triples hitters of all-time. Actually, the majority of the careers of
Clarke and Leach took place before Forbes Field opened in 1909, but the Pirates’ previous
home, Exposition Park, also had very large outfield dimensions. Getting back to Forbes Field, the
aforementioned Chief Wilson was with the Pirates in 1912 when he set
the single-season record.

In more modern times, the biggest aid to hitting triples is
artificial turf. As everybody knows, articifial turf plays much faster
than natural grass and balls skipping between the outfielders or,
indeed, bouncing over their heads, often result in triples. And teams
that play on turf tend to employ speedy outfielders who, when it’s
their turn to bat, usually get their share of triples.

This turf effect is clearly seen in the graph above, where there is a
bit of a resurgence of the triple in the 1970s. The increase in
three-base hits in this period corresponds to the building of several
new stadiums that had artificial turf: Three Rivers, Riverfront,
Kauffman, Veterans, Busch and the Kingdome all opened for business in
the ’70s. Additionally, artificial
turf was installed in Candlestick Park in 1970 (and removed in 1978).

Several of the best triples hitters of modern times played their home games
on turf, at least for a significant portion of their career: Willie
Wilson, George Brett, Lou Brock, Juan Samuel and Vince Coleman, among
others.

The Curious Case of Mr. Henderson

If you think about who should be among the top triples
hitters of our time, you will likely come up with the name of Rickey
Henderson
at some point. The greatest base stealer of all-time and a
guy with decent power, plus a 22-year career, most of it batting
leadoff, and you figure you’d have one of the top triples hitters of
the era.

Well, you’d be wrong. Henderson hit a mere 66 triples in his more
than 13,000 plate appearances. He batted righty so that will
take away some triples, but that doesn’t fully explain his low total. Just how
low is that 66 triples in 13,000 PAs? Looking at other
right-handed batters with at least 1,000 plate appearances since 1970, Rickey is more or less average
in terms of triples per plate appearance. Some other players who hit more
triples per plate appearance than the greatest base stealer in history: Thurmon
Munson
, Danny Cater, Carney Lansford, Ray Knight, Jeff Kent, Jerry
Grote
, Tim Hulett, Lou Merloni, etc. You get the picture—Henderson was not a good triples hitter and considering his natural
speed, he has to be considered a terrible one.

Just for fun, I tried to create a formula for predicting the number of
triples a player should hit. I did a (laughingly) simple linear regression, using
only at-bats and stolen bases as the input variables, on the data sample
mentioned above: all batters with at least 1,000 plate appearances since 1970.
I did the regression
separately for lefty and righty batters (I left switch-hitters out). The resulting r-square
value was around 0.86, not too bad. Note, this is an overly simple model. I
didn’t take into account park factors, especially playing surface, and I probably left out other variables
that likely have a big effect on triples rate. This is just a quick-and-dirty
exercise to see if Rickey’s triples total really is a lot smaller than expected. The results are shown in the
graphic on the right.
rickey.png

The horizontal axis shows the number of triples predicted for the
batter, while the vertical axis shows the actual number of triples
hit. Points above the diagonal line show players who exceeded their prediction,
while anything below the line represents a player who hit fewer
triples than predicted by this simple model. The player
who most undershot his prediction was Rickey Henderson, who you can
see way over on the right side of the plot. The model predicted 130
triples for Rickey, or about twice the number he actually had.

Why? I don’t know. Power was not even
included in the regression and given Henderson’s above-average power for
a speedster, the model might actually be under-predicting Henderson’s
expected triples rate. The regression was done separately for left-
and right-handers, so Rickey’s right-handedness does not explain the
shortfall.

What about park effects? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. I estimated
a triples park factor for Henderson, based on the first 15 years of his
career, which were spent in Oakland and New York. Those parks were not
good for hitting triples. For example, in the period 1979-1984,
corresponding to Henderson’s first stint with Oakland, the Athletics
hit 241 triples on the road and 164 at home. From, 1985-1990 the
Yankees hit 151 triples on the road, compared to 119 at home. And,
back in Oakland from 1990-1995, the A’s hit 177 triples away and
128 at home. A rough estimate from these numbers puts Henderson’s
triples factor at about 0.8. In other words, he’d have hit 20% more
triples had he played in neutral (triples) parks. That would give him
about 79 career triples, still far short of the 130 predicted.

There are additional reasons for Rickey’s low triples total. He was a strict right-handed pull hitter, and we’ve already seen
that very few triples are hit to left field, regardless of the speed of the batter. Rickey also was not particularly quick getting
out of the batter’s box; he hit from that low crouch and took a healthy cut and that cost him him a little in
getting down the line to first. This is also reflected in his career doubles mark, which is lower than you’d expect from a
speedster with gap power who played for so many years. (He’s 37th on the all-time list.)

Whether these effects, taken together, fully explain Henderson’s low triples total, I really do not know. However,
it’s a curious fact
that Henderson’s teammate in Oakland, Jose Canseco, also hit very few
triples: 14 in his career against the prediction of 44. Maybe there
was something in the water there in Oakland.

Save the Triple

The three-base hit is one of the most exciting plays to happen on
baseball diamond. The legendary Luke Gofannon, the greatest hitter in
the history of the game, said it best. Luke, asked by his lover Angela
Trust, what it was he loved most in the world, answered simply, “Triples.” Angela, crushed at not hearing her own name,
managed to hide her disappointment. She said to Luke,
“I don’t understand. What about home runs?” Then Luke
explained what he loved about triples:

“Well,” he said in his slow way, “smackin’ it, first off. Off the
wall, up the alley, down the line, however it goes, it goes with that
there crack. Then runnin’ like blazes. ‘Round first and into second,
and the coach down there cryin’ out to ya’, `Keep comin’.’ So ya’ make
the turn at second, and ya’ head for third—and now ya’ know
that the throw is comin’, ya’ know it is right on your tail. So ya’
slide. Two hundred and seventy feet of runnin’ behind ya’, and with
all that there momentum, ya’ hit it — whack, into the bag. Over
he goes. Legs. Arms. Dust. Hell, ya’ might be in a tornado,
Angela. Then ya’ hear the ump—’Safe!’ And y’re in there.”

— Philip Roth, The Great American Novel

So, let’s move those outfield fences back. Let’s deaden the ball and
bring back the thick-handled bat. Let’s get those outfielders playing
shallow again. Friends, let’s save the triple!

References & Resources

  • Retrosheet, as always, is the source of play-by-play data. I also found the data used to estimate Rickey Henderson’s triples park factor at the Retrosheet site.

  • The Glory
    of Their Times
    by Lawrence Ritter is not only one of my favorite baseball books of all time, it’s one of my favorite books period. And it cost less than ten bucks.

  • Excellent articles on Chief Wilson can be found here and
    here.

  • The Great American Novel by Philip Roth. Maybe it’s not the great American novel, but it’s a great read nevertheless. Many references to real events in baseball (and American) history. Good stuff.

  • A selection of Spalding’s Baseball Guides from the period 1889-1939 is available online. An invaluable tool for baseball research.
  • Many thanks to Steve Treder, who provided valuable information on this subject.
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