Where Triples Go to Die

In today’s baseball we are witnessing a paradox of progress, in which we recognize that the game on the field is vastly better than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and yet to many veteran observers it somehow feels worse. Today’s ballplayers are bigger, stronger, better conditioned, and better trained. In the field they make plays on a daily basis that would have been season highlights not so long ago. Pitchers, long perceived to be in general decline, are in fact better than ever as they struggle to overcome minuscule strike zones and cozy fences.

It has always been this way. If left unfettered, pitching would have annihilated hitting long ago, driving league-wide batting averages below .180; ever since the beginnings of major league play in 1876, each time batting averages dipped below .250 for an extended period, the owners saw the peril to their profitability and enacted changes that sent offense soaring. In a 1921 column Ring Lardner wrote “I got a letter the other day asking why didn’t I write baseball no more and I usen’t to write about nothing else, you might say. Well friends, may as well admit that I have kind of lose interest in the old game, or rather it ain’t the old game which I have lose interest in, but it is the game which the magnates has fixed up to please the public with their usual good judgment.”

I second that emotion. Mark Gauvreau Judge, grandson of longtime Washington Senator first baseman Joe Judge, wrote ruefully about the man who invented the Big Bam game: “Ruth was the catalyst for baseball as we know it today — a Las Vegas slumber party, with epochs of lifelessness punctuated by the occasional blast from a slugger. What the game needs is what Joe Judge offered: hits, stolen bases, fielding, movement.” Pride of bloodline aside — Gramps was a solid but unspectacular player from 1915 to 1934 — this sentiment strikes a chord with me.

From its earliest period, when a runner could be retired by a thrown ball, baseball was a game defined by its adventurous circuit around the bases. The ancient field games — before bats and balls and other implements came into play — involved chaotic chasing, eluding, and capture. When baseball began it was primarily a game for runners and fielders rather than the batsman or the pitcher. The new game of ball took its name from its hallmark feature: the base, a safe haven symbolizing a bay or harbor amid the perilous homeward course.

The national taste of earlier days sustained a game marked by running and fielding; the appetite of the modern era has been for the contest of pitcher and hitter. It has been a long while since a home run generally involved running. In recent years we have had to endure the Whacks Museum of tableaux vivants, the macho posturing, the one-flap down home-run trot, the lazy fly ball wafting over a wall that has no business being there. When did baseball’s primal activity cease to be athletic? How, precisely, did behemoths who can’t run come to define the game that Lardner loved, the one of Mathewson and Cobb and Wagner and Johnson?

Looking at Joe Judge’s record, this is what popped out at me: in 15 years as an everyday player, he hit 154 triples, yet his average of 10 per season was unremarkable. He never led his league in that category, and even the three seasons in which he hit 15 triples left him no better than third best. Doing a quick study embracing three major-league seasons, representing the high point of Lardner’s interest (1911), the first year of league expansion (1961), and the 2006 season (which provided a recent high-water mark for home runs) I calculated these results, for both teams in an average major league game:

Home Runs

1911: 0.42 per game

1961: 1.90 per  game

2006: 2.22 per game

Triples

1911: 1.06 per game

1961: 0.53 per game

2006: 0.40 per game

Doubles

1911: 2.64 per game

1961: 2.78 per game

2006: 3.76 per game

Not surprisingly, home runs per game were nearly five times greater in 1961 than they had been in 1911. Then they increased by a mere 17 percent in the subsequent period of 45 years. That’s not a lot to justify our carrying on so about the “home run explosion,” is it?

The batters of 1911 produced nearly seven times as many doubles as home runs, yet today’s sluggers amass not even two times as many doubles as homers. This tells us something about how much less running and fielding we are seeing today, no matter that these are, respectively, faster and better.

But the really illuminating event tracked in the chart above is the disappearance of the triple. Not only did its occurrence drop by precisely one-half over the 50 years from 1911 to 1961, but it has also declined by an additional 25 percent since then.

Harry Walker, when he managed the Houston Astros, once said: “The most exciting hit in baseball is the triple…. You usually have two or three men handling the ball, and if everything fits together, the runner is flagged down on a close play. On doubles and triples, several men must contribute. On a home run, one man does it all.”

In Lardner’s day, Tris Speaker’s glove was described as “the place where triples go to die.” (The phrase was later applied to Willie Mays.) Today that place is any one of the 30 major-league baseball parks.

12 Comments

I agree with everything, except for the last sentence, “Today that place is any one of the 30 major-league baseball parks.” AT&T Park in San Francisco has a “Triples Alley” where the fence is 420 feet away. So not all 30 baseball parks get rid of the triple, just the majority of them. Petco Park and Citi Field are also “pitchers ball parks” that allow the triple.

I agree in principle but I wonder if the number of triples hit at Petco or Citifield exceeds the MLB average by much. If you have that answer for me over, say, the last couple of years, I will be grateful to stand corrected.

However, AT&T Park is not a legal major league park. The MLB Rulebook has a statement that any ballpark built for a major league team after June of 1958 must be at least 325 feet down the foul lines (and 400 feet to center).

Players today are that much bigger and stronger,yet most of the new parks are smaller.Think of it,Camden Yards became the model for the present day ballpark with its “new-old look.”Yet the left-center field gap is 364 ft. from home plate,while at the old(pre 1976)Yankee Stadium,that gap was 461 ft.I’ll never forget seeing Maury Wills hit a ball to deep center in Forbes Field in his brief Pirates stint.Since the fence there was something like 457 ft,he didn’t get a triple;he had an inside the park home run.I’ve always loved the whole game of baseball,yet those in charge often seem very concerned with getting the casual fan in the park by simplifying it,which means offering things that have less to do with the game.The casual fan is also the one who,according to some,will only understand home runs and strikeouts.There is so much more to see at a baseball game,and more would be willing to learn about it if given the opportunity.

The current drop in power and scoring may bode well for those who love the old ball game–by which I do not mean the deadball era of 1900-20 but the splendid combination of power and speed we saw in the 1975-95 period. When run scoring declines, the value of a single run increases and managers will tend to be more daring with their in-game strategies.

All true. But all sports have evolved (basketball, football, hockey), in response to what is perceived as public demand. If baseball games today were like those in 1911, attendance would benegligible.

Interesting…. But I have a few other ideas about where the tripples have gone.
1. The ‘cookie cutter’ symmetrical parks used from the early 60’s through the late 90’s lacked the ‘gaps’ that earlier yards featured. Now that so many of the new parks have been designed to mimic those old fields, perhaps we’ll see the numbers begin to rebound.
2. The coaching / managing styles of the modern era insist it sacrilege to make the 1st or 3rd out at 3rd. (Also hence the increase in doubles) It would be interesting to see how many of those ‘pre-1961′ tripples occurred with two or no outs.
3. The specialty reliever. The ‘pre-1961′ hitter was far more likely to take his 4th or even 5th at-bat off the same (now familiar) hurler. Now they’ll go man for man if needed to get through the heaviest hitters, limiting the total bases allowed in later innings. Add to the fact that the DH allows this to excess, nearly reversing the rule’s intent.
These may all be speculative points but worth mentioning nonetheless.

I think the triple is not coming back, for a variety of reasons, some of which you cite. Interestingly, with all the talk about the “scoring explosion” of the so-called Steroid Era, the average game of 1911 produced 9.02 runs, the game of 1961 yielded 9.06 runs, and the game of 2006 yielded 9.72 runs, all figures being for both clubs to stay consistent with the presentation in the article. Whether you produce runs with the long ball or with small-ball strategies, the figures are remarkably constant. In 1871, largely because of teh number of errors, the number of runs scored was a whopping 20.94 (!) but the average settled in between 9 and 10 by the 1920s. For the sabermetrically inclined, this explains why we say it takes about 10 runs to produce a win beyond the average team record of .500.

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David Ortiz, widely known to hit one triple a year, hit two triples in one game in 2006. I thank my lucky stars I watched it happen from bleacher 34. You have to have a lot of little boy in you to take as much joy in base running as is taken by the big fella. Built like a Colossus, but in his mind an Olympic sprinter.

There are many points to agree with here, but I think, unfortunately, the evolution of the game is the biggest ‘killer’ of the triple. Yes Tris Speaker and the Million Dollar Outfield were where triples went to die (http://cordaro9418.mlblogs.com/2011/06/09/honored-numbers-honorable-mention/) but that was when hitters were leading the leagues with those astonishing figures in doubles and triples which rivaled and as stated overshadowed the double digit home run numbers. The parks have changed over the years, often being ‘taken in’ to accomodate the public’s need for HR’s and the owners need for more seating. Fenway may seem a bit in limbo as ‘Williamsburg’ was created to that effect (bringing in the right field fence via bullpen) while also boasting the wall known as the Monstah’ which can kill a home run yet still hosts the ‘triangle’ in center where doubles may turn to triples. While parks back in the day were massive (think Citi Field with no bleachers) and fans could actually stand on outskirts of the outfield, the players have evolved as well. Now teams trim their grass and groom the infield dirt based upon the speed of their players and the balls accomodation to it. Look at the aforementioned ‘Million Dollar Outfield’. Speaker, Hooper and Lewis were sized for the day… light, swift and mobile. They hit triples too. Now, even bigger players have speed to hunt down outfield flys and frozen-ropes. Expansion has diluted the talent pool and the number of ‘5 tool players’ has dropped… sometimes if two or three of your tools are great, its enough to outweigh the others. Even Ted Williams was the first to admit he couldn’t field worth a damn (luckily Dom DiMaggio could). Managers and coaches are geared away from triples which might be considered a ‘risky venture’. How many times have you seen a close play where it was a triple but they hold at second ‘Because you don’t make the 1st or 3rd out at 3rd base”? I don’t think the triple has died as much as it has been eliminated. Now its just a quaint reminder of the Golden Years.

I’m sick of the cliche that expansion has diluted the talent pool. The population of the US has increased. The pool of players who formerly played in the Negro Leagues are now in MLB. Baseball is rapidly becoming a world sport with scads of Latins and an increasing number of Asians. The rest of the world is next. The athletic quality and health of players (increased medical and surgical techniques) is way ahead of what it once was. Quit your bellyaching about expansion.

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