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Whither the Triple?

October 26, 2019

Watching the World Series, I’ve had the thought a number of times that hits buried deep in the outfield corners were potential triples, and was disappointed to see the batter jogging into second base, standing up, instead of speeding around the bag and drawing a throw and an attempted tag at third. I wondered if the default play of a long hit that bounced around in foul territory at the wall was simply no longer to attempt a triple. Several examples, all taken from last night’s Houston victory:

Bottom of the first inning: Rendon lines one fair but bouncing into foul territory. He makes second base easily, so easily the camera first captures him arriving at second base and then a second camera catches the ball being thrown into the infield by Brantley. Why not try to draw a throw by at least faking a run at third base? I dunno.

Top of the second inning:  Correa also lines a ball to left, this time entirely in fair territory though Soto has to make a long run to catch up to the ball. Correa "cruises" into second base, as Joe Buck puts it, jogging rather than running hard. It seems to me that if Soto were to have mishandled the ball, or thrown wide or short or long to second base, Correa would have had the play still in front of him, but probably could have been a safe distance past second base when the ball was coming in from left field.

In the top of the third, Altuve also hit a shot past the third baseman that went into the left field corner. This time, Soto did mishandle the ball, and Altuve got to third –it was scored (properly) a double and a error on Soto, but again I wondered why Altuve was content to stand up on second instead of daring Soto to make the throw into third base. He took that extra base after Soto clearly misplayed the ball, but I think he might have had a real chance to take third base even if he’d handled it cleanly. At the very least, taking the turn around second would increased the pressure on Soto to catch the ball quickly and make a hurried throw. It seemed a kind of gift from Altuve to Soto: "Take it easy, pal, I’m not going anywhere."

In the top of the fifth, Altuve again hit a ball near the left field foul line that Soto had to cover ground to get to it on several bounces. This ball wasn’t buried in the left-field corner, but again Altuve jogged into second base standing up as Soto’s throw came into the infield. This one was probably not capable of turning into a triple, but I question the apparent philosophy of deciding somewhere between first base and second not to force the left fielder to hurry his throw.

Finally, in the bottom of the fifth, Asdrubal Cabrera hit the ball to the wall at the right-field corner. (Normally, four out of five potential triples would be hit into the right-field corner rather than the left-, but not in this game.) It took a fortunate bounce (for Washington) directly into Adam Eaton’s glove and Cabrera had to stop at second base. Again, though, it was a standup double, with no tag attempted or necessary on Cabrera.

My point is not to complain that none of the runners were turning on the jets, and giving the fans an illusion of hustle where no hustle was needed, but that a general decision seems to have been made throughout baseball that any risk associated with being thrown out stretching a double into a triple, even just taking the turn a few steps past second base, is a foolish risk. "Take the double, leave the triple," seems to be the watchword now (echoing Clemenza’s advice in THE GODFATHER, of course). And it may well be the correct advice.

Before I reached this conclusion, I decided to check out whether triples were indeed declining in the current game, or if I was just being a cranky old man. Doing a quick and dirty study, I compared MLB stats for this past season with stats from ten years ago, and twenty years ago, and thirty years ago, and forty years ago, and fifty years ago, and sixty years ago:


































The raw total of triples seems to fluctuate around 800-850 per season but of course the number of total plate appearances has gone way, way up since 16 teams were playing 154-game seasons. The frequency of triples since the late 1950s seems to be significantly down, by close to 50%.

Others have suggested reasons for this decline, focusing on increased home runs, increased strikeouts, different stadium configurations, and the phases of the moon:​ow-third-base-bombas-home-runs-singles​-8906030174-story.html › endangered-species-the-three-base-hit

I wonder if it’s not simply a risk-averse strategy. It used to be a given that the way to run out any sure-shot standup double was to overrun second base (by the exact margin that the runner could be sure of returning safely to second given a perfect throw by the outfielder), drawing as rushed a throw as possible. The thinking was that there was so much that could go wrong for the fielders and so much potential for the runner: an errant throw, a weak throw, a botched relay, a mishandled transfer could all result in a sudden successful decision to take off for third base.  Personally, I prefer the scenario where the runner arrives at second base standing up, but the outfielder throws a soft toss to the relay man and the runner turns on the jets. It’s turning a sure thing into a dangerous play, but it’s also creating an extra throw and an extra catch-and-tag for the defensive team.

I’m sure someone somewhere has done a careful study of this issue and concluded that the risk of rounding second base at top speed is simply higher than the potential gain of an extra base. I just never got that memo.


COMMENTS (40 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
"players would never take the extra base" is a bit over-stated, don't you think, chanps6? They'll take it if it's given to them, right? Crudely we can say that 1/3 of unforced XB opportunities are gimmes, 1/3 are maybes, and 1/3 are extremely risky. Runners are still taking all of the gimmes, but now they're taking few of the maybes they had previously taken, and virtually none of the high-risk attempts, which conforms roughly to the reduced incidence stats that I cited above. Used to be that aggressive running made sense. Now it just seems self-defeating, running into outs on the bases.
8:44 AM Nov 3rd
Risk avoidance? If it were about risk avoidance, players would never take an extra base,. The third base coach's reason for being is to assess the risk and advise the runner (operative word). C'mon man, taking the Cadillac into second is cool. Just like standing, staring and strutting on every fly ball that might reach the first row. You can't get a triple if you pose.
6:02 PM Nov 2nd
Right, Steven. The "outs on base" are outs a runner makes trying to stretch a hit (a double into a triple, for example), advance an "extra" base on a hit (going from first to third on a single, maybe), attempting to tag up and advance of a fly ball, etc. A "runner's "discretionary" outs, if you will.

And yes, it does support your theory. Runners are less likely to take risks on the bases. They take the "extra base" on a hit less often, and get thrown out on the bases less than in decades past. An average team had 23 runners thrown out at third base in 1930 (that figure was 31 in 1925), and only 11 per team in 2019. A very significant difference.

B-Ref only has this info from 1925 on. I would love to see what the dead ball era looks like, as I have always understood that base runners were reckless on the base paths, which also explains why the vast majority of outfield assist leaders all came from the dead ball years and the 1920s.
7:24 PM Nov 1st
Steven Goldleaf
I presume, SwampDog, that's "unforced outs" at 2nd, 3rd and home? That's right in line with my thesis here--runners and teams and MLB are evaluating the risk-reward point differently, and I have to think that sabermetrics plays a big part in that evaluation.

It was one thing when we were guessing at the risk/reward point, but now that we know it, we know how to run the bases better. Someone of Facebook brought up the only GW ITP HR ever as a trivia question, so I posted my article about it from 2017 (written in Laguardia waiting to board a plane--fastest article ever written on BJOL from conception to publication) and I see I made the same point then as now--it was a crazy, stupid-risky play, and the fact that Roberto Clemente scored doesn't make it much it much saner, smarter, or wiser. I love the extra base, and the tag play, but it's not conducive to scoring runs or winning games.
8:28 AM Oct 31st
As others have pointed out, it looks to me like runners are less likely to take risks on the bases. Using B-Ref's baserunning stats, as I understand them, players are making less "outs on base" than they did 50-100 years ago, and advancing an "extra base" on a hit less often as well.

"Outs on base" does not include caught stealing, or times picked off. The "extra base" refers to the times that a runner advances more than one base on a teammates single, and more than 2 bases on a double. Stats below are team average.

This will not line up properly, but the stats below are; Year---extra base %---Total outs on base (second, third, and home)


Looks like runners aren't taking as many risks.
1:00 PM Oct 30th
Steven Goldleaf: "We now know what that risk is, to within a few percentage points."

That is one aspect of what I said. The change is not reduced willingness to take risks, it is a more accurate assessment of the risk and reward. Part of that is the relative valuation and part is more extensive use of stopwatches and the resulting data.

When you are on the tail of a distribution, more accurate assessment reduces both the frequency of failure and the frequency of success.

thedanholmes: "See stolen base attempts and sacrifice bunts, also bunt attempts for hits"

I don't see what the last two have to do with risk taking. And the first has no clear relation with the decline in triples. Stolen bases went way down as triples went down. Then stolen bases went way up as triples went down. Then stolen bases went down as triples leveled off.
6:38 AM Oct 29th
RE: Mike 137:

"Is there any evidence of reduced risk taking?"

See stolen base attempts and sacrifice bunts, also bunt attempts for hits.
9:22 PM Oct 28th
Triples have declined at almost precisely the rate as errors have declined since the 1920s. Not hard to understand how those two things match.
9:18 PM Oct 28th
perhaps injury avoidance. not worth pulling a hammy.
7:40 PM Oct 28th
I don't see how astroturf increases triples unless it causes an outfieldeer to misplay a ball. The ball rolls to the wall, the fielder runs to retrieve it and throw the ball in. Where does turf come in?

The use of artificial turf became common in the 70's and triples went up. But the prior trend was soon restored. The replacement of turf with grass with the new stadiums of the 90's was not accompanied by a drop in triples. I suspect the rise in the 70's was due to outfielders taking poor routes to balls in the gaps because they were not used to artificial turf. But then they adjusted, so the return to grass had little or no effect.

Artificial turf is used in a number of parks, but the stuff they have now plays much more like grass than the old stuff.

6:43 PM Oct 28th
One thing noone has mentioned: Astroturf. That stuff caused a LOT of triples.

Are there any turf fields anymore?

6:13 PM Oct 28th
Whoops — I see I made a point STeven made earlier in the comments. Sorry.
5:50 PM Oct 28th
Another hypothesis: better outfielding. Purely subjective on my part, but I’ve witnessed few clean triples in recent years. Most triples I’ve seen came from the outfielder misplaying a carom off the wall, or slipping on wet grass, or some other defensive mishap. (Ditto inside-the-park home runs.) Outfielders now, I would guess, are better at avoiding those mishaps:taking better routes to the ball, better positioning, and so forth. I don’t know (yet) whether data supports this or not.
5:37 PM Oct 28th
Steven Goldleaf
But there obviously HAS been some change in the perceived risk/reward ratio. We now know what that risk is, to within a few percentage points. Before Bill came along, it was a crapshoot, a totally subjective perception based on the runners' (and coaches') gut instinct.
5:12 PM Oct 28th
It is entirely possible for there to be fewer outs on the bases and fewer bases taken even if there has been no change in the perceived risk/reward ratio. All that is needed is better decision making leading to a better real-time estimate of the probability of success.
2:57 PM Oct 28th
I think that in the long run the only way to make the 'go for third base' gamble more worthwhile would be to reduce scoring, to magnify the importance of each run.

With the substantial boost of sabermetrics all kinds of things become known to the teams and the players to help them make better decisions. Many of those things do not result in more entertaining baseball.

Baseball shouldn't be allowed to be reformed (or deformed) to suit the competitors, but to suit the fans. I hate to say it, but the home run has gotten kind of's come to all orgasm and no foreplay. That may be good for juvenile enjoyment but it's hardly of much interest to even slightly sophisticated fans.
12:29 PM Oct 28th
Steven Goldleaf
Wouldn't you account for the stability since Moneyball/Bill James/sabermetrics/call-it-what-you-will as "a certain number of triples are no-brainers"? In other words, sometimes you're going to have balls that take a crazy carom in the outfield, bounce off a fielder's glove when he hits the wall, etc. that tell a runner stopping at second base "You can still make third." Other than these sure-thing triples, which I would call "potential Inside-the-Parkers to hustling runners," all long hits are doubles since about 1996.
5:00 AM Oct 28th
The ratio of triples to balls in play is very similar, but flattens out a bit sooner. It has been 0.6-0.8% since then with a very slight downward trend.
9:15 PM Oct 27th
The ratio of triples to all hits was 6.0% in 1913. It trended down with remarkable consistency (much more consistent than the increases in HR or SO), reached a minimum of 2.3% in 1973, rose to 3.1% in 1977, then started down again. It stabilized at 2.3% to 2.4% from 1986 to 1994 then dropped to 2.0% in 1996, which is where is has basically been since (1.9-2.2%).

Note that the downward trend started in the deadball era and stabilized in the Moneyball era.
9:05 PM Oct 27th
are singles and doubles down by the same amount?

If so, than it's just part of the fewer balls in play effect.
6:37 PM Oct 27th
Steven Goldleaf
Yes, steve, I've been making these arguments for a while: 1) today's players are far better than their predecessors --it's unnoticeable because offense and defense, hitting and pitching, runners and fielders, are getting better at the same time, and 2) better baseball is also more boring baseball, longer games, multiple substitutions, frequent conferences, longer counts etc. all may well be smarter baseball, but I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it.
5:56 PM Oct 27th
At the very latest since Bill James made the argument in the early Abstracts, there has been an increasing awareness that there has to be a high likelihood of success to risk losing a baserunner. And of course this is particularly true when the baserunner is already in scoring position. Even in the pre-sabermetric era it was understood that making the first or the third out at third base was a losing play.

Call it increased risk-aversion if you will. I call it smarter baseball. And if you say that it's less entertaining baseball, I won't disagree. This is just one more case of analytics taking a bit of the fun out of the game, unless of course you don't really see the fun in being stupid.
5:34 PM Oct 27th
Steven Goldleaf
The other part of this argument, Mike, is that outfielders have improved over the past 30, 50, 70 years--all players have-- but if they're that much faster, aren't the baserunners (and baserunning techniques, and equipment) also improved? After all, the outfielders and the baserunners are often the same exact people, running with the same exact shoes (actually, better shoes than in the past) so any improvements in OFers getting to the balls should be matched by runners' improvements.
5:12 PM Oct 27th
Steven Goldleaf
The evidence for reduced risk taking is the general awareness throughout MLB the past few decades of a risk/reward % point. Now we routinely acknowledge that 70% (or whatever the current number) success is necessary for a stolen base attempt to be a good move; previously, we had no clue, and sent runners even though they were under 50% for their careers.

The funny part is that I'm citing Altuve for not so much as drawing a throw from Soto on his doubles, but the night before (I think) he tried to steal 3B and got thrown out by the catcher, costing his team a big inning. I'd imagine trying to take an extra base on Soto would be a higher percentage move.

Jack- I think you're restating what I'm trying to say about stretching doubles into triples. I wonder if there is any source of runners thrown out at 3B. I'll bet you're right that the number has sharply declined.

5:01 PM Oct 27th
Is there any evidence of reduced risk taking?

As to the lack of lead foot outfielder, according to StatCast the slowest regular outfielder in MLB this year was Alex Gordon. He is not a gazelle, but he is a whole lot faster than Luzinski, Kittle, Howard, Killebrew, etc.
3:09 PM Oct 27th
I think a contributing factor to the triple's decline is an awareness throughout upper-level baseball of the relatively high negative value of an out on the bases compared to the relatively small positive value of an extra base taken.

I'd bet that the number of outs made on players trying for a triple has declined to a greater extent than the number of triples. Players don't try for the base unless they have a really high percentage likelihood of making it, is my sense.
10:45 AM Oct 27th
Per BIP triples have been falling since about 1930, per 2B+3B since about 1920. It's been constant, with a slight upswing from about 1975-1985 that's likely due to all the artificial turf in that period. Sabermetrics can't be the factor or else all the fall would be in the last 20 years, when things have actually been pretty constant. However, coaches and managers and players have long been aware of things uncovered in sabermetrics, so they likely knew that with the home run looming at any time that it didn't make sense to waste an out at third.

Also, better fields, better gloves, ballparks not optimized for triples.
9:58 AM Oct 27th
Steven Goldleaf
Nettles9--that might explain the lack of risktaking in general. Sometimes it seems like a 90% or even 95% chance of success is too low for most runners.
9:48 AM Oct 27th
Steven Goldleaf
Uncontroversial but marginal. Some outfielders, by and large, may be swifter than their 1950s counterparts, and some may have slightly better arms, but that's far from established fact. The difference might account for a few more triples sixty years ago, but I think the lack of willingness to take risks is the more significant reason.

BTW, did you notice that Astro around the 8th inning last night hitting what looked like a sure double to left but he settled for a single, and then noticed that the LFer wasn't even bothering to make a throw so he swiped second standing up? More of the same. Pretty disgraceful baseball, actually, in a World Series.
9:46 AM Oct 27th
With the increased chances of a home run from the next batter, why take the chance of going for third? Take the two-bagger and wait for the four-slacker.
9:43 AM Oct 27th
Yes, it is subjective. I also thought my claim was uncontroversial.
9:15 AM Oct 27th
Steven Goldleaf
"Leave the gun, take the cannoli."

Mike137--can you quantify or support that notion? Seems to me there have always been plenty of fast outfielders in MLB, and I'm not too impressed with the arms of some contemporary outfielders. Is this anything other than subjective anecdotes, or do you have any evidence to back that idea up?
6:36 AM Oct 27th
What's the Godfather line?

To the subject: I'm sort of with Luke. I love triples, and miss them.
Just about the only thing I like better is inside-the-park HR's -- and I'm still mad at Alex Gordon (no matter that it wouldn't have been scored a HR......btw, has it really been 5 years.....)

....except that of course when the Astros were playing the Yanks in the ALCS, I was glad any number of times when the Astro hitters stopped at 2nd base.
8:44 PM Oct 26th
Outfielders are faster, or at least there are a lot fewer slow outfielders. They have better arms. You just don't see the lead foot left fielders and weak armed center fielders. They play deeper. There are fewer parks with really expansive center fields. All that means fewer triples.
8:30 PM Oct 26th
Okay, last try:
8:12 PM Oct 26th
Gfletch's a better link: (I hope)
8:09 PM Oct 26th
Steven, here's a record of Triples per Plate Appearance from 1876 through 2016:

If you don't mind a little self promotion, here's a post of mine where I give a few examples of what can be done with something I contributed to the Stat Depository.​light=trends+data

7:36 PM Oct 26th
For what it's worth-Mr. Manush for example had 160 triples in his 17 year run in the Babe Ruth era. Lotsa guys had about same amount. He had 20 and 17 and a few other year in the teens. I'm guessing, as Mr. Manush played in a couple big parks with deep power alleys-Tiger Stadium and Griffiths(Senators). There were gobs of triples hit in both places, my guess is that the OF of the era played shallower than later OFs, so these long liners that kept coming off his bat were finding gaps where in later days would be long outs. That's the guess anyways. Mr. Manush was a spray hitter and had a bit of speed when younger, but I'm sure he's NOT Rickey or Raines afoot, these triples were more a matter of placement than great running speed.

Times this by Cuyler, Dixie Walker and etc you'll see my point. Basic I know but...makes sense.
3:58 PM Oct 26th
The first paragraph was written by Robin Bates from this selection :

The rest is Phillip Roth.
3:56 PM Oct 26th
learned to appreciate triples when I read Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel the summer after I graduated from college. The situation is as follows:

Angela Whittling Trust, the owner of a baseball team in the 1940’s, has had five baseball lovers over the years, two of them being Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. But the one she loves the most is one Luke “the Loner” Gofannon, who is better than either Ruth or Cobb (or so we are told by the extremely unreliable narrator). Luke, in return, loves her better than anything in the world—with one exception.

When Angela asks Luke about his greatest love, it takes him all night to come up with an answer (he’s a bit slow) but he finally tells her:

“I don’t understand, darling. What about home runs?”
“Nope. Triples. Hittin’ triples. Don’t get me wrong, Angela, I ain’t bad-mouthin’ the home run and them what hits ’em, me included. But smack a home run and that’s it, it’s all over.”
“And a triple?” she asked. “Luke, you must tell me. I have to know. What is it about the triple that makes you love it so much? Tell me, Luke, tell me!” There were tears in her eyes, the tears of jealous rage.
“You sure you up to it?” asked Luke, as astonished as it was in his nature to be. “Looks like you might be getting’ a little cold.”
“You love the triple more than Horace Whittling’s daughter, more than Spenser Trust’s wife—tell me why!”
“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’ know it is right on your tail. So ya’ slide. Two hunerd and seventy feel 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 . . . Only that ain’t all.”
“What then? Tell me everything, Luke! What then?”
“Well, the best part, in a way. Standin’ up. Dustin’ off y’r breeches and standin’ up, there on that bag. See, Angela, a home run, it’s great and all, they’re screamin’ and all, but then you come around those bases and you disappear down into the dugout and that’s it. But not with a triple . . . Ya’ get it, at all?”
“Yes, yes, I get it.”
“Yep,” he said, running the whole wonderful adventure through in his mind, his eyes closed, and his arms crossed behind him on the pillow beneath his head, “big crowd . . . sock a triple . . . nothin’ like it.”
“We’ll see about that, Mr. Loner,” whispered Angela Trust.

Poor little rich girl! How she tried! Did an inning go by during the two seasons of their affair, that she did not know his batting average to the fourth digit? You’re batting this much, you’re fielding that much, nobody goes back for them like you, my darling. Nobody swings like you, nobody runs like you, nobody is so beautiful just fielding an easy fly ball!
Was ever a man so admired and adored? Was ever a man so worshipped? Did ever an aging woman struggle so to capture and keep her lover’s heart?
But each time she asked, no matter how circuitously (and prayerfully) she went about it, the disappointment was the same.
“Lukey,” she whispered in his ear, as he lay with his fingers interlaced beneath his head, “which do you love more now, my darling, a stolen base, or me?”
“Oh, darkling,” and she kissed him feverishly, “Which do you love more, a shoestring catch, or me?”
“Oh, you.”
“Oh, my all-star Adonis! Which do you love more, dearest Luke, a fastball letter-high and a little tight, or me?”
“Well . . .”
“Well what?”
“Well, if I’m battin’ left-handed, and we’re at home—“
“But then a’ course, if I’m battin’ rightie, you, Angel.”
“Oh, my precious, Luke, what about—what about a home run!”
“You or a home run, you mean?”
“Well, now I really got to think . . . Why . . . why . . . why, I’ll be damned, I got to be honest. Geez. I guess—you. Well, isn’t that somethin’.”
He who had topped Ruth’s record, loved her more than all his home runs put together! “My darling,” and in her joy, the fading beauty offered to Gofannon what she had withheld even from Cobb [anal sex].
“And Luke,” she asked, when the act had left the two of them weak and dazed with pleasure, “Luke,” she asked, when she had him just where she wanted him, “what about . . . your triples? Whom do you love more now, your triples, or your Angela Whittling Trust!”
While he thought that one through, she prayed. It has to be me. I am flesh. I am blood. I need. I want. I age. Someday I will even die. Oh Luke, a triple isn’t even a person—it’s a thing!
But the thing it was. “I can’t tell a lie, Angela,” said the Loner. “There just ain’t nothin’ like it.”

So there you have it. Nothing beats a triple. Absolutely nothing.

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3:54 PM Oct 26th
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