The Royals are bringing back the triple
A line drive splits the gap. The batter takes off, and keeps the pedal down. The outfielders chase in desperation. The race is on, and the anticipation in the stadium builds.
A triple -- or even an attempted triple -- is one of the more exciting plays in baseball, roughly 11 to 13 seconds of pulse-pounding action. But the triple isn’t exactly thriving. Strikeouts and home runs are up, and few ballparks now have the sort of spacious, quirky outfield that encourages three-baggers.
Yet here in 2019, the Royals are doing their part to bring back the triple.
Lapping the field
Kansas City hit its 18th triple of the season Friday. Here are a few ways to put that number in context:
• Two teams have zero triples this season (the Indians and Marlins). The Rays (13) and Rockies (11) are Kansas City’s closest competition in this category.
• The Royals boast MLB’s co-leaders in triples, with Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi both at five. Meanwhile, there is an entire division (the NL Central) in which no team has more than five triples.
• The Royals’ 18 triples are as many or more than four teams -- the Astros, Blue Jays, Orioles and Cardinals -- had in all of 2018. In fact, the most recent season in which no team finished with 18 triples or fewer was 2000.
• The Royals are the first team to collect at least 18 triples through its first 33 games since the 2000 Rockies, and just the sixth in the expansion era (since 1961).
• Kansas City’s current pace would yield a lofty season total of 88 triples, the most since the 1938 Indians had 89. That’s highly unlikely to continue, but the club still could put up one of the largest triple totals in recent history. No team has reached the 60-triple plateau since the 2001 Rockies and Tigers, and no team team has hit 65 or more since the 1984 Astros and Blue Jays.
Going three, twice
On Thursday afternoon, Merrifield smacked two triples in a loss to the Rays at Kauffman Stadium, becoming the third Kansas City player to put together a multi-triple effort in the team’s first 32 games of the season. He joined Mondesi (March 28) and Hunter Dozier (April 27). The other 29 teams combined have had one player triple twice in a game -- the Orioles (Cedric Mullins).
In fact, the Royals already are one of just five teams since 2005 to have three individual multi-triple games in the same season. If the Royals can get just one more, they will truly be in select company.
Most recent teams with four individual multi-3B games
• 2004 Devil Rays
• 1995 Indians
• 1971 Pirates
• 1970 Dodgers
• 1967 Red Sox
• 1966 Pirates (last with five)
Carl Crawford was responsible for all four games for Tampa Bay in 2004. And Kenny Lofton posted three of the four games for Cleveland in 1995. Those ‘67 Red Sox were the most recent team to have four different players triple twice in a game in the same season (Tony Conigliaro, Joe Foy, George Scott, Carl Yastrzemski).
The best candidate to make it a quartet for Kansas City would likely be Billy Hamilton, who had a two-triple game just last Aug. 19 for the Reds and ranks fourth in the Majors with 36 three-baggers since 2014.
Racing for the throne
It’s not so difficult to understand why this is happening.
Even before the season began, it was clear the Royals were putting an emphasis on speed, and while they haven’t been an especially productive offensive team overall in 2019, they have lived up to that expectation. Besides leading the Majors in triples, K.C. is also No. 1 in steals and steal attempts, and tied for first in infield hits.
"We got a lot of guys on this team that when you see a ball hit in the alley, you know it's going to be three,” Merrifield told MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan. “That's pretty fun to watch. But that is the type of team we have, a lot of speed, a lot of motion."
The club also fits spacious Kauffman Stadium, where it has hit 13 triples in 19 games, compared with five in 14 road games. In the past decade, Kauffman ranks fifth in the Majors in total triples, and that’s not just due to the makeup of Royals rosters. The park ranks fourth in triples by road teams.
Statcast’s sprint speed metric measures how many feet per second a player covers at the fastest point in a run. The MLB average is 27 ft/sec, and 30 ft/sec is the benchmark for elite speed. Of 361 qualified players this season, Kansas City has three of the top six in average sprint speed (Terrance Gore, Mondesi and Hamilton), all at 29.7 ft/sec or faster. Merrifield (28.5), Chris Owings (28.0) and Dozier (27.9) also are well above average, and Mondesi and Hamilton rank first and second in “bolts,” which is any run with a sprint speed of at least 30 ft/sec.
There’s more to getting triples than running fast, but being able to do so certainly helps.
Fighting against the current
The 2019 Royals exist in a triples desert.
Entering Saturday, a triple has occurred in 0.38 percent of MLB plate appearances and had accounted for 1.76 percent of all base hits. Both would be all-time lows.
Lowest 3B/PA rate, since 1900
1) 0.38%, 2019
2) 0.42%, 2013
3) 0.43%, 2017
4-T) 0.46%, 2018
4-T) 0.46%, 2014
Lowest 3B/H rate, since 1900
1) 1.76%, 2019
2) 1.83%, 2013
3) 1.88%, 2017
4) 2.01%, 2008
5-T) 4 seasons tied at 2.02%
Those don’t seem like big differences, but they add up over the course of a season. The Royals are trying to counteract the trend.