Triples are vanishing, but still a beloved play

Fewer three-baggers being hit in 2017 than ever before

June 2nd, 2017

You talk with the great Hank Aaron, and he really doesn't want to talk home runs. He never has loved the home run, even if it became part of his identity. Sure, Aaron enjoyed hitting homers. He hit 755 of them, of course. But that's because Aaron was that good of a hitter, and he hit the ball hard for 23 years and ballparks couldn't hold him.
But Aaron always loved the triple more.
"The most exciting play in baseball," Aaron said. "The home run is over in an instant. You hit the ball, it goes over the fence, it's over. But the triple just keeps going."
He shrugs.
"Are they hitting triples anymore?" Aaron asked.
The answer is no. They're not hitting triples, not like they used to anyway. Aaron is hardly the only person to call the triple the most exciting play in the game; it has been celebrated for more than 100 years.
There is no sound in sports quite like the crowd's sound for a triple -- the crashing cheer when the ball is hit, the rise in sound as the hitter rounds first base and heads for second, the mix of disbelief and wonder as the runner races for third. The whole field is in motion. The great Negro Leagues player and manager Buck O'Neil used to say it's the only play that has all the players on the field moving.
The runner is racing against the baseball. There is often a slide and a play at the bag, and then the crescendo when the umpire signals "Safe!" There's nothing like it.
"There's a man in Mobile who remembers that Honus Wagner hit a triple in Pittsburgh 46 years ago," broadcaster Ernie Harwell used to say. "That's baseball."
The triple is now disappearing.
There is really no other way to look at it. Entering Thursday, there had been 249 triples in more than 790 games this season. That puts the Majors on pace for 766 triples, which would be the fewest in a season in almost 50 years, going back to the Year of the Pitcher in 1968.
But here's the thing: It's more dire even than that. There were only 20 teams in 1968. Even that year, when pitchers dominated baseball, there were more triples being hit per game than this year. In fact, there are fewer triples being hit per game this season than, well, ever.

We have been on an unmistakable trend downward since the late 1970s. The 19 seasons with the least triples per game have all been in the past 25 years. And this year is the lowest of them all.
"Teams just don't use speed like they used to," said former shortstop Ozzie Smith, who hit 69 triples and 28 home runs in his Hall of Fame career. "With the Cardinals, we were going to beat you with our speed. Teams don't really do it that way now."
Teams don't use their speed like they did when home runs were rarer. Players are still very fast, perhaps faster than ever, but teams do not take the same chances on the basepaths that they once did. Outs are too precious to give up. The next guy might hit a home run.
"I think there's the same amount of speed in the game," said former outfielder Willie Wilson, who had 147 triples in his 19-year career, the most of anybody since expansion in 1961. "But I just think there's more emphasis on power."
Teams are averaging 1.22 home runs per game this season, far and away the most homers per game in baseball history, even including the days of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. And so, there is a whole different mindset on the risk of going for a triple. When players hit for a higher average -- chopping, bunting, blooping and doing whatever else for a hit -- and runs were at a premium, there was a distinct advantage to being on third rather than second.

But now? Consider Washington's , one of the fastest players in baseball and someone who seems to have the makeup of a triples machine. He has 10 triples in his first 142 career games, but he admits that he advances with extreme caution.
"Being at second," Turner said, "a hit, I'll probably score anyway. So I try to just make sure I'm safe. That's why I always keep my eyes up, and if I don't think I can get it, it's no big deal, because I feel like I can score anyway."
That's the mindset part of hitting a triple: It takes commitment. Pete Rose couldn't really run, but he hit 135 career triples because he just kept going. Roberto Clemente hit an astonishing 166 career triples, the most since integration, because he just would not stop. He hit three triples in a game in 1958, one of 30 Major League players to achieve the feat.
What I love most about that fact, though, is that Clemente was out on one of those triples -- he tried for an inside-the-park home run, was barely tagged out and settled for the triple in the box score.
"You've got to be real aggressive from the get-go" said Colorado's Charlie Blackmon, who has an MLB-high eight triples this year. "You have to be thinking triple from home to first, or you're not going to have a chance to get there."

Blackmon's triple barrage early this year shows another reason triples are down -- modern ballparks, for the most part, aren't built for triples. In the 1970s, Kansas City's Royals Stadium was a triples paradise, with its huge outfield and springy AstroTurf that made hits bounce absurdly high, or skip like rocks on the water. From the early '70s to the late '80s, the triple was hot, and the teams that tended to hit the most triples -- Kansas City, Houston, St. Louis, Toronto, Montreal, Cincinnati -- all played on AstroTurf.
Now, there is no AstroTurf, and there are only a handful of ballparks -- like Coors Field, Chase Field and AT&T Park -- that are really ripe for triples. All eight of Blackmon's triples this year have been at Coors Field.
"You have to luck out, and have the right stadium," said Mets outfielder , who is the last player to hit 20 triples in a season, when he hit 23 for the Tigers in 2007. "I went from Comerica Park to Yankee Stadium. Everyone said, 'Oh, what happened to your triples?' I have no foul space down the right-field line anymore. And the balls that go to right-center at Comerica now go out of the ballpark at Yankee Stadium."
Granderson went from leading the American League in triples in back-to-back years to hitting 40 home runs in back-to-back years while playing his home games at Yankee Stadium. Since coming to the Mets in 2014, he has only once managed to have more than two triples in a season.
"Here at Citi Field … once it gets past them, it starts bouncing off the wall and coming back in," Granderson said. "You may barely get to second. A lot of times, those turn into just singles. Those little things are things I noticed were taken away going from Comerica."

The other thing that makes triples tough -- realistically, this might be the most important point -- is that fewer balls are put in the field of play than ever before. The numbers are staggering. This year, only 66 percent of all plate appearances -- two-thirds of all batters that come up -- hit the ball in play (that is not walking, striking out or hitting a home run), the lowest percentage in baseball history.
With fewer balls in play, naturally there will be fewer triples. Triples are not the only thing down; there are fewer singles being hit in 2017 than ever before, too. This is just how the game has evolved. As Hall of Famer George Brett says, it's an all-or-nothing game now. Brett hit 137 triples in his 21-year career with the Royals, leading the AL three times.
"We didn't try to hit home runs," Brett said. "We tried to hit the ball hard. Today, they try to hit home runs … and, hey, they're hitting a lot of them."
It's worth taking a moment to think about the triple, that play that Aaron and so many others through the years have called the most exciting play in baseball. There is a constant conflict in all sports, the conflict between entertainment and winning. The two don't always go together. It may be exciting to watch players go crazy trying to stretch doubles into triples, but the way the game is played today -- the way teams play defense, the way outs have become so precious, the way players are built -- points in the other direction.
"People don't want to get hurt," Turner said. "I think a lot of older guys will take the doubles. … If you're any sort of power hitter, you hit it in the gap, you're probably coasting into second. You don't want to try something that will get you hurt. I would imagine that's probably the No. 1 reason."
But in many ways, the increasing rarity of the triple hasn't made the play less exciting. It has made the play more exciting, because you see it so rarely.
"Oh, I still love watching a guy round second and go for a triple," Aaron said. "It's still wonderful."