When I was growing up, it was widely understood that the triple is the most exciting play in baseball. That was one of those things people said all the time, often in conversations that had nothing at all to do with baseball.
"Hey, so what do you think of this Abscam thing?"
"Dunno. But man, the triple is the most exciting play in baseball."
Later, I used to love listening to Buck O'Neil talk a lot about the awesomeness of the triple. He had a beautiful way of explaining it -- he would say that the triple was the only play where everyone on the field is in motion.
I guess you could make some technical and specific arguments against that, but what Buck said is generally true, the triple is a ballet of movement with fielders chasing and positioning for the cutoff and backing up bases and coaches moving to get a better feel for what's happening and umpires moving to make the call and the runner in full sprint, and it's gorgeous and thrilling and everything that's wonderful this game.
Look: In one instant, the game is quiet, calm, you're talking with a friend about work, you're munching on a hot dog, you're muting someone on Twitter.
And then, in the next, it's an explosion of motion and sound, such great sound, those initial cheers for the hit, then the rise as fans see that it'll go for extra bases, then that thrilling instant when all at once everyone knows the runner will try for a triple, and it's going to be close, and the throw comes in, and our mind tries to process. and the anticipation is overwhelming, and too much is happening all at once.
Then, when we catch our breath, the game goes on like before.
That's the beautiful rush of baseball, right?
You probably know that league-wide, batters are hitting fewer triples than they ever have in the history of baseball. There have been only 129 triples hit this year in 908 games, that if you go to four games, you'll probably see just one triple.
But that doesn't tell the whole story of triples in 2019, because three teams -- Colorado, Tampa Bay and, especially, Kansas City -- are hitting triples like crazy, And at the same time, five teams have one or fewer triples; Cleveland and Miami have yet to hit a triple in 2019.
We're not going to play the "on pace" game when we're not even one-fifth of the way through the season, but just so you know, the most triples hit by any team in the last 75 years is Kansas City in 1979, when the Royals hit 79. And the fewest was the Toronto Blue Jays in 2017, when they hit only five.
Both of those, conceivably, could be in play.
And what I think that tells you is that the triple is not just a play, it's a philosophy. And it's a philosophy at war right now.
In addition to "the triple is the most exciting play in baseball" line, people also often said, "never make the third out at third base." The reasoning behind this is pretty sound: It really doesn't make much difference at all between being on second and being on third with two outs. Yes, you could score on a wild pitch or a passed ball or a balk or something, but all in all, a hit scores you from second or third, so the risk to move that extra base isn't worth it.*
*This is why that sacrifice bunt from second to third with one out is on my top 10 list of plays that make me want to throw something hard at a wall.
Merrifield and the Royals could break the triples record.
Well, you can take that idea and run with it. Truth is, no matter how many outs there are, sure, that extra base is worth SOMETHING but it's never worth nearly as much as you can lose by getting thrown out. Using Tom Tango's numbers:
Going for a triple with 0 outs:
Success: Add .25 run expectancy.
Failure: Subtract .85 run expectancy.
With 1 out:
Success: Add .29 run expectancy
Failure: Subtract .57 run expectancy
With 2 outs:
Success: Add .03 run expectancy
Failure: End inning.
You can do some math on this and figure out what a runner's success rate needs to be in order to make it worthwhile to go for the triple ...
With 0 outs: 77%
With 1 out: 66%
With 2 outs: 91%
The two-out number is actually more than that because you have ZERO chance of scoring a run if you make the out -- you can see how the "don't ever make the third out at third base" rule came into being.*
*Tango reminded me of the classic Steve Lyons blunder in 1986 -- it's not triple-specific but it's still related. The Red Sox trailed Milwaukee 7-3 entering the ninth when Rich Gedman and Dwight Evans hit back-to-back homers off Mark Clear. That made it a two-run game. Then Lyons walked and, after the second out, Marty Barrett walked, representing the tying run. **
**I've always liked that phrase "representing the tying run." It feels very Founding Fathers. "I am here, Mr. President, representing the tying run. She humbly sends her greetings."
At that point, Wade Boggs stepped to the plate -- Boggs, at the moment, was hitting .400. Really. Exactly .400. He had three hits in the game already.
Then Steve Lyons got thrown out trying to steal third base.
It might be the single dumbest base-running play in baseball history.
"It was the worst I ever felt in baseball," Lyons told Sports Illustrated. "When I got to the locker room, [manager John] McNamara yelled at me, "Just keep walking right into my office.' He fined me $300."
Methinks, Lyons made out easy.
When you look at the stark triple numbers, you come to understand that the triple is more a mindset than a strategy. It's not like a stolen base, where you can decide before the play begins to go for it. A runner (and, to some extent, the third base coach) has to make a decision in the instant, taking into account countless geometric variables, the arm of the outfielder, the positioning of the cutoff man, the momentum of the baserunner, the score of the game, the effectiveness of the pitcher, the quality of the bullpen and a million other things.
As such, you can see an argument why, from a pure win-lose perspective, it would NEVER be worth going for a triple unless, say, the outfielder fell down or something like that.
You can also see an argument why that would be an utterly joyless way to play baseball.
And that's the argument that plays out before us. The Royals this year -- thanks in large part to the speedy excitement of Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi -- have 15 triples in 32 games, which is quite the staggering thing. Last year, Baltimore and St. Louis didn't have 15 triples all season.
The Royals also have only 11 wins, opening up the possibility of finishing the season with more triples than victories. You will ask -- as people on Twitter have asked -- to name the last team to have more triples than victories. It's actually a fun question because you have to go back. Two teams in the 1960s -- the 1965 A's and the 1962 Mets -- had the SAME number of triples and wins.
But for more triples than wins (I think) you have to go all the way to the 1956 Washington Senators of Damn Yankees fame, of "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League" fame. Those 1956 Senators -- led by Jim Lemon (11 triples), Pete Runnells (9), Herb Plews (7) and, yes, Whitey Herzog (7) -- finished the season with 62 triples and 59 victories.
A year earlier, the Senators had 54 triples and 53 wins.
Two years earlier, the Senators had 69 triples (led by Runnels and Mickey Vernon) and 66 wins.
So more triples than wins was a whole thing in Washington.
The Royals absolutely could hit more triples than they win games this year ... but it's more than just happenstance. It's a conscious decision. The Royals are terrible. They made the call to be terrible in 2016 and 2017 when they tried to stretch out their back-to-back pennant success for as long as they could. You couldn't blame them for trying, but it wasn't hard to see that it would likely backfire. They tried to keep the players together too long, made a few ill-conceived signings that were unlikely to work out, caught some bad breaks, didn't adjust to the changing tides of the league, dealt with a terrible tragedy in the death of Yordano Ventura, and rather rapidly and painfully disintegrated. By 2018, the Royals were about as bad as any team in history. And this year might be worse.
So, you could see why playing with ATTITUDE will be the focal point of the season. The Royals are super-fast; they would absolutely beat any team in baseball in a 4x100 relay (or a 9x100 relay). That's fun. What isn't fun is that they can't hit, their rotation is a fiasco and their bullpen is a mess. So what do you do while waiting for the next era? Well, they obviously have decided to at least play the game with gusto. It's more exciting that way. And it undoubtedly makes everyone involved with the team feel better about themselves. ("Hey, we're losing but we're hustling!")
So look for the Royals to keep hitting triples and keep losing.
Across leagues, then, we look at their mirror image, the Miami Marlins. They too are terrible ... but in a whole other way. They decided to get a bunch of old guys long past their prime. It's a Cadillac Graveyard over there -- Granderson, Romo, Walker, Prado, etc. As such, their strategy seems to be to NEVER risk anything; wins are hard enough to come by without blowing things up on the bases. They have 0 triples; they won't end up there because freaky things happen in baseball, But that is one dead team trying just to hold on to the few things they have. Triples do not play into the equation.
Then there are those good teams -- the Yankees, Brewers, Red Sox, Astros, A's, maybe Cleveland -- who are philosophically opposed to the triple except in sure-thing situations. You can't blame them; it's the mathematically prudent strategy. It's also, in my view, the not-great-for-fans strategy. This reminds me of the zone trap that choked the NHL for years or the Pat Riley-inspired muggers' defense that made the NBA all but unwatchable for a while there. You can't blame teams for doing or not doing what it takes to win. But I also want triples in my baseball.
A couple of years ago, I was talking to a couple of people inside the game, and they were lamenting the slow and inexorable decline of the triple. With strikeouts up and with the home run being a more important weapon than ever before, they couldn't see how the triples trend would turn. Look, for instance, at the percentage of runs scored on home runs (apologies if I did this wrong):
With that number creeping toward 50 percent, there's less and less incentive to worry about WHERE runners are on the bases. Why try for triples? Why try for doubles? A home run scores 'em wherever they stand.
There is one team offering some hope, though: The Tampa Bay Rays.
Of course, it's the Rays. They're always on the cutting edge, right? And the Rays are hitting a lot of triples -- they're second to the Royals -- and they're doing it throughout the lineup. Nine different Rays players have hit a triple this season already. Tampa Bay always looks for innovative ways to do things, and the fact that this offense (which is not good at all) is clearly built around pushing the edge, taking the extra base, taking some chances, well, that's encouraging. As of right now, the Rays have the best record in the American League. And the triple is very much part of their attack.
So maybe they've figured out that there's still a place in baseball -- in WINNING baseball -- for triples.
Man, I hope so.