Triples and inside-the-park homers

Baseball in the time of COVID
(Writing time: 30 minutes)

So in case you missed it, here was Christian Yelich’s first homer in a couple of weeks … and it was a doozy …

This is a good reminder that inside-the-park home runs, almost without exceptions, are absurdities. They are almost never natural events, meaning that they almost always feature some sort of defensive blunder, somebody falling down, some ridiculous superball bounce, etc. I mean they’re not often THIS zany, with Eloy Jimenez entirely misplaying a fly ball and then hilariously crashing into a net, like a clumsy hoodlum trying to get at Spiderman.

Two things seem clear. One is that Eloy Jimenez can really hit. Two is that Eloy Jimenez is a danger to himself and society out there in left field.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: Inside-the-park home runs are fun. But they’re fun in the same way that The Wolf scene in Pulp Fiction is fun — something had to go very wrong for The Wolf to get called in.

Triples on the other hand … triples are wonderful because they are not often flukes and silly accidents. They are often daring and thrilling, a ball hit into the gap … the diamond is in motion … outfielders try to run it down … the runner decides to risk it all for third base … the throw comes … the play is close … this is why so many people believe that the triple is the most exciting play in all of baseball.

And the triple, friends, is dying.

We’ve been talking about this for a while —- there have been 21 seasons when teams have averaged less than .2 triples per game (that’s one triple every five games). All 21 of those seasons have come since 1996. The fewest triples hit per game (.16 per game or one triple every 6.25 games) happened in 2013 and was matched in 2017 and was matched again last year.

This year, there have been only 47 triples hit all season and, yes, the season is absurdly young but that’s still .14 triples per game, which would be the lowest rate ever. It’s clear there are a lot of things happening. To name just three:

  1. We all know fewer balls are being put in play than ever before.

  2. New ballpark configurations are not geared toward quirky angles and big alleys, the realm of the triple.

  3. Outs on the basepaths are valued in a whole different way in 2020 than in, say, 1977, and, as such, teams discourage unnecessary risks or particularly aggressive baserunning.

Yesterday, I talked about how not changing the game — which is to say not updating rules or creating new ones — is the most certain way to change the game. In other words, baseball in basically legislating the triple out of baseball by not doing anything to preserve it. I often go back to a conversation I had a couple of years ago with Theo Epstein where we talked at great length about how the people running baseball have a responsibility — to the game and their own futures — to make sure that the game keeps those traits and characteristics that make it so wonderful.

The triple has been thrilling fans for years.

Baseball fans shouldn’t lose the triple just because players have been told to stop trying for them. The game shouldn’t evolve that way. The fans’ interests should be taken into account when figuring out where baseball is going. I very much appreciated John Thorn’s take on my piece yesterday.

That’s 100 percent it: The game is supposed to be fun FOR FANS. And you know what’s fun for fans? Triples!*

*You could argue it’s also fun for fans to see starting pitchers have to go longer in games, many more balls in play, fewer delays, hitting streaks, players chasing .400 and so on. Each of these have faded over the last couple of decades.

What can be done? The answer is: A lot of things can be done. Subtle things. Not so subtle things. But, again, we come back to it, we have to be willing to accept rules that rebalance the game … and it’s hard for us as baseball fans to accept any change at all. Changes are happening whether we like it or not. Just about every pitcher these days those 95; that wasn’t true when batters put so many more balls in play. Batters are so much stronger and hit the ball harder these days; that wasn’t true when starters could go eight or nine innings and only face three or four truly dangerous batters in every lineup. Baseball is DIFFERENT.

Now, we should ask: How do we protect the baseball stuff we all love?