February 11, 2011
The BP Broadside
Awaiting the Next Roberto
I tend to be unimpressed with other people’s babies, marriages, and fantasy teams. Hearing about any of the foregoing is much like listening to someone prattle on about their dreams: this imaginary experience may have great personal meaning to you, but by its very nature it is solipsistic and difficult to translate to others in a way that inspires empathy. Everyone has a special anniversary—special to them and not anyone else, no matter how passionately they may feel about it.
As such, I don’t expect anyone to note a special baseball tenth anniversary this year, that of the last season in which a player hit .330 or more with 10 or more triples. The last hitter to accomplish this feat was, appropriately, newly minted Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar. In 2001, in what was both his last season with the Cleveland Indians and final productive year, Alomar hit .336/.415/.541 with 12 triples, also throwing in 34 doubles, 20 home runs, and 30 stolen bases for good measure.
Alomar was one of those rare players who could do a bit of everything on the baseball field—hit for average, hit for power, run. Seasons like his have become rare; over the last 30 years, just 11 players have hit .330 with double-figures in triples and just six of those have also hit 10 or more home runs. Those five who preceded Alomar:
At one time, seasons like this were common. The so-called triple-double (double-digit figures in doubles, triples, and home runs) plus an average of .330 or more was achieved 91 times between 1901 and 1945, with players such as Ty Cobb, Kiki Cuyler, and Goose Goslin leading the way. In all the years since, there have been just 27 such seasons, including those mentioned above. Now the species seems nearly extinct.
There are no doubt some conservative, Chass-ian types who might like to use this sort of information to proclaim that the players have lost something since the days of yore, or at least since the 1970s and '80s, or that today’s muscle-bound, chemically-enhanced ballplayer is not as lithe and speedy as his predecessors, and are too focused on the home run. Shockingly, I find myself inclined to agree, if only about the game having lost something in recent decades. There is a reason the triple is called the most exciting play in baseball. It involves every aspect of the game in one play—hitting, speed, and, in the scramble to hold the runner to second base, defense. Home runs, as wonderful as they are, involve a lot of standing around followed by a slow trot around the bases. The decisive swing is exhilarating. The aftermath is tedious; baseball at its best involves running in some form, not jogging.
It’s not just the players, of course, nor their approach to hitting or bodybuilding, or even an evolution in scouting preferences that has in some cases de-emphasized the skinny, speedy gap hitters of yesteryear for burly mashers—there was a time when a player like Brett Gardner would have been as attractive a prospect as an Adam Dunn. That day is gone, but a larger cause is that the ballpark-building boom has brought home run-friendly stadia that tend to lack the large gaps that are required for both high averages and triples. Newer parks such as Citi Field and Target Field may restore some three-baggers to the big leagues when both the Mets and Twins are appropriately staffed to take advantage of their ballparks' features.
Still, even if triples are not being hit the way they used to, they have still been swatted in sufficient numbers that there have been 90 seasons of double-figure doubles, triples, and home runs since 1980, and if you want quadruple-doubles, with 10 or more stolen bases added to the menu, there have been 79 of those, most recently last season by brand-new Red Sox left fielder Carl Crawford, who hit .307/.356/.495 with 30 doubles, 13 triples, 19 home runs, and 47 steals. It is only when you ask for players who can go 200-for-600 on the season while doing those things that the numbers stop coming. Consider the number of players who hit the .330/quadruple mark in each decade:
That solitary “1” on the bottom there is Alomar again, the Lone Ranger, the last thylacine. It is to be hoped that this is not the case. That is why, although I am well aware of the limitations of major leaguers such as Crawford and Ichiro Suzuki, as well as prospects like Ben Revere and Mike Trout, I find myself excited each time I consider their possibilities. It’s not so much that they might possess the capability of checking off each column on their baseball cards (Revere seems unlikely to ever muster enough power to reach ten home runs in a season), but that in their ability to knock base hits and run, almost any outcome is possible when they step to the plate. Don’t get me wrong—I love your basic sabermetric, Three True Outcomes model as much as anyone, but let’s face it—the whole point of those guys is that they don’t put the ball in play. They turn the game into a static affair involving the pitcher, hitter, and catcher. The fielders and the spaces between bases are unlikely to be employed.
I very much doubt that Alomar will go into Cooperstown as the true last of his kind, but we have been waiting a long time for his heir to come along. People are also searching for that thylacine and for the ivory-billed woodpecker as well, and perhaps Steller’s sea cow for all I know, but they never will find them—perhaps they should accept, mourn, and move on. Conditions change, or we change them, and species that once thrived fade and die.
Fade and die—that describes my kind of anniversary. I don’t expect you to empathize; you may be happy with the way things are, and like I said, anniversaries, no matter how special we think they are, don’t translate. Our feelings about the things we love cannot be universalized, being too personal and ineffable. Otherwise, we might commonly trade wives and children, like Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich. Fortunately, that’s not the way we work. I love my children and find your kids kind of boring, and I’m not really sure what you see in your girlfriend or wife.
As such, I don’t necessarily expect those of you who came to baseball in 2000 or later necessarily to identify with my sadness at the loss of the high-average slashers, but take my word for it—they were wonderful.