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September 28, 2006
"I think if you come to the ballpark and you see Carl hit a triple, you've had a pretty good day. It's pretty much a signature play for him, because when he hits the ball down the line, or in the gap, he's thinking three. He never thinks two. He breaks triple. He wants triple, he takes triple."
"Hey, big mouth, how do you spell triple?"
In the bottom of the sixth inning of last Sunday's Yankees/Devil Rays game, Carl Crawford pulled Mike Myers' 1-0 slider into the gap in right-center. The ball skidded past Bobby Abreu, and by the time he retrieved it and hit the cutoff man, both runners had scored and Crawford had coasted into third. It was his 15th triple of the season.
As much as I disdain more or less arbitrary statistical milestones, the hit did draw some attention, since it made Crawford the first player in 76 years to hit at least 15 triples in three straight seasons. In that year, 1930, no fewer than three players were finishing a run of three or more years with 15 triples or more:
1930 1929 1928 1927 1926 --------------------------------------------- Earle Combs 22 15 21 23 Paul Waner 18 15 19 18 22 Charlie Gehringer 15 19 16
By comparison, Crawford hit 19 triples in 2004, 15 last year, and now 15 this season. When asked after the game why he thought it had been so long since a player accomplished the feat, Crawford replied, "There are fast guys in the game who can hit, so I have no clue why guys haven't done it. That's not a stat that you go out and try to do every year. That's a stat that just happens."
Crawford's achievement and his comment provide a springboard for this week's column, where we'll discuss triples and their accompanying historical trends.
The simple and somewhat tautological answer to Crawford's consternation regarding the lack of triples is that the triple has become increasingly rare over time. And just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a low tide grounds them. The following graph shows the number of triples per 500 at-bats plus walks for each year from 1901 through 2005:
Notice that, as it did for offense in general, the robust environment of 1930 marked the high point for triples, with 6.8 triples hit per 500 AB+BB. The rate dropped immiediatly thereafter, to 5.7 in 1931 and 1932, and it never again reached as high as 5.3. It now seems to have stabilized at around 2.5.
If there are fewer triples being hit, then it becomes less likely that an individual player will be able to hit 15 in three consecutive seasons. For example, a player who hits 15 triples would have a rate of 12.5 per 500 AB+BB. In 1930, a player who hit triples at 1.8 times the rate of the average player would end up with 15 triples, and eleven of the 73 players with 500 or more AB+BB hit 15 or more triples in 1930. In 2005, however, a 15-triple player would have to hit triples at a rate more than five times that of the average player, and just two players (Crawford and Jose Reyes, who hit 17) out of 140 with 500 or more AB+BB could do that. It should be noted that 2005 was a comparatively good year for three-baggers: since 1992, there have been ten seasons in which no player has hit 15 triples. In contrast, when 10-15% of the players hit 15 or more triples every year, there is a very good chance that one or more of those players will repeat for three consecutive years.
As an aside, the general reduction in triples makes the performance of Cory Sullivan on April 9 even more of a fluke. In the top of the fifth inning, Sullivan hit two triples in a seven-run outburst that helped the Rockies beat Jake Peavy and the Padres 10-4. Those two triples tied a record held by ten others, although most recently accomplished by the Senators' Gil Coan in 1951.
The graph also shows the spike in triples that occurred between the years 1974 and 1980. As you can see, triples had been declining steadily since 1930, reaching a low of 2.72 in 1973. From there they began to climb again, reaching a high point of 3.71 in 1977 before gradually declining to settle back down at the 1973 level by 1986. Note that 1977, like 1930, was a relatively big offensive year, with teams scoring 4.47 runs per game. Offensive levels continued to rise throughout the period, and so it can't simply be chalked up to more hits resulting in more triples. But since there weren't new parks being introduced, and expansion occurred in the middle of the spike and not at its start, it's not obvious what might have caused it the outburst.
At first blush, one might posit that there was a general trend towards valuing speed that began in the early to mid-1970s, as young players like Ron LeFlore, Tim Raines, Willie Wilson, and Omar Moreno began to establish themselves. The increase in stolen bases, however, is more gradual than that for triples, and actually began around 1959 (with the "Go-Go Sox" and Maury Wills playing a large part) with a steeper increase in the mid-1970s that peaked in another year that was good for offense, 1987, as shown in the following graph:
While all of this is interesting, it kind of tiptoes around the answer that Crawford is looking for (he probably doesn't really care, but play along). Although there doesn't appear to be consensus among the analytical community, the following are the theories most often discussed as to why the triple has become relatively rare:
The triple is often called the most exciting play in baseball, and for good reason. There is no play that involves as many players, lasts as long, and concludes so often with a bang-bang crescendo. As we've seen, there are a variety of reasons that have conspired to make it a much rarer event today than it was in days past. These include increased standardization and ability on defense, less variability in park dimensions, risk aversion, and perhaps an aging player population. Whatever the combination and relative importance of these different causes, rather than wring our hands at its disappearance, let's instead appreciate the feat for its increased difficulty and marvel at those, like Carl Crawford, who can do it with regularity.