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September 30, 2010
A Triple Short of Driving Me Insane
Vernon Wells has had a nice rebound season after struggling mightily last year. In 629 plate appearances, the Blue Jays' center fielder is hitting .273/.331/.518, with 31 home runs and 42 doubles. Heck, his defense has been less maligned this season even if the various metrics still consider his work to be below average. But this past Monday, Wells came close to achieving something rare: making me incredibly angry. It wasn’t technically his fault, but if not for his efforts I wouldn’t have wanted to tear my hair out.
After hitting a single and home run off of A.J. Burnett, Wells doubled off of David Robertson and found himself one hit away from the cycle. Only, the remaining hit was the hardest one to get, and announcers inevitably started claiming that Wells was “a triple short of the cycle.” If I thought spitting my breakfast at the television would have done anything, I would have done so, but instead I sat back on the couch, sulked, and continued watching highlights, hoping that I had just dreamt the entire thing.
This phrase comes up seemingly every month when someone has a great game but does not hit a triple, as if getting that three-bagger is incredibly easy. There is no such thing as being a triple short of the cycle, when that missing component is the toughest to get. I mean, technically, yes, a player can be a triple short of the cycle, but without a triple there is no cycle and triples are the toughest hit to come by. That would be akin to saying that a pitcher fell the eighth and ninth inning short of a complete game shutout, or that a batter fell a home run short of a multi-homer game after blasting a dinger. Wells didn’t fall short of anything—he just didn’t do something that is relatively rare.
If a player hits a single, double, and triple in his first three at-bats, one could reason that he would swing for the fences his next trip to the plate, but you can’t exactly plan for a triple. Baseball players are freaks of nature, but nobody goes up to bat with Professor Frink calculating the exact swing trajectory and force needed to have the ball hit the wall then ricochet away from the defender in order to preserve the triple. Seeing a triple, period, is a feat of its own, let alone one sandwiched between the other hits.
On a per-plate appearance basis, here are the percentages of each type of hit:
Triples are rare, and a player should not be expected to magically hit one just because he has a single, double, and home run. This is before even reconciling the fact that four-hit games are also incredibly rare. From an etymological standpoint, saying that something falls short of a goal implies that the goal was realistically within reach and readily attainable, but the interested party just couldn’t close the deal. As I’ve established, this isn’t a reasonable assumption at all, which is why the “triple short of the cycle” phrase drives me batty. How common are these “triple-short” games?
Since 1974, I count 7,386 instances when a batter had at least one single, double, and home run, without hitting a triple. Garrett Jones actually did this on Tuesday. Here are players with the top 10 totals:
Including the players tabled above, exactly 50 hitters have had 20 or more of these games over the last 36 seasons. Another 166 players had between 10 and 19 such games. Case in point, going triple-less while loading up on the other hits is rare from an overall standpoint, but nowhere near as common as actual cycles. In fact, in the same span of time, actual cycles have occurred only 119 times--and how likely do you think it is that the vast majority of those failed cycle attempts were due to not tripling?
Luckily, we can find out! Since 1974, there have been 206 games in which a player failed to single but recorded at least a double, triple and home run. There have been 739 games in which a player failed to double while singling, tripling, and homering. Running through the same exercise but searching for homerless games with singles, doubles, and triples abound, 1,821 games surface. Putting these numbers together, there have been 10,271 chances for a player to hit a cycle since 1974—and I’m defining these players as either having achieved the cycle or missing out by one of the hits—and 71.9 percent of the “attempts” fell flat due to a missing triple.
Even if we think that it is rare from a relative standpoint for a player to hit a single, double, and homer in the same game, it is undeniable that the main cause of failed cycles is a lack of triples. A player doesn’t fall a triple short of the cycle when the triple should honestly be expected to confound these attempts. But maybe my frustration with the situation stems from the cycle itself. If you really think about it, the cycle is a very trivial feat. If a player hits two doubles, a triple and a homer, he doesn’t go in the record books as hitting for the cycle, even though he a) produced a better game, and b) would have had to intentionally worsen his game to get the cycle. The same is true for games with a double, two triples and a homer, or a double, a triple and two homers. Do these games occur, though, or are they just hypotheticals in my mind?
I’m glad you asked, Eric, and here are the results. There have been 12 players who have hit two or more doubles, with at least one triple and one home run since 1974:
There have also been two different instances of a player recording at least one single and homer, with two or more triples, without any doubles present:
Wait, what!? Dmitri Young had a game where he didn’t double, but managed to hit two triples. And this was a major league game? Lastly, there have been eight games where the batter didn’t single, but hit at least one double and triple, and hit two or more dingers:
I hereby decree these players to be honorary cycle-achievers based on Seidman Statute 4(b)2.1 that clearly states: “Any player that surpasses the cycle by achieving hits with greater total base values than those that were missed is to be attributed as having achieved the feat. Just as newer video game systems can play games from older consoles, triples are technically doubles plus something extra, just as doubles are technically singles plus something extra.” This is irrefutable evidence from a completely valid and legitimate rulebook, so my hands are tied here for anyone that disagrees.
Bottom line is that “triple short of the cycle” should be retired. Cycles are rare, but if the player is missing a triple, he just isn’t likely to get the cycle. In such instances, the player should not be considered to be on the doorstep of a rare achievement. Just celebrate his game and don’t detract from it because he might not record something trivial.