July 10, 2020

Triples: The Forgotten Base

November 9, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

   John Owen "Chief" Wilson

The triple is the most exciting play in baseball, period.  There is nothing more exhilarating on the diamond than watching a fleet-footed batter lacing a pitch between hastily converging outfielders.  Scampering out of the box, the batter gains momentum before cutting the second base bag on the proper angle simultaneously picking up the location of the ball over their shoulder.  The climactic moment builds, as the daring base runner propels head first with their feet sprawled apart, wrapping their arms around the bag, an instant before the third basemen drops the tag.  However, most casual baseball observers rarely mention this play in the same breadth as a home run, an acrobatic catch, or a blazing 100-mph fastball.  Why is this?

The Major League Baseball single-season triples record has stood for nearly a century.  In 1912, John “Chief” Wilson established the unfathomable total of 36 triples for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  During the season, he collected a triple in an unprecedented five consecutive games from June 17-20.  Interestingly, Wilson only gathered three triples in his final 34 games of the season, essentially setting the record by the end of August.  Hall of Fame pitchers Christy Mathewson, Grover Alexander, Rube Marquard, and Mordecai Brown were among those hurlers to allow one of the record setting triples.

Wilson played his home games that season at cavernous Forbes Field.  The outfield dimensions at the time were 360 feet down the left field line, 462 feet to center field, and 376 feet down the right field line.  The massive ballpark was conducive to collecting extra base hits.  During his record setting campaign, the outfielder hit 24 of 36 triples at his spacious home park.

“(Chief) Wilson’s three base shots are entitled to be credited as one of the wonders of 1912.  Best of it all, few of the smashes have struck in front of fielders.  They have been over the their heads or between the fields, all juicy jams.  Ask any pitcher if Wilson hits a high ball very hard.” – Sporting Life (September 7, 1912)

The left-handed hitting outfielder possessed average speed while amassing 114 triples over a nine-year career.  Amazingly, he never collected more than 14 triples in any other season.  How could a player with average speed accumulate such a large number of three base hits?  Here are some possible answers.  First, the batter should incorporate the ability to hit the ball in the gaps and down the lines.  Second, they must play their home games in a large ballpark tailored to hitting extra base hits (Forbes Field).  Third, the hitter must attain a significant number of plate appearances to maximize the chances of pulling off the feat (career-high 583 at-bats).  Finally, the player should hustle out of the batter’s box and possess average speed to challenge an outfielder’s throwing arm on close plays at third base.

Since 1912, no player has collected more than 26 triples in a season.  As a result, Wilson accumulated 27.8% more triples than any other player during the past ninety-eight campaigns.  To illustrate, when Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris’ home run record (70-61) in 1998, he hit only 14.8% more home runs that season than the previous mark.  In other words, the triples record is statistically more difficult to break than the home run record.  The only player to ‘approach’ the mark in recent history was Curtis Granderson of the 2007 Detroit Tigers, who legged out 23 triples while playing his home games at expansive Comerica Park.  Dale Mitchell, of the Cleveland Indians, was the last player to register as many ‘three-baggers’ as Granderson in 1949.

The modern game has changed significantly since the dead ball era.  The field dimensions are smaller leading to an increase number of fly balls ending up as souvenirs instead of landing between the outfielders.  To illustrate, during the 1912 season, an average of .55 triples were hit per game compared to the 2010 season when only .18 triples were collected per contest.  On average, there were three times as many triples accumulated per game during Wilson’s record setting season.

Another factor to consider is the average life span of a game used ball is only 6 pitches.  In 1912, it was common to use the same ball for the entire contest.  By the ninth inning, it resembled a discolored, concave sphere smothered in tobacco juice and mud.  In the modern game, technological advancement of the baseball itself could factor into the increasing numbers of balls leaving the yard instead of finding outfield gaps.  Meanwhile, the improved methods of statistical analysis and technology, such as Sportvision’s FieldFX camera system, have enabled teams to better prepare themselves for defensive positioning.

During the 2010 season, there were nearly ten times as many doubles (1.75) and five times as many home runs (.95) hit per game than triples.  These numbers demonstrate the statistical changes in the game today compared to the dead ball era.  Conceivably, the majority of modern players are content with lacing doubles and belting home runs instead of legging out triples.  The additional bases reached could increase a player’s total bases, slugging percentage, and potentially increase their salary.

Consequently, the only real ‘chance’ a player has at breaking this record is to actually try to hit triples.  Players such as Carl Crawford and Jose Reyes might have the highest probability of eclipsing this mark.  They possess tremendous running speed and play aggressively, which is essential to challenging this remarkable achievement.  However, it is unlikely that anyone will ever come close to breaking the single-season triples record that has survived for almost a century.


3 Responses to “Triples: The Forgotten Base”
  1. joe r. says:

    I believe I read in a Bill James book that the Wilson’s record is not only the season record for the Major Leagues, but also for Organized Baseball, i.e., no one ever hit more in any recognized minor league.
    Pretty amazing. I’ll be astonished if the record is ever approached.

  2. Sven Jenkins says:

    If Bengie Molina can get one, like he did last year to complete his cycle, Jose Reyes ought to be able to get 40 at Citi Field next year. :)

  3. Craig says:

    I will never look at a triple the same way again…great article Josh!

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