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The art of the triple

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Baseball is definitely changing in this new era. Is it good or bad?

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Toronto Blue Jays
A slide into third base on a triple.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Author’s Note: This piece started off with half a direction, and I lost that half direction along the way, and it really turned into something with no direction at all.

In my dreams, I see a faceless batter step up to the plate. He has a majestic, long swing, or perhaps a smooth, short one—it doesn’t matter, for the pitcher grooves a ball in the hitter’s wheelhouse. He swings, and there’s a loud crack as the ball explodes off the bat. It doesn’t soar in the air, and the batter doesn’t break into a classic home run trot, his hand over his eyes as if he’s a birdwatcher. Nay, for it’s a hard liner, a screamer, and it’s headed for the gap. The batter breaks—he’s now a runner, and he just goes.

If you think about it, the goal of baseball is to travel until you reach the point at which you started. A hitter might tap the plate once before an at-bat, and if a matter of seconds or minutes later, he once again touches the plate with his cleats, he’s been successful. It’s a confounding question, and someone who doesn’t know baseball might ask what is the point. The point, as I’m sure you’ve heard multiple times before in many different contexts, is the journey, not the result. The result does happen to be the amount of runs you score. It does also happen to decide who wins or loses. And yes, wins and losses are very important for 21 hours of the day. But during those three, glorious hours when the game of baseball is being played, we all follow along the journey as the story envelops before our eyes.

I dream that the ball one-hops or perhaps even two-hops the fence. The runner is a machine, motoring around first and second with purpose and precision. His arms are pumping, and then he’s diving. Down, down, until he’s at the base. I see the scene develop before my eyes, and it’s thrilling. It’s my dream, and deep down, I know that if I wish hard enough, I can steer the future. But in that moment, my heart is skipping, fluttering, as the ball comes relaying in.

You can see a slugger hit a home run. In fact, nowadays, you can see a lot of “sluggers” hitting a lot of “home runs.” It’s common knowledge that home runs were drastically up in 2017, that the baseball may or may not be juiced, that pitchers may or may not be able to accurately grip pitches...but just imagine a home run. The moment you see and hear that bat connect with the ball, it’s a glorious sight. It’s a beautiful sound. And it lasts for all of twenty seconds. He trots around the bases, you get your run on the board, and there’s that.

The excitement comes when you the hits start accumulating. They aren’t home runs, for those manifest themselves in the form of instant gratification. No, we watch baseball because it’s a prolonged version of the marshmallow test, that test researchers gave to five-year-olds to see if they had self-control, giving them one marshmallow and then giving them a second fifteen minutes later if the first was not eaten already.

Which brings us to the triple. It might take twelve, fifteen seconds for the whole play to develop, from the moment the pitch is thrown to when the umpire signals safe at third, making the triple one of the longest plays of baseball. In a sense, when people say that baseball is a long sport, it’s not exactly true. We get bursts of action in spurts, and the plays don’t even last that long. The one where you’re waiting the longest for the action to end. The one where you wait the longest while your heart is in your throat.

At least, that’s the type of triple I imagine, the classic triple I imagine Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Roberto Clemente, and Carl Crawford hitting. However, these days, triples are way down, and the ones that are being hit don’t exactly hit the model of old. In 2017, Nick Castellanos, not exactly the world’s fastest player, finished 3rd in all of baseball with 10 triples. Evan Gattis famously hit 11 triples in 2015 and hit 1 total in his other four seasons. Enjoy some of these, including outfielder misplays, Tal’s Hill, and one off Fernando Salas:

The ultimate point, however, is that you simply don’t see triples that often anymore. Last year, triples were being hit at around 0.3 per game, a far cry from when they were around 0.7 per game at the height of the triple in the 40s. Furthermore, the triples that are being hit aren’t exactly the classic triples, the ideal ones that you think of when you dream of a triple.

The reason is probably analytics. More and more teams realize that outs on the basepaths are actually very valuable, especially when going from second to third. A runner who tries to stretch a double into a triple is taking one of these risks, and with the data to back it up, perhaps teams just aren’t encouraging it anymore. Players are more athletically gifted than ever before, and yet, players simply aren’t going for the triple as frequently as before.

In essence, this boils down to a question that few in baseball are currently asking. If the analytics say that we should sit around and wait for the home run ball, not minding strikeouts and taking walks at a higher rate than ever...well, is that worth it? Is that what we want baseball to be? Do we want extreme shifts to take away the beauty of watching a ground ball squirt through the infield, with our only solace being that if Albert Pujols somehow fights off a tough pitch, he can weakly dribble one into right field and get a hit out of it?

At the root of it all, we have the core foundation of baseball. A parent and a child playing catch in the backyard. The soft, underhand toss to a toddler, who whacks at it and runs around imaginary bases. If pro baseball isn’t like that at all, with major leaguers whacking as hard as they can, not caring if they miss, are we straying too far from what really made baseball so memorable in the first place?

The art of the triple is dying.