Sunday, April 16, 2006
Finally: The return of the triple threat
Mark Camps / SF Chronicle
The steal of home, the art of keeping score, the $2 hot dog. All dying out in baseball. The triple, long believed to be on that endangered list, might be poised to make a comeback.
During the 1970s and part of the '80s, the triple was a staple of the great turf teams such as the Royals, Cardinals, Reds and Pirates. Memories of Roberto Clemente pop-up-sliding into third or Pete Rose going headfirst are indelible. The 1979 Royals (George Brett, Willie Wilson & Co.) amassed 79 triples, the highest single-season total since the early 1940s.
But the past 10 years have been particularly hard on the three-base hit. Last season, the 30 major-league teams averaged just 29.6 triples, the lowest average total since before 1900. The Tigers led the majors in 2005 with 45 triples, the fifth time in the past 10 seasons the league leader had fewer than 50.
Over the years, it's gotten so ridiculous, some stat sheets shouldn't have even carried the triple column. The 1998 Orioles had just 11 triples for the season; the 2002 Yankees managed just 12.
So what happened to what many believe is the most exciting play in baseball? The same things that led to the start of the home run boom in the mid-1990s also led to the drop-off of the triple. Smaller, natural-turf ballparks were built, replacing their cavernous plastic-turf predecessors. The new arenas meant more homers, but they also meant less territory for a ball to roll away from an outfielder.
The cultivation of the power hitter to fit those cozy ballparks also led to a de-emphasis of the speed player who had some pop. Five-tool guys like Rickey Henderson, Cesar Cedeņo, Joe Morgan and Eric Davis -- guys who could regularly steal 50 bags, hit more than 25 homers and mix in a few triples -- just don't exist anymore. Who were the last players to steal 50 bases and hit 25 homers? Henderson and slimmer, trimmer Barry Bonds in 1990.
But there is hope for the triples enthusiast. With the attempted eradication of steroid use, teams will perhaps build their rosters around speed players with moderate power instead of simply those with power. Young players such as Tampa Bay's Delmon Young, Florida's Jeremy Hermida and Arizona's Justin Upton could turn out to be those kind of players.
In the meantime, triples were in the news during the first days of the season. In case you missed it:
-- Colorado's Cory Sullivan last Sunday became the first player in 55 years to have two triples in one inning. Sullivan, who hit four triples in 378 at-bats last year, connected twice in the fifth inning against the Padres. Gil Coan of the Senators was the previous player to have two in an inning, doing it on April 21, 1951. The last NL player to have two in an inning: Curt Walker of the Reds on July 22, 1926.
-- Giants outfielder Steve Finley had triples on consecutive days (April 7-8), giving him 114 for his career, the most of any active player. In the past 50 years, the record for most triples in a season by a player 40 years or older is five held by Enos Slaughter (1956 A's and Yankees), Willie Mays (1971 Giants), Rose (1981 Phillies) and Paul Molitor (1998 Twins).
Hit the sac: Reds slugger Adam Dunn recently went 1,085 plate appearances -- from July 22, 2003, to June 29, 2005 -- without a sacrifice fly. So, what does he do in the first week of the season? He collects two of 'em.
So, now that Dunn has become a better situational hitter, he's passed his aversion of sac flies to teammate Ryan Freel. The utilityman extraordinaire has not had a SF in 1,060 plate appearances (24 this year) since his last on Sept. 25, 2003.
Manny, Manny more: Manny Ramirez is about to become the fourth player with 200 home runs for two different teams. Ramirez's first home run of the season will be his 200th with the Red Sox. Ramirez also had 236 with the Indians. The other three are Jimmie Foxx (302 A's, 222 Red Sox), Mark McGwire (363 A's, 220 Cardinals) and Rafael Palmeiro (321 Rangers, 223 Orioles).
Sons of batters: Bonds, Moises Alou and Lance Niekro have yet to each hit homers in the same game. But when they do, home-run historian David Vincent reports, they will become the second trio of teammates who are sons of former ballplayers to hit homers in the same game. The only trio to do it: Seattle's David Bell, Ken Griffey and David Segui did it twice in 1999.
Trivia answer: Sammy Sosa (588), Ramirez (435) and Vladimir Guerrero (305).
Some of the game's best pitchers use the HBP as a tool for success, or so they say. The top five leaders in hitting batters (since 2000):
Jeff Weaver, Angels 85
Matt Clement, Red Sox 79
Chan Ho Park, Padres 78
Tim Wakefield, Red Sox 72
Jamey Wright, Giants 71
Through Thursday's games