When Lightning Strikes Thrice

The first time I saw a triple play, I was keeping score for one of my brother’s All-Star games. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but for some reason 14 sounds about right, so let’s go with that. My exact age at the time is less important than the fact that I was old enough to have scored hundreds of baseball games. I had spent countless afternoons at practices with my dad and my brother. I had seen a lot of baseball and I knew enough to be momentarily confused by what had just happened.

The thing about a triple play is that even if you are paying complete attention to the game, there is a really good chance you are going to miss something. Maybe you catch one or two of the outs, but the play develops so quickly that if you are even remotely distracted when the ball is hit, it’s probably going to take a second for your brain to register that an ideal scoring situation for one team has been erased in mere seconds by the other.

You can spend your whole life watching your favorite team and never see them turn a triple play. I’ve been a Cubs fan for over 30 years, and in that time, the Cubs have turned just four triple plays. The only one I caught live was this disputed triple play from 2020, which many people rightly pointed out would have been overturned if the Reds had been able to review it. It was the first triple play the Cubs had turned in 23 years. It’s the only triple play I’ve ever seen them turn in real time and even though it’s on the record books, it didn’t really happen. There is a very real chance I could spend another decade or two waiting to cross “saw the Cubs turn a triple play” off my list.

Alternatively, you could be a fan of the New York Yankees and watch them turn three triple plays in a single season before July.

Since 1916, there have been 435 triple plays turned by major league teams according to Baseball-Reference. The Yankees have turned three in less than a month and two in the same week. Let’s take a closer look at triple plays in general and those specific plays in particular.

The Yankees are only the fourth team since at 1916 to turn three triple plays in a season. We may remember 2016 as the year the Cubs won the World Series, but it was the club across town that turned three triple plays, making them the most recent team to turn three triple plays in a single season. That feat hadn’t occurred since 1979, which stands out on this list for two reasons. First, there were 11 triple plays turned in 1979 – the most in any season since 1916 (1924 and ’36 are tied for second, with nine triple plays a piece). Second, 1979 is the only season I found with two teams that turned three triple plays; the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox managed to turn three triple plays that season.

A couple of other fun facts about triple plays stand out. There has only been one game with two triple plays since 1916. On July 17, 1990, the Minnesota Twins doubled off the Boston Red Sox twice. Despite being tripled up twice, the Red Sox won the game 1-0:

While no team has turned more than three triple plays in a season since 1916, the 1923 Cleveland team holds the dubious distinction of being the victim of the most triple plays in a single season. That Cleveland team wound up finishing third in the American League with an 82-71 record, yet they were tripled off four times that season, with three coming in a single month.

That brings us to the 2021 Yankees and their triple play odyssey. It started with this garden variety triple play on May 21:

This is a pretty standard 5-4-3 triple play on a groundball to third. Back in 2016, August Fagerstorm took a closer look at the types of triple plays and how common they are. To do that, he limited his sample to triple plays since 1974 (those for which we have enough data to specify all elements of the play) and then coded them. The 5-4-3 variety the Yankees turned above is the most common type of triple play by that metric. Since Fagerstorm’s piece was published on April 26, 2016, there have been 25 triple plays. Fifteen of those were of that standard 5-4-3 variety. And then there is what the Yankees did on June 17.

A 1-3-6-2-5-6 triple play had never occurred until the Yankees turned one on June 17. The Blue Jays found themselves in an awkward baserunning situation they couldn’t Javier Báez their way out of and rather than at least leaving a runner on third after a double play, everyone who had the misfortune of being on the basepaths at the time the ball was hit wound up being out:

Finally, we have Sunday night’s triple play. With closer Aroldis Chapman struggling to throw strikes due to a fingernail issue, the Yankees were handed a gift. This may look like your standard 5-4-3 triple play, but it’s one of only 16 triple plays since 1916 that ended a baseball game and the first such triple play since the Phillies turned one to beat the Mets on August 23, 2009:

Entering the 2021 season, it had been seven years since the Yankees turned their last triple play. Now they have more than half a season to see if they can turn one more and stand alone as the only team since 1916 to turn four in a single season. Fans in the Bronx may be a little underwhelmed with the Yankees’ place in the standings, but even if the club doesn’t turn it around this season, they’ve seen something few of us will ever see from our favorite teams.

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1 year ago

14% of outs recorded by Aroldis Chapman this year have come via the triple play. It will be interesting to see if he can keep up that pace.

Greg Simonsmember
1 year ago
Reply to  3fbrown

Ya gotta believe!!