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Where have all the triples gone?

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Triples have been on the decline... but why?

MLB: Texas Rangers at Minnesota Twins
The hit pictured above didn’t even go for three bases either.
Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent discussion with a friend who works for a sports network with a four-letter name, we chatted about the rise in home runs and doubles this season. My friend suggested that “singles are becoming doubles, and triples are becoming home runs,” which seems plausible at first glance, but after the conversation ended I kept lingering on those triples.

The Twins have hit 13 triples so far this season - five from Jorge Polanco, four off the bat of Byron Buxton, and one each by Ehire Adrianza, Eddie Rosario, Mitch Garver (surprise), and Miguel Sano (more surprise) - putting them in the middle of the pack across the league. Still, that number seemed low to me, so it became time to break out the statistics.

A quick glance does show a fluctuation in triples over the last three seasons, but 2018’s three-bagger count went up from 2017’s:

  • 2016: 873 triples
  • 2017: 795 triples
  • 2018: 847 triples
  • 2019 (through All-Star Break): 416 triples - on pace for 754

Still, this year’s MLB hitters are on pace to smack well below 800 triples, a drop from recent years.

But where are these triples going?

To dive deeper into these statistics, I enlisted the help of my father, who’s a lot better with computers than I am, and he tabled and graphed statistics from the last ten seasons. (Stats from 2019 are through July 3.)

Triples tables - major totals

Season AB PA H AVG
Season AB PA H AVG
2010 165,353 185,553 42,554 0.257
2011 165,705 185,245 42,267 0.255
2012 165,251 184,179 42,063 0.255
2013 166,070 184,872 42,093 0.253
2014 165,614 183,928 41,595 0.251
2015 165,488 183,627 42,106 0.254
2016 165,562 184,578 42,276 0.255
2017 165,567 185,295 42,215 0.255
2018 165,432 185,139 41,018 0.248
2019 87,142 97,626 21,925 0.252
statistics gathered by Tom Monitto

As a baseline, we see that at-bats, plate appearances, hits, and batting average have remained generally steady over the past ten seasons, so our total numbers will be proportionally close to their percentages from year to year.

Before getting into triples, let’s see if singles really are turning into doubles.

Triples tables - singles & doubles

Season 1B 1B per AB 1B per PA 2B 2B per AB 2B per PA
Season 1B 1B per AB 1B per PA 2B 2B per AB 2B per PA
2010 28,589 17.29% 15.41% 8,486 5.13% 4.57%
2011 28,418 17.15% 15.34% 8,399 5.07% 4.53%
2012 27,941 16.91% 15.17% 8,261 5.00% 4.49%
2013 28,438 17.12% 15.38% 8,222 4.95% 4.45%
2014 28,423 17.16% 15.45% 8,137 4.91% 4.42%
2015 28,016 16.93% 15.26% 8,242 4.98% 4.49%
2016 27,538 16.63% 14.92% 8,255 4.99% 4.47%
2017 26,918 16.26% 14.53% 8,397 5.07% 4.53%
2018 26,322 15.91% 14.22% 8,264 5.00% 4.46%
2019 13,616 15.63% 13.95% 4,436 5.09% 4.54%
statistics gathered by Tom Monitto
statistics graphed by Tom Monitto
statistics graphed by Tom Monitto

Starting in 2014, we can clearly see that singles are indeed tumbling at the expense of doubles, which valleyed that year before shooting upward, a growth that has revived following a drop in 2018. So this part of the premise appears strong.

Now, on to the upperclassmen of base hits.

Triples tables - triples & home runs

Season 3B 3B per AB 3B per PA HR HR per AB HR per PA
Season 3B 3B per AB 3B per PA HR HR per AB HR per PA
2010 866 0.52% 0.47% 4,613 2.79% 2.49%
2011 898 0.54% 0.48% 4,552 2.75% 2.46%
2012 927 0.56% 0.50% 4,934 2.99% 2.68%
2013 772 0.46% 0.42% 4,661 2.81% 2.52%
2014 849 0.51% 0.46% 4,186 2.53% 2.28%
2015 939 0.57% 0.51% 4,909 2.97% 2.67%
2016 873 0.53% 0.47% 5,610 3.39% 3.04%
2017 795 0.48% 0.43% 6,105 3.69% 3.29%
2018 847 0.51% 0.46% 5,585 3.38% 3.02%
2019 394 0.45% 0.40% 3,479 3.99% 3.56%
statistics gathered by Tom Monitto
statistics graphed by Tom Monitto
statistics graphed by Tom Monitto

While we can observe a slight drop in triples over the last five seasons, it’s not enough to account for the strong rise in home runs over the same period of time.

However, many have correlated the increase in home runs with an increase in the other two outcomes - walks and strikeouts. Let’s see if this adds new information.

Triples tables - walks & strikeouts

Season BB BB per PA IBB IBB per PA SO SO per AB SO per PA
Season BB BB per PA IBB IBB per PA SO SO per AB SO per PA
2010 15,778 10.93% 1,216 0.66% 34,306 20.75% 18.49%
2011 15,018 10.69% 1,231 0.66% 34,488 20.81% 18.62%
2012 14,709 10.86% 1,055 0.57% 36,426 22.04% 19.78%
2013 14,640 10.42% 1,018 0.55% 36,710 22.11% 19.86%
2014 14,020 10.19% 985 0.54% 37,441 22.61% 20.36%
2015 14,073 10.70% 951 0.52% 37,446 22.63% 20.39%
2016 15,088 11.24% 932 0.50% 38,983 23.55% 21.12%
2017 15,829 11.63% 970 0.52% 40,104 24.22% 21.64%
2018 15,686 11.13% 929 0.50% 41,207 24.91% 22.26%
2019 8,372 12.02% 429 0.44% 22,189 25.46% 22.73%
statistics gathered by Tom Monitto
statistics graphed by Tom Monitto
statistics graphed by Tom Monitto

Pay attention to the Y-axis of the strikeouts graph: despite the flat-looking slope of the line, that is a rise of over four percentage points in a ten-year span. Walks have zigzagged a little, but have similarly been rising since 2014 (with that 2018 hiccup again).

But once again, these rises are too high to account for the drop in triples.

So where are all the triples going? We’ve only got a partial set of information here to assist any guesses, but the trends in these graphs can lead to a conclusion. As singles and triples have dropped while doubles, home runs, walks, and strikeouts have risen, perhaps the answer is that teams are turning away from the style of player who can leg out singles and triples, instead looking for hits that travel over or off the wall.

Maybe triples are becoming home runs after all.