Triple plays are relatively rare, since it requires at least two baserunners, no outs, and a batted ball hit such that the defense can field it and make three outs. Very quick action from the fielders, or unusual confusion or mistakes by the baserunners, are usually needed.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research, there have been 709 triple plays in Major League Baseball (MLB) from 1876 through the end of the 2016 regular season, an average of approximately 5 per year.
The most likely scenario for a triple play is no outs with runners on first base and second base, or no outs with the bases loaded. In that context, two example triple plays are:
- The batter hits a ground ball to the third baseman, who steps on third base to force out the runner coming from second (first out). The third baseman throws to the second baseman, who steps on second base to force out the running coming from first (second out). The second baseman throws to the first baseman, with the throw arriving in time to force out the batter (third out). This is an example of grounding into a 5-4-3 triple play, per standard baseball positions.
- During the 1973 season, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson started two such 5-4-3 triple plays; one on July 7 against the Oakland Athletics, and one on September 20 against the Detroit Tigers.
- On July 17, 1990, the Minnesota Twins became the first (and to date, the only) team in MLB history to turn two triple plays in the same game. Both were 5-4-3 triple plays, executed by fielders Gary Gaetti, Al Newman, and Kent Hrbek in a game against the Boston Red Sox.
- Brooks Robinson is the all-time MLB leader for grounding into triple plays, with four in his career.
- The baserunners start running in an attempt to steal or execute a hit and run play, and the batter hits a line drive to the second baseman, who catches it (first out). The second baseman throws to the shortstop, who steps on second base before the runner who started there can tag up (second out). The shortstop throws to the first baseman, who steps on first base before the runner who started there can tag up (third out). This is an example of lining out into a 4-6-3 triple play.
Most recent MLB triple play
The most recent triple play in MLB was recorded on September 23, 2016 by the Milwaukee Brewers against the Cincinnati Reds, who lined out into a 3-3-6 triple play, similar to the above 4-6-3 example. In the top of the 1st inning, with runners on first and second, Reds' batter Joey Votto lined out to Brewers' first baseman Chris Carter (first out), Carter then stepped on first base before runner Scott Schebler could tag up (second out), and Carter then threw to shortstop Orlando Arcia who stepped on second base before runner José Peraza could tag up (third out).
Unassisted triple plays
The rarest type of triple play, and one of the rarest events of any kind in baseball, is for a single fielder to complete all three outs. There have only been 15 unassisted triple plays in MLB history, making this feat rarer than a perfect game.
Typically, an unassisted triple play is achieved when a middle infielder catches a line drive near second base (first out), steps on the base before the runner who started there can tag up (second out), and then tags the runner advancing from first before he can return there (third out). Of the 15 unassisted triple plays in MLB history, 12 have been completed in this manner by a middle infielder.
Most recent MLB unassisted triple play
The most recent MLB unassisted triple play is consistent with the above – it occurred on August 23, 2009, by second baseman Eric Bruntlett of the Philadelphia Phillies, in a game against the New York Mets. In the bottom of the ninth inning with men on first and second, Jeff Francoeur hit a line drive very close to second base, which Bruntlett was covering in response to the baserunners running. Bruntlett caught the ball (first out), stepped on second before Luis Castillo could tag up (second out), and then tagged Daniel Murphy who was approaching from first (third out). This was only the second game-ending unassisted triple play in MLB history, the first one having occurred in 1927.
Unfielded triple play
Political columnist and baseball enthusiast George Will posed one hypothetical way that a triple play could occur with no fielder touching the ball. With runners on first and second and no outs, the batter hits an infield fly, and is automatically out: one out. The runner from first passes the runner from second and is called out for that infraction: two outs. Just after that, the falling ball hits the runner from second, who is called out for interference: three outs.
Whenever a batter or runner is out without a fielder touching the ball, MLB rule book section 10.09 provides for automatic putouts to be assigned by the official scorer. In this case, the first out would be credited to whoever the official scorer believes would have had the best chance of catching the infield fly. The second and third outs would be credited to the fielder(s) closest to the points the runners were, when their respective outs occurred. Under the scenario described above, the same fielder (the shortstop, for example) could be credited with all three putouts, thus attaining an unassisted triple play without having touched the ball.
Odd and notable triple plays
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- On May 9, 2015, with runners on second and third in the top of the 2nd inning, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina hit a line drive that was caught by Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker for the first out. Walker then threw to third baseman Jung Ho Kang who stepped on third before Jhonny Peralta could tag up, for the second out. Kang, after a moment's hesitation, then threw back to Walker who stepped on second before Jason Heyward could tag up, for the third out. It was the first 4-5-4 triple play in MLB history.
- On July 29, 2016, in a game between the Washington Nationals and the San Francisco Giants, the Giants loaded the bases with nobody out in the bottom of the 8th inning. Brandon Crawford hit a line drive that was caught by Nationals' first baseman Ryan Zimmerman for the first out. Zimmerman then touched first base before Buster Posey could tag up, for the second out. Zimmerman then threw to third baseman Anthony Rendon, who stepped on third before Denard Span could tag up, for the third out. It was the first 3-3-5 triple play in MLB history.
- The New York Yankees got caught in a bizarre 2-5-3-1 triple play while facing the Minnesota Twins on May 29, 1982. Roy Smalley struck out (first out), while both Yankees baserunners had taken off in an attempted double steal. The ball was thrown to third baseman Gary Gaetti, who chased baserunner Bobby Murcer back to second, where Murcer was safe. Gaetti then threw the ball to first baseman Kent Hrbek to tag baserunner Graig Nettles who was caught between first and second (second out). Meanwhile, Murcer attempted to advance from second to third again. The ball was thrown from Hrbek to third base, where pitcher Terry Felton was now covering, and Felton tagged Murcer (third out).
- The Yankees also turned one of the more complicated triple plays in MLB history. On April 12, 2013, with runners on first and second in the top of the 8th inning, Baltimore batter Manny Machado hit a sharp one-hopper to Yankees second baseman Robinson Canó. Canó fielded the ball and threw to shortstop Jayson Nix, forcing baserunner Nick Markakis for the first out. Instead of going to first for a routine double play, Nix opted to throw to third baseman Kevin Youkilis, catching baserunner Alexi Casilla between second and third. Youkilis chased Casilla back towards second and threw to Nix, who returned the throw to Youkilis, who tagged Casilla for the second out. Youkilis then threw to first baseman Lyle Overbay, catching Machado in a rundown between first and second. Overbay threw back to Canó, who tagged Machado sliding into second base for the third out. The play was scored 4-6-5-6-5-3-4.
- On April 22, 2016 in a game between the Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox an unusual triple play occurred. With the bases loaded in the top of the 7th inning, Mitch Moreland of the Rangers hit a line drive to right field that was caught by Adam Eaton for the first out. Eaton threw the ball to first baseman José Abreu, who ended up tagging baserunner Ian Desmond – who overran first base into foul territory while tagging up – for the second out. Abreu then threw the ball to catcher Dioner Navarro at home. Meanwhile, the runner on second base, Adrián Beltré, had tagged up earlier in the play and started advancing to third; however the runner on third base, Prince Fielder, was still at third. Navarro threw to shortstop Tyler Saladino, making Beltré continue his run towards third, which in turn made Fielder start to run towards home. Fielder was then caught in a rundown; Saladino threw to Navarro, who then threw to third baseman Todd Frazier, who tagged Fielder for the third out. The play was scored 9-3-2-6-2-5.
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