In baseball, the triple play is the act of getting three outs on a single play. A rare feat, it requires a confluence of circumstance, skill, and more often than not fortune in order to occur.

Triple plays are mostly rare because the circumstances under which a triple play can occur are rare. Among statisticians, a base/out state is the situation describing the current status of the bases (runners on) and the number of outs in the inning. These states are then used to divide data and assign value to each situation. The data provided in this article comes from the play-by-play data of the 1999-2002 MLB seasons, but is fairly universal and intuitive.

As you can imagine, the most prevalent base/out state is bases empty and zero outs. This happens every single half-inning of baseball. By contrast, three of the four rarest base/out states are situations where a triple play is possible: runners on second and third with no men out; runners on first and third with no men out; and runners on first, second, and third with no men out. Interestingly, the fourth and final base/out state where a triple play is possible (runners on first and second, no men out) is only the 5th rarest base/out state, losing out to bases loaded, one man out in a tight race.

In any case, the opportunities for a triple play are thus rarer than most. To top this off, the feats of skill required to pull off a triple play when there are not two baserunners in a force out position (i.e. first and second, or bases loaded) are fairly impressive: at least one player must be tagged out or tagged up, and the other two players must also either be tagged or thrown out, all in under roughly 4 seconds (the average time it takes for a runner to advance a base.)

The most common form of the triple play is the 5-4-3. For the layman, this means the third baseman (denoted as a 5 on scorecards) fields the ball, tags third base to force out a runner advancing from second, throws the ball to the second baseman (4), forcing out the runner advancing from first, who then throws the ball to the first baseman (3), forcing out the batter. This form of triple play also offers the occasional variation 5-6-3, with the shortstop (6) standing in for the second baseman.

The second most common form of the triple play is the caught ball/two tag-ups variation. In this scenario, one of the infielders (including the pitcher) will make an unexpected or exceptional catch on a hard-hit ball. The two runners on base will be advancing on the hit, and are easily tagged up, often without resistance.

The third most common form is the 6-4-3 variation. In this scenario, the shortstop will field a groundball, tag out the runner advancing to third, throw to the second baseman (4) for the force out, who in turn throws to the first baseman (3) for the third out. Occasionally, this will also turn up as 5-4-3 as in the first scenario, but often if the third baseman fields a ball with zero outs and runners on first and second (and third), he will simply sacrifice the triple play and begin turning a 5-4-3 double play at the cost of allowing the runner on second to advance to third.

Beyond these three forms, triple plays are very rare. Interestingly, it's a matter of conjecture whether their rarity is a result of the unusual circumstances required, or if the ability to recognize a triple play in non-standard circumstances is limited.

To provide an example: often when there are runners on first and second and no outs, and a weak hitter is at the plate, he will be asked to bunt. If the bunt is weak enough, a quick-thinking catcher or pitcher may be able to turn a triple play by throwing to third, starting a 5-4-3 go around the bases. They may also be able to catch a popped up bunt on a hit-and-run situation and tag up the two advancing runners. However, runners often proceed with caution in just such scenarios, and so the triple play requires a bit of carelessness on the baserunners' part in these scenarios.

Other odd triple play scenarios:

  • An outfielder catches a sacrifice (out #1) with runners on first and third and fires the ball home. The man on first, a rather slow runner, hesitates, wary of the cutoff man. The ball sails through, and he takes off for second. The ball is a perfect strike to home and the runner advancing is tagged out (out #2). The catcher immediately fires another well-thrown ball to second base, where the runner on first is tagged out (out #3).
  • Again, with runners on first and third, the players attempt a double steal on a 2-2 count. The batter strikes out (out #1), the runner is tagged out stealing home (out #2), and a strong throw gets the runner advancing to second (out #3).
  • Runners on first and second. On a hit and run, a sharply hit ball to the third base side strikes the runner advancing to third - he is called out for interference (out #1). The shortstop scoops up the ball and proceeds to turn a double play, 6-4-3 (outs #2 and #3).
  • Runners on second and third. The batter hits a screaming liner that's snagged by the second baseman (out #1). The runner on second is still charging home thinking the ball's in play, while the runner on third saw the catch and is retreating back. So the second baseman fires to third to tag up the runner (out #2), who then fires back to the second baseman to tag up the runner from second (out #3). The 4-5-4 has only happened once in baseball - and it happened in 2015, 150 years after baseball began!
  • A true story: With the bases loaded, the pitcher throws a ball in the dirt, which skips away from the catcher. He feigns not being able to find the ball, and the runners all begin to advance. He then grabs the ball, tagging out the runner advancing home (out #1), and fires to third base, where the third baseman tags out the runner advancing to third (out #2.) At this point, the runner on first has turned around to return to first. The third baseman throws it to the first baseman, and the runner is caught in a rundown (out #3.)

Tales of triple plays involving players leaving the basepath, not touching bases, and succumbing to almost unbelievable fits of poor baserunning are great fodder for books of baseball lore, but are extremely rare.

Rarer still than almost all triple play possibilities is the unassisted triple play, in which a single player records all three outs of the triple play. This has been accomplished a mere 16 times in Major League history! It is rarer than the perfect game, the inside-the-park grand slam, and even hitting three triples in a single game (the dreaded "triple triple".)

The triple play requires dexterity, fast hands, and strong arms throughout the infield. It can instantly deflate a team, dashing their fortunes from multiple runners on and scoring opportunities rising in an instant. The average run expectancy of the four triple play base/out states is over 2 runs - to score 0, and abruptly, is futility defined. "Oh well, boys," the manager no doubt says as the runners come back to the dugout, no doubt upset (and perhaps a little befuddled), "let's go out there and get one back on them!"

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