Thursday, June 5, 2014


So how do we get a more comprehensive understanding of what's happened to the triple over time (and not getting trapped in the "frog in the pot" situation by watching the slow boil of declining "per game" values)?

We can start with a look at how the ongoing "active" leader at the point of his retirement compares with the man who holds the second safest record in baseball (most triples in a career: "Wahoo" Sam Crawford, with 309...the safest record in baseball? Most triples in a season: Owen "Chief" Wilson...hmm, they must have known then that the triple was going to go the way of the Native American).

When we do that, we get a table that looks like what's over at the right. 

It tells us that the triple took its biggest "hit" in the interstice between the retirements of Ty Cobb (1928) and Paul Waner (1945). From that point on, we've been doing a slow fade, dropping from Waner's 62% of maximum to Carl Crawford's 38%. Given current conditions, it's likely to go lower.

Now, no other major stat has anything remotely like this happening to it. Homers? Pish. Doubles? Posh. Sacrifice hits? Not even.

Now someone out there will object that Carl Crawford is not retired. No, but he's over 30 and he's had two serious injuries in the past three years, and as a result, his triples totals are virtually certain to be little more than a trickle from this point forward. And, in fact, it's the change in aging patterns with respect to triples that is probably the most worrisome aspect of the ongoing malaise, decay, proto-extinction, etc., etc.

How can we get a handle on what's going on with aging patterns? We can look at the top five triples hitters whose careers culminate in the ascending decades of baseball history for two age ranges--players up to age 29, and players age 30 and over--and take a look at how they compare over time.

And, just because we can, we've made them into our own versions of the semi-infamous "heat charts" that have become so popular in recent years (like most of what's surfaced in the "post-neo" age, they're more than a little bit oversold, but what isn't these days?).

These "heat charts" show that triples didn't really start heavily declining as age 30+ events until the 1950s, at which point there was an increasing divergence between the two age groups.

This is something that redefines a certain aspect of "speed score" assumptions, which tend to treat triples monolithically over time as manifestations of speed, when in fact the triple was, at least for the first hundred years of its existence, at least as much of a power stat.

The 50s are clearly the Rubicon for the triple in terms of the falloff in age 30+ frequency. In our decade, we've got an uptick in the -29 age data because of the presence of Crawford and Jose Reyes, a couple of semi-throwbacks to the "silver age" of three-baggers. But look at how fast things fall off behind them. And the age 30+ shows us the first top five 3B guy with less than 40 3B.

As the commentator said when the Hindenburg caught fire: "That's not good."

And we have a final summary table that demonstrates that the rate of decay in triples is moving in the direction of the "terminal velocity" seen in our last photo.

The table shows the averages for the two age ranges (under "Top 5"), then computes the precent of maximum for each ("% Max"), and then renders the rate of decline in each decade ("Rate") and the overall decay rate relative to the theoretical maximum (which, if you computed the triples/game rate, occurs in the first half of the 1910s).

We can see that the rate of decay has fluctuated across decades as the range between the top five in each age range has moved around, but that the overall "percent of maximum" as registered in the far right value (which we are calling "decay": it should be "overall aggregate decay from maximum," but that's an even bigger mouthful than we would say with a spoonful of peanut, "decay," OK?) stabilized over a six-decade period (1950s to the 2000s).

In other words, it was a relatively stable rate of decay through those years. But it's not looking that way halfway into the 2010s.

And a good bit of it is stemming from a sudden new decline in triples hit by players aged 30 and over.

Without replacements in the coming seasons for aging (and injured) players like Crawford and Reyes, both of whom have just stopped hitting triples, we are looking at a new level of near-extinction for the three-bagger.

Is there any way to stem the tide, or (even) reverse it? Of course there is, and we'll be kicking all that around again soon...stay tuned.