Hitting triples is pretty hard. At the height of triple-icity, they only comprised six percent of all the hits in the majors in any given season, and that was back in the first Dead Ball era. Today that figure hovers around two percent. Back in Stan Musial’s day it wasn’t a great deal higher — 3.3 percent during the seasons of his career (1941-1963, with 1945 excepted). And yet, Musial, a power hitter, hit the heck out of some triples.
As I mentioned, hitting triples is no small feat. One of the reasons they are mentioned as one of — if not the most — exciting play in baseball is because they rarely happen. Only 110 players have ever crossed the 100 triple plateau, and 74 of them played the entirety of their career before the color barrier was broken. Just three of those players — Carl Crawford, Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins — are active. And there’s a decent chance that we won’t see anyone cross that threshold any time soon. None of the next 10 players on the active triples leaderboard are under the age of 30. Next up is Dexter Fowler, who has compiled 53 triples by his age-27 season. But Fowler has only tripled three times this season, a sharp drop from the 10-plus triples he had accrued during each of the past four seasons.
Looking at the 110 players who have totaled 100 or more triples, we can see just how rare of a bird Musial really was. Musial was merely an average baserunner in his time. His 4.4 speed score was slightly above average for his time period, and would be exactly average today. Among those with 100 triples though, he was decidedly below average. If you consider a 5.5 Spd to be above average, as it is listed in the FanGraphs’ glossary, then 84 of the 110 players with at least 100 triples posted an above-average speed score. As a group, they averaged a 6.2 Spd. There were just 10 players in the group with a Spd lower than 5.0:
One thing sticks out right away — with the exception of Rose, these guys all played a very long time ago. Back then, ballpark dimensions were a little more girthy, and one might surmise that it would have been easier for a non-elite runner to wallop triples with aplomb. And in fact, the dimensions of Sportsman’s Park/Busch Stadium I were fairly liberal. For Musial’s career (or most of it, anyway), the dimensions were as follows:
Left field: 351.1’
Deepest corner just left of dead center: 426’
Center field: 422’
Deepest corner just right of dead center: 422’
Right field: 309.5’
Not outrageous, but that left-center field certainly sounds Death Valley-ish on paper, and center was deeper than many parks are today. We don’t have detailed park factors for that era, but the Cardinals’ basic park factor never dipped below 100 during Musial’s time there. Sometimes, particularly towards the end of his career, it was one of the best offensive ballparks in the game. Sometimes it was merely neutral. But it was never a bad offensive ballpark. And with a wall that was 11-feet high all the way around, perhaps it was pretty conducive to triples. Except that as a left-handed hitter, Musial was perhaps not as well suited to take advantage of its dimensions as were other hitters.
Looking at Musial’s splits, we find that they were essentially even — he hit 90 triples at home and 87 on the road. He hit a larger percentage of doubles and homers at home, and singles on the road, but his triples broke right down the middle. It’s safe to say that in terms of triples at least, he didn’t derive any sort of special benefit from his home ballpark.
Going back to our triples list though, we can see that Musial was a pretty decent baserunner despite his lack of speed. We know that wSB numbers before the 1950’s are a little touch and go, so you have to take them with a grain of salt, but compared to his brethren in the ‘40’s, he was pretty good — his 6.6 wSB ranked 27th out of 304 qualified players. It was during this time that Musial hit most of his triples:
1940-1944, 1946-1949: 108 triples
1950-1963: 69 triples
In the ‘40’s, Musial tallied seven straight double-digit triples seasons, including two 20-triple campaigns. For the decade, he led baseball by a wide margin. His teammate, Enos Slaughter placed second with 84 triples. This once again gives rise to the notion that maybe the Cards’ home park was a big helper, but Musial hit more than half of them on the road — 50 at home, 58 on the road. He led the majors in individual seasons three times as well, and tied to lead the National League on two other occasions, though one of those times was in 1951. Nevertheless, he did most of his damage as a younger man. That was true of his career in general — it’s not like he started trading triples for doubles or homers — his production dropped off pretty sharply in his last five years. He managed to turn in one final .300/.400/.500 season in his age-41 season, but in those last five years he hit .283/.369/.466 — good, but nowhere near the legendary numbers he had posted earlier in his career.
Legendary is assuredly what Musial was in not only the game of baseball but also in life. He was one of the game’s premier sluggers, and that is why it is a bit surprising to find that he ranks in the top 20 in triples all-time. In fact, he is one of only five players in the 400 homer/100 triple club that I just made up:
It strikes me as pretty incredible that Musial hit more triples in his career than did Mays. Mays was a much faster player and better baserunner in general — he stole more than four times as many bases as did Musial — yet in a relatively equal number of plate appearances (12,493 for Mays, 12,717 for Musial) Musial hit 37 more triples. In fact, Musial was a historical outlier in this respect as well. For his career, he hit 99 more triples than he stole bases, which is second all-time to one Joe DiMaggio, who we find in this homers/triples group if we lower the threshold to 300 homers:
The group doubles, but it is still select. And Musial still has the most triples in the group. Also, if you prefer a rate statistic, Musial was one of just 11 players to have a career .200 ISO or better as well as 100 or more career triples:
It’s essentially the same list. We swap out Brett and Finley for Averill, Heath and Herman. But you know, I figured I’d do it for the sake of completeness. And for the children, of course.
Hitting a baseball isn’t exactly easy, and hitting triples is even harder. But Stan Musial made a career of making difficult things look very simple. I had previously never associated him with being a triples hitter, but he was actually one of the best triples hitters of all-time. He places well on just about every triples leaderboard, and he also was one of a very select group of sluggers to total a lot of triples. He was so prolific that he was even able to sustain the skill somewhat in his later years. His 62 triples from age 30 on are more than four times the number of triples that Albert Pujols has hit in his entire career. Musial was the total package.