Extra! Extra! Read All About It! Pitcher Hits Triple!

Tanner Roark was one of three pitchers to triple in 2018. (via D. Benjamin Miller)

On Wednesday, September 12, I was eating lunch in a local sports bar while watching the Cardinals take on the Pirates. The Cardinals had a rookie pitcher named Daniel Poncedeleon on the mound. The last name struck my fancy for obvious reasons. I could imagine the comments that name might inspire:

A pot-bellied coach might say, “Hey, Dan, I ain’t getting any younger, if you ever find that fountain, let me know.”

Another wit might say, “Dan, is is true you were 90 years old before you found that fountain?”

On Poncedeleon’s first road trip to Miami, a local wag might holler “Hey, Dan, at least now you’re in the right state.”

While my attention was divided between potential witticisms and my loaded baked potato, I looked up at the TV screen and noticed Poncedeleon running out a triple, his first major league hit. Of course, Poncedeleon isn’t the first pitcher to hit a triple, but I hadn’t witnessed it, in person or in the media, all year. In fact, I couldn’t remember when, if ever, I’d seen it before. When I started following baseball, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, so I have had plenty of opportunities to see a pitcher hit a triple. Whether I had seen it before it not, it surely was something you don’t see every day. So that set me to wondering…

Just how rare is it for a pitcher to hit a three-bagger?

Well, during the 2018 season, Poncedeleon was one of just three pitchers to hit a triple. Another was Tanner Roark of the Nationals. The third was Ranger Suarez of the Phillies. Amazingly, like Poncedeleon, Suarez was a rookie and the triple was his first major league hit. What are the odds of two rookie pitchers tripling for their first major league hit? I wouldn’t know how to calculate the odds on that but surely they are infinitesimal.

Of course, there are a number of reasons why a pitcher hitting a triple is a rare event. First of all, triples are hit much less often than homers, doubles or singles. I have explored this issue previously.

If you’re watching an American League team, the opportunity for a pitcher to hit a triple is restricted to interleague games. There are more opportunities for National League pitchers, but starters aren’t going as deep into games, and even when they do, they often give way to pinch-hitters in the late innings. Pitchers are also frequently called upon to bunt, and it’s tough to achieve a three-base hit with that strategy.

True to form, most NL pitchers do not turn heads when they swing the bat. If they have some proficiency at getting wood on the ball, the usual result is a single.

Every now and then a pitcher goes yard and gets to show off his home run trot. A three-bagger, however, usually involves some serious running, which is strongly discouraged for pitchers. In fact, the day after Poncedeleon’s triple, Cubs’ closer Pedro Strop pulled a hamstring while running out a double play grounder. At a crucial point in the season he was out of action.

I suspect that a lot of the doubles pitchers accrue could have been stretched into triples by position players. Hard to believe today, but I recall a time when pitchers were regularly used as pinch-runners. Of course, that was when clubs had less money invested in them.

To determine just how rare triples are when hurlers get to hacking, let’s look at some of the better-hitting pitchers in the game today.

Let’s start with Madison Bumgarner, who has deservedly attracted attention for his 17 career home runs (five in 2015). He is the career home run leader among active pitchers. He has 97 hits in his 10 major league seasons. Not one has been for three bases.

The Physics of Being Hit by a Pitch
It may still leave a bruise, but physics suggests a few ways to lessen the impact of a hit-by-pitch.

Yovanni Gallardo has hit 12 homers in his career. His best year power-wise was 2010 when he went deep four times and had a slugging percentage of .508. For his career, he is just over the Mendoza line (.201/.228/.335). He has never hit a triple and is less likely than ever to do so, as he is now 32 years old. Also, his inflated ERA in recent seasons (5.42 in 2016, 5.72 in 2017 and 6.39 in 2018) does not bode well for his longevity.

Also barely above the Mendoza line is Adam Wainwright (.202/.228/.309). Like Bumgarner and Gallardo, he is in triple digits in career homers with 10. He actually has two – count ‘em, two! – triples in 127 hits. One was in 2009; the other came in 2016 when he was a geezer-wheezer of 34 years. If you’re wondering about speed, Wainwright has never stolen a base. In his younger days (2007 and 2008) he tried twice to no avail.

Jake Arrieta is a decent hitter as pitchers go (.169/.202/.268). He has four triples (one per season from 2014 to 2017) among his 53 hits. Not a huge total, but not bad for 346 PAs. No stolen bases for him either.

Well above the Mendoza line is Zack Greinke (.220/.259/.311). Among his 103 hits are 25 doubles and six home runs. The last three seasons his home park has been Chase Field, which is conducive to triples. During that span he hit none. Before his stint with the Diamondbacks he hit none, and since he will be 35 years old next season, I wouldn’t bet on a breakthrough in 2019.

If he has a good year with the bat in 2019, Mike Leake can breach the Mendoza line. He is currently at .198/.227/.280. In his nine seasons (all in the NL until 2017, when he was traded to Seattle) he has 92 hits, six of them home runs. He has but one triple.

Noah Syndergaard has just four seasons under his belt. In one of those seasons (2017), he was injured and had only 13 PAs. So we don’t have too much data for him, but he turned heads in 2016 when he went yard three times. To date he has 28 hits, none of them triples.

In the days of old when pitchers came to the plate in both leagues and starters went deeper, they had more chances to hit triples. But even then they didn’t do it that often. Let’s look at some of the game’s best power-hitting pitchers. Most of them are in the Hall of Fame. Those who are not will be duly noted.

Unlike his brother Rick, Wes Ferrell is not enshrined in Cooperstown, but he is pretty much the gold standard for good-hitting pitchers. During his 15-year (1927-1941) career he won 193 games. In four seasons (1931, 1935, 1936 and 1937) he led the AL in complete games. He averaged 256 innings pitched per season. So he had plenty of opportunities to hit, and he took advantage of those opportunities. He came to the plate 1,344 times and emerged with a slash line of .280/.351/.446. He hit 38 homers (once as a pinch hitter). His best year was 1931, which might be the best offensive year ever for a pitcher. He hit 9 home runs, drove home 30 and finished with a slash line of .319/.373/.621. He had but one triple that year but 12 of his 329 career hits were for three bases.

Bob Lemon played briefly as a third baseman with the Indians in 1941 and 1942, spent three seasons with the military during World War II, and returned to the Tribe in 1946, pitching more and more and playing the field (now the outfield) less and less. From 1948 through 1958, he was strictly a pitcher. His prowess at the plate wasn’t what got him elected to the Hall, but it was a distinctive lagniappe to his career. Lemon hit 37 homers (35 while pitching) to go with a slash line of .232/.288/.386.  In 1947, his best offensive season, his ine was .321/.387/.607. He hit three triples that year, nine for his career.

Red Ruffing’s youthful record with the Red Sox was largely forgettable, but after he was traded to the Yankees, he really went to town. His 22-year career netted him 273 victories, and he pitched in seven World Series. That should have been enough to satisfy anyone, but he also distinguished himself with the bat. Of his 521 hits, 36 were home runs. With 2,093 PAs, he had plenty of opportunities to hit three-baggers. He had just 13. The last one came at age 40, which might be a record for a pitcher. He was certainly no speed demon, though. He had one steal in his career.

Earl Wilson had a respectable (121-109, 3.69) 11-year career, mostly with the Red Sox and Tigers, but nothing that would vault him into Cooperstown. As a power hitter, however, he had no peers among pitchers. Though his career was much shorter than Ruffing’s, he was only one homer behind him with 35. He had one for every 24 plate appearances. Two of his homers were pinch-hits. Nevertheless, he had but six triples.

Warren Spahn matched Wilson’s home run mark of 35, but in his 21-season career he had 2,056 PAs (Wilson had just 837). He had more opportunities to hit triples, yet he could do no better than match Wilson with six.

One of the best power-hitting pitchers of all time was Don Drysdale, who hit 29 home runs with 113 RBI in 14 seasons. Of his 218 hits, 62 were extra base hits — 29 were home runs and seven were triples.

Bob Gibson was renowned as an all-around athlete. He was good enough to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. For his career, he was .206/.243/.301. Among his 274 hits were 24 home runs. Given his athleticism and competitive drive, one might think he would have legged out quite a few triples, but not really. He hit only five in a 17-year career.

Like Gibson, Carlos Zambrano amassed 24 homers, but he had only three triples. At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds, he was an unlikely candidate to attempt to stretch a double into a triple; he had one stolen base in 2006. Of course, he does not have a plaque in Cooperstown.

Neither does Don Larsen, but his name recognition is likely as good as most of the guys who do have plaques. To this day he is renowned for his perfect game in the 1956 World Series. His regular season record was mediocre – but not his offensive record. In 14 seasons he hit .242/.291/.371. During his career he hit five triples, three of them for the Orioles in 1954. That was certainly notable, but hardly a consolation prize for his disastrous season on the mound. He appeared in 29 games and lost 21 of them.

Robin Roberts was also a fairly decent hitter for a pitcher. In 1955, his best offensive season, his line was .252/.360/.467. Among his 27 hits were four triples! He had 10 for his career. When he was not in the line-up, he was sometimes called upon as a pinch-runner, though he had but three stolen bases in his 19-year career.

Of course, when we talk about good-hitting pitchers, Babe Ruth must be included in the discussion. Ruth garnered plenty of three-baggers during his career but the lion’s share came when he was not on the mound. From 1914 through 1917, when he was exclusively a pitcher, he had seven triples. Not bad for a dead-ball era pitcher, but that number only represents a little more than five percent of his career total of 136.

If we were to try to list the ideal circumstances for a pitcher to accumulate lots of triples, we would surely expect someone who had a long career. More than likely, it would be someone who pitched back when the number of games started and complete games were not so far apart. Chances are he would be a decent enough hitter that managers would not automatically pinch-hit for him in the late innings of a close game. And if the pitcher’s home field were conducive to triples, that would be a big plus.

Shamelessly mixing metaphors, we can say that this perfect storm was embodied by the Big Train: Walter Johnson.

Johnson pitched for 21 years (1907-1927), and threw 5,914.1 innings (including 531 complete games). He pitched roughly half his games in the Senators’ cavernous Griffith Stadium. His 547 career hits (in 2,529 PAs) netted him a .235/.274/.342 slash line. He had 41 triples (his best was six in 1913) for his career and only 24 homers. Most of those triples came when he was in his prime. His best year was 1913 when he hit six. By contrast, he hit only four in his last seven seasons. For his career, he averaged seven triples per 162 games. Today that would be almost good enough for a position player to make it in the major league top 10.

Now remember what I said earlier about pitchers holding up at second when they might have had a shot at a triple? By that same reasoning, there is also a strong possibility that when a pitcher hits a triple, it would more than likely be an inside-the-park HR for almost anyone else. Obviously, a pitcher hitting an inside-the-park home run is even rarer than a pitcher hitting a triple, but that is a topic for another day.

One thing is for sure: if you happen to witness a pitcher hitting a triple today, you might consider yourself fortunate. It’s about as rare as a triple play, a no-hitter, or hitting for the cycle.

References and Resources:


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
newest oldest most voted
Dennis Bedard
Member
Dennis Bedard
The point of this article is the rarity of triples hit by pitchers. However, the real focus of this piece should be their frequency and not dearth. A triple is basically a double that was milked due to a bad bounce or clever base running. The act itself involves greater injury risk as the runner is most likely going to make a hard slide going into third. Rare is the third base coach who would wave a pitcher into this risk zone. The natural inclination is to marvel that the guy actually hit a double and leave it at that.… Read more »
TimBasuino
Member
Member
TimBasuino

2017 Luis Perdomo…4 triples in 53 PA. Gotta be some kind of record, right?

DAbrej
Member
DAbrej

Yeah, it’s very odd that it is not mentioned in the article.

Sittch
Member
Sittch

Dontrelle Willis was a triples machine

JohnThacker
Member
JohnThacker

Tom Glavine hit a bases-loaded triple in the first inning of Game 7 of the 1996 NLCS. That might be the biggest stage on which a pitcher has ever hit one.

WARrior
Member
Member
WARrior

First thing I thought of when i saw the title of this article. That triple basically put the Braves in the WS, after trailing 3 games to 1 earlier in the series.

Bumgarner may be career leader in HR among active pitchers, but only because Ohtani–who hit 22 in just this, rookie, season–will be on the shelf for a while. He also had 93 hits this year, just four shy of Bumgarner’s career total. Two were triples.

Dag Gummit
Member
Dag Gummit

How many did Ohtani hit while as a pitcher and not DH, though?

WARrior
Member
Member
WARrior

I was responding to what the author wrote: “He [Bumgarner] is the career home run leader among active pitchers.” Not “career leader in HR hit while pitching.” But unless you think it’s harder to hit a HR while pitching than while playing DH–and there is a run penalty for the latter–the distinction shouldn’t matter.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

By that definition, Rick Ankiel counted as the career active leader during the last years of his career. Strictly speaking, you could even include the full career totals of the position players who have pitched in relief during blowouts or long extra-inning games.

I think the word “pitcher” there implies only those HRs hit while playing as the pitcher.

jetzzfan
Member
Member
jetzzfan

That’s probably number one. More recently, Archie Bradley hit a two-run triple in the 2017 NL Wild Card Game

Jim Melichar
Member
Member
Jim Melichar

When I saw the title I thought we were doing a 2017 Flashback Article.

JimmyD
Member
JimmyD

Johan Santana hit a triple against the Marlins back in 07. It was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen in baseball!

evilsquirrel13
Member
evilsquirrel13

I wouldn’t have guessed pitcher triples were that rare. I’ve seen three in a little under 300 MLB games attended: Rick Ankiel in his rookie season (pitching in relief, no less!), one of Zambrano’s in 2005, and Jaime Garcia in 2012. Oddly enough, all three of those triples happened in April. I remember Garcia’s in particular was hit over the centerfielder’s head… given how shallow many pitchers get played by the outfielders, I’d think that would make triples a bit more likely on any ball that gets to the wall.

87 Cards
Member
87 Cards
In 1974, Dave Roberts/ Astros hit three triple of his four career triples. He hit two against the Mets; one at Shea off of Tom Seaver and other at the Astrodome against Jon Matlack. He hit another in Houston against Ron Reed/Braves ; all three of those 1974-season triples were in his first at-bat of the game. He hit his fourth and last career three-bagger the next season in the Dome against Rick Rhoden of the Dodgers. (in AB #2) Rhoden, a Silver Slugger winner from 1984 to 1986, never rolled a triple in his 367 ABs.