The New All-Time Triples List

Carl Crawford leads active players in triples with 120. (via Dustin Nosler)

Carl Crawford leads active players in triples with 120. (via Dustin Nosler)

From generation to generation, the shape, tenor, and texture of baseball inevitably transforms and evolves into something that the forefathers of bygone eras would be hard-pressed to recognize. For instance: the thought of a major league team flying commercial on road trips, as Jim Bouton’s Seattle Pilots did in the hilarious Ball Four, reads like a joke to modern minds. Even major leaguers played an event called the World Series in the opening years of the 20th century, the flimsy, finger-length gloves and the baggy wool uniforms make those games seem a lot closer, on the evolutionary scale, to baseball’s medieval origins than to what we see when we flick on Extra Innings.

We know, as fans, when and how to mentally adjust the vaunted all-time record book to account for these generational changes. We will never hold it against modern pitchers, for example, that they are   unable to break Cy Young’s record of 511 pitcher wins — or even that they are unable to approach Walter Johnson’s second-best 417 wins. Being a professional pitcher today requires total, year-round physical and emotional commitment from the nation’s — the world’s — best athletes, and the very best of those are barely able to inch up over 200 innings pitched in a season. We know this.

The modern wizard of the mound, Clayton Kershaw, has both an early start in the majors (debut at age 20), and an impeccable (so far, knock on wood) record of health — both necessities if a player is going to make a run at an all-time record. And still, at Kershaw’s current average of 16 wins a year, it would take him until his age-51 season to catch Young. It will even take him until his age-38 season to cross the currently revered 300-win threshold — and it’s entirely possible, in the coming years, that Kershaw convinces us that he is the game’s best-ever pitcher even without this particular statistical achievement.

It’s time to apply this same generational-adjustment wisdom to another corner of the record book — a forgotten corner of the record book. Forgotten, perhaps, precisely because it is so totally dominated by scowling, pre-war, pre-integration old-timers: the all-time triples list.

Here is how the all-time top 10 list currently stands:

All-Time Career Triples Leaderboard
Player Final season Triples
Ty Cobb 1928 295
Sam Crawford 1917 287
Tris Speaker 1928 222
Honus Wagner 1917 210
Paul Waner 1945 191
Eddie Collins 1930 187
Sam Rice 1934 184
Edd Roush 1931 182
Ed Konetchy 1921 182
Stan Musial 1963 177

Clearly, there were elements of the early-20th-century game that gave triples an opportunity to flourish. I can think of a few possible factors, since gone extinct, that probably blended together to create such a triples-happy environment.

The first, and biggest reason? The outfield dimensions. All-time leader Ty Cobb played most of his career at Tiger Stadium, where the center field wall was 467 feet from home plate. That would make it a lot more difficult for outfielders to break off frozen ropes like this on the fly (note the 347-foot marker in that video).

Today’s immaculately researched pre-series scouting report on its own has no doubt been responsible for killing off so many triples: “Plus arm; don’t run on this guy.” This is a bad thing only if you are expressly concerned with filling the game with as many triples as possible.

I’m also thinking about how the dead-ball era ball would ricochet around the old-timey outfields. These are game balls that are definitely not getting swapped out after every pitch in the dirt, foul ball, spitball. I’m imagining some lumpy, torn, tobacco-covered baseballs devilishly dodging so many poor outfielders who could only so much as guess which direction the about-to-be-triple would skip to next.

Then there’s the outfields themselves. The bright emerald sheets of patterned grass that look oh so glorious each and every time we walk from the concourse to our section…well, these groundskeeping marvels didn’t really exist (I’m assuming) back then. I’m imagining a lot of dirt clods back in the early 1900s outfields — which of course the ball would find like a heat-seeking missile. And, also, while modern fan interference consists of reaching over the outfield wall from on top of a 15-foot turret, back in the day we had configurations where fans lined the entire outfield, standing and sitting right at ground-level. If the home team was up to bat and a ground ball hopped its way into the stands — well, it was probably difficult for the two-man umpiring crew to enforce the game’s rules down to the letter.

In the post-integration era (1947-present), the top ten triplers look like a much more recognizable list. Much like the all-time stolen bases leaderboard, this triples list skews heavy to the ’70s and ’80s — a generation in which speed (aided by the onslaught of Astroturf) was actually an offensive priority for teams:

Career Triples Leaderboard, 1947-Present
Player Triples Career Games Career PA PA/Triple
Roberto Clemente 161 2433 10,211 63.4
Willie Wilson 147 2154 8,317 56.6
Lou Brock 141 2616 11,240 79.7
Willie Mays 140 2992 12,496 89.3
George Brett 137 2707 11,625 84.9
Pete Rose 135 3562 15,890 117.7
Brett Butler 131 2213 9,545 72.8
Vada Pinson 127 2470 10,402 81.9
Robin Yount 126 2856 12,249 97.2

Although Clemente tops the list by a comfortable margin, Wilson also has a comfortable lead in terms of frequency of triples. As with any cumulative record, appearing on this list is also a byproduct of career longevity. Rose, Mays and Yount are top-20 all-time in total games played, with Brett and Brock also showing up in the top 50.

I think this is a much more appealing list to have in mind as a barometer for tripling greatness.

While the post-integration top 10 doesn’t include any active players, a few active players are knocking  on the door. Their progress shows that Clemente’s mark, while extremely difficult to attain (obviously), is not impossible — a la Cy Young’s win total — to reach for in the modern game. Let’s take a look at the active top 10, which includes a surprise star tripler who’s still in his 20s:

Career Triples Leaderboard, Active Players
Player Triples Career Games Career PA PA/Triple
Carl Crawford 120 1617 6898 57.5
Jose Reyes 115 1446 6630 57.7
Jimmy Rollins 111 2090 9511 85.7
Ichiro Suzuki 85 2204 9663 113.7
Curtis Granderson 82 1342 5698 69.5
Carlos Beltran 77 2173 9398 112.1
Shane Victorino 68 1228 4960 72.9
David DeJesus 63 1360 5599 88.9
Michael Bourn 61 1107 4428 72.6
Dexter Fowler 57 783 3140 55.1

Crawford — who currently has more than 1,000 fewer career games played than Yount — is about to pass the legendary Brewer on the all-time list. Alas, Crawford will probably close that six-triple gap more slowly than you think. Since he left Tampa Bay, Crawford’s tripling prowess has fallen off the same way as the rest of his game. As a Devil Ray/Ray, Crawford averaged a historically elite 51.4 PAs per triple, including leading the American League in total triples three years in a row (2004-2006). In Crawford’s four big-money years since his gigantic contract with the Boston Red Sox in free agency, Crawford has tripled only about half as often, or once every 100.2 plate appearances. Throw in Crawford’s health problems over the same four seasons (a wilted average of 96 games played per season), and only 15 of his 120 career triples have come in a Red Sox or Dodgers uniform. That big ol’ contract runs through 2017, which means Crawford should pass Yount and Pinson and maybe Butler — but don’t expect much more than that unless Crawford gains access to a real-live Fountain of Youth.

Reyes has followed a frightfully similar triples career arc. During his nine seasons as a Met and his one season as a Marlin, Reyes was at an astounding 50.1 PAs per triple, a touch better than even Crawford in his prime. In his two seasons as a Blue Jay, Reyes is down to, um, one triple every 268.5 PAs. This is most likely a result of Reyes’ ankle and hamstring injuries. Whatever the reason, at age 31, Reyes’ best tripling days are probably behind him.

Granderson, despite his stellar career tripling rate, is another player whose tripling has cooled off significantly with age. After the 2007 season, Granderson’s second full year in the majors, he looked like a shoo-in to be one of the game’s great all-time triplers. That year, Granderson went for 23 triples, which led the league and was nearly twice the triples that third-place Reyes managed (12). Even more impressively: nobody had hit that many triples in one season since Dale Mitchell for the 1949 Cleveland Indians. Clemente, Mays, Wilson — none of them matched the bar that Granderson set for triples in a season. But Granderson’s slow pace since those early years makes him a long shot to get to just 100. Perhaps the pursuit of power has sapped Granderson’s triples totals: since becoming a Yankee in 2010, he’s had two 40+-homer seasons, but his triple rate has fallen to once every 112.1 PAs.

Ultimately, it looks like the player on the active leaderboard with the best shot at dethroning Clemente is Dexter Fowler. With Fowler, though, there’s a hidden but large factor that could keep him from  approaching the all-time greats despite his so-far torrid pace: he doesn’t play his home games at Coors Field anymore.

While Coors is the majors’ most notorious bandbox because of how fly balls travel through that thin, mile-high air, the pushed-back fences also make Coors the majors’ best place to get a triple. If an outfielder misplays a ball — the origin of a good portion of modern triples — in a ballpark with a short porch, like the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards (318 feet down the right field line) or at Yankee Stadium (314 feet in right), the ball will go only so far before hitting the wall and maybe even ricocheting back to the fielder. In Coors, though, misplayed balls — or balls that dance just on the fair side of the foul line — have an additional 40-50 feet in each direction to roll in the opposite direction of the rapidly churning baserunner. That’s a lot of space! It’s definitely enough space to stretch a likely double into a stand-up triple, as Fowler has personally done plenty of times. Since 2002, no team has hit more triples in its home park than the Rockies have in theirs — nearly three times the number of triples that the Orioles and Yankees have hit at home over the same span.

This ballpark effect has had a huge influence on Fowler’s elite tripling. Even though Fowler has played 42.5 percent of his career games at Coors, 57.8 percent of his career triples have come in Colorado. While Fowler’s new home of Wrigley Field has relatively deep corners (355 to left and 353 to right), the relatively shallow 400-foot dead-center could be a big factor in slowing down Fowler’s tripling in his last season before he hits free agency. The Cubs’ 2014 triples park factor was slightly lower than that of Houston, and was significantly lower than Colorado. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that Fowler signs with a team in a triples-friendly ballpark when he reaches the free-agent market.

The active players with perhaps the best chance at busting Clemente’s record are first- and second-year players who have stormed out of the gate with some high-frequency tripling. Obviously they have a long, long way to go to catch Clemente, who set his record because his tripling rate in his 30s (once every 53.7 PAs) was actually better than his tripling rate in his 20s (69.5). But at least these young guns have taken the necessary first step to track down Clemente:

Career Triples, Select Young Players
Player Triples Career Games Career PA PA/Triple
Starling Marte 22 317 1293 58.8
Adam Eaton 16 211 918 57.4
Corey Dickerson 11 200 691 62.8
David Peralta 9 88 348 38.7
Kevin Kiermaier 8 109 364 45.5
Rougned Odor 7 114 417 59.6

There are already some pretty rad tripling exploits among these young players. Odor has already had a twotriple day, and Kiermaier hit two triples in two innings. Dickerson — who has hit 100 percent of his triples in Coors — had a two-triple day that included a walk-off triple in the bottom of the 15th. (Dickerson has also fallen on his face trying to stretch a triple into a Little League home run in one of the all-round ugliest plays you’ll ever see in the majors.)

The clear sentimental favorite, though, because of both the Pirates connection and also because of his universal appeal as a totally awesome ballplayer, is Marte. We probably don’t yet know the ceiling on Marte’s career on the whole, and the same goes for his potential as a tripler. Already, Marte has accomplished such feats as hitting a triple in three consecutive games, and he’s also had the ultra-rare walk-off triple via overturned replay. (Also, somehow, Marte has earned a triple not once but twice as a result of having Peter Bourjos misplay a ball.)

We don’t have to not care about triples just because of the generationally inflated totals posted by the likes of Cobb and Wagner. From elder statesmen Crawford and Reyes to younger dudes like Fowler and Marte, there are plenty of historically great triplers churning up the basepaths in front of our eyes.


Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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Jim S.
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Jim S.

A VERY good read.

Carl
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Carl

Wonderful article and great way to adjust all-time records.

One note is that the link to Dickerson’s all time uglies triple is broken.

Paul Clarke
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Paul Clarke

Your all-time list actually appears to be a post-1900 list. B-Ref’s all-time list shows Crawford in 1st place with 309 (http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/3B_career.shtml).

Bill
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Bill

Yes, this information is rather misleading in excluding nineteenth century players and the pre-1901 data of Deadball era players. Sam Crawford had 309 triples; Jake Beckley 244; Roger Connor 233; Fred Clarke 220; Dan Brouthers 205, etc. They shouldn’t vanish because the calendar started with an “18” not a “19.” Also, something should be said about single season triple stats. Chief Wilson had 36 triples in 1912, the all-time record. The most in post-1920 baseball is 26 by Kiki Cuyler of the Pirates in 1925. The most since WWII is 23 by Curtis Granderson in 2007.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
For someone to catch Clemente, MLB is going to have to build some really weird new ballparks. Clemente’s career home-road triples split is 103-63, in large measure because Forbes had a huge LF and CF, 365 down the LF line out to 457 and 461 at points in the outfield. And a significant feature of the LF wall was a huge manually operated scoreboard that was in play, except for the huge clock on the top. It was ridiculously hard to homer to left at Forbes (although I saw Maz do it, hit a ball off the clock), and Clemente… Read more »
Andy
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Andy

Trout has 26 triples in just three full seasons, though everyone seems to think he’s going to lose his speed in a few years.

Andy
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Andy

Pinson is the only player on the post-1947 list who had more triples through age 22 than Trout.

Anon
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Anon

David Peralta has zero chance – he was a washout as a pitcher and has come back as a position player after being out of the game for 3 years. As a result, he;’s already 27 yr 7 months. No chance.

Lou Hernández
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Lou Hernández

Very interesting and informative article. B-reference.com lists Clemente as having 166 lifetime triples…

Gene
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Gene

I’d gladly see a significant reduction in HRs if we could have a significant increase in triples to replace them.

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