Unassisted Triple Plays
Unassisted Triple Plays
It is one of the rarest of individual feats, along with hitting four home runs in one game and hitting for a natural cycle. There have been more perfect games in baseball history than unassisted triple plays. During a span of over 65 seasons (June 1927 to September 1992), there was only one unassisted triple play in the major leagues, made in July 1968. Even "ordinary" (assisted) triple plays are fairly rare, occurring a few times per year.
Specific conditions must be met for the play even to be possible. There must be no outs in the inning and at least two runners on base (usually only two) who can be running with the pitch, as in a hit and run. Finally, the batter must make excellent contact with the pitch, resulting in a line drive hit directly at an infielder, usually either the shortstop or second baseman.
Most unassisted triple plays have taken this form: the infielder catches a line drive (one out), steps on a base to double off a runner (two outs), and tags another runner on the runner's way to the next base (three outs) (almost universally, the "next base" is the same base on which the infielder stepped to record the second out.) Less frequently, the order of the last two putouts is switched.
It is nearly impossible for an unassisted triple play to occur unless the fielder is positioned between the two runners. For this reason, most of these plays have been accomplished by middle infielders (second basemen and shortstops). Just two were completed by first basemen; in both cases, they were able to reach second base before the returning baserunner. For example, after collecting the first two outs, Tigers first baseman Johnny Neun ignored his shortstop's shouts to throw the ball, and instead ran to second base to get the final out himself. The only unassisted triple play that did not take one of these forms occurred in the 19th century, under rules that are no longer in effect. (See below.)
The feat has happened only 15 times in modern major league history, plus once in 1878 (which is disputed). By comparison, there have been 20 perfect games since 1870, including two in the 19th century. On 15 occasions a player has hit four home runs in a game, including twice in the 19th century.
The timeline for occurrences has been erratic, and may be connected with the fashionable proclivity of managers to send the runners (or the lack thereof). Six of the unassisted triple plays occurred in the 1920s, the sixth coming just one day after the fifth. Then, forty-one years would pass before the seventh, by Ron Hansen in 1968. Since 1991, there have been seven.
The unassisted triple play, the perfect game, and hitting four home runs in one game are thus comparable in terms of rarity, but the perfect game and the home run record require an extraordinary effort along with a fair amount of luck. By contrast, the unassisted triple play is essentially always a matter of luck: a combination of the right circumstances with the relatively simple effort of catching the ball and running in the right direction with it. Troy Tulowitzki said of his feat, "It fell right in my lap," and as WGN-TV sports anchor Dan Roan commented, "That's the way these plays always happen."
Only twice has an unassisted triple play ended an MLB game, once in each league. On May 31, 1927, Johnny Neun of the Detroit Tigers turned a game-ending unassisted triple play against the Cleveland Indians. On August 23, 2009, Eric Bruntlett of the Philadelphia Phillies did so against the New York Mets. That same inning, Bruntlett had committed an error and slid leg-first to grab a ground ball, but missed it. Both plays occurred in the bottom of the 9th inning.
MLB unassisted triple plays
- Paul Hines, May 8, 1878, Providence Grays (vs. Boston Red Caps) (disputed)
- With runners on second and third, center fielder Hines caught a line drive from Jack Burdock that the runners thought was uncatchable. When he caught it, both runners had already passed third. Hines stepped on third, which by the rules of the day meant both runners were out. To make sure, he threw the ball to Charlie Sweasy at second base. It is still debated whether this was truly an unassisted triple play. (Modern rules would indeed have required either the ball to be conveyed to second base to put out the runner who had been on that base and had not tagged up, or that runner to be tagged.) According to the Society for American Baseball Research, the runner coming from second, Ezra Sutton, had not yet touched third base, which would mean that even by 19th century rules the play was not complete until Hines threw to second, and thus the play was not unassisted. Ernest J. Lanigan's Baseball Cyclopedia, 1922, which covers professional baseball back to 1876, states on p. 157 that Neal Ball in 1909 was "the first major leaguer to make an unassisted triple play." The Sporting News Baseball Record Book, which covers records back to 1876, likewise does not list Hines' play in the section on unassisted triple plays.
|Neal Ball||Cleveland Naps||SS||July 19, 1909||Boston Red Sox||AL||2nd||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.|
|Bill Wambsganss||Cleveland Indians||2B||October 10, 1920||Brooklyn Dodgers||—||5th||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.
(Game 5 of the 1920 World Series.)
|George Burns||Boston Red Sox||1B||September 14, 1923||Cleveland Indians||AL||2nd||Caught line drive, tagged runner, touched 2nd.|
|Ernie Padgett||Boston Braves||SS||October 6, 1923||Philadelphia Phillies||NL||4th||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.|
|Glenn Wright||Pittsburgh Pirates||SS||May 7, 1925||St. Louis Cardinals||NL||9th||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.|
|Jimmy Cooney||Chicago Cubs||SS||May 30, 1927||Pittsburgh Pirates||NL||4th||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.|
|Johnny Neun||Detroit Tigers||1B||May 31, 1927||Cleveland Indians||AL||9th||Caught line drive, tagged runner, beat returning runner to 2nd.
|Ron Hansen||Washington Senators||SS||July 30, 1968||Cleveland Indians||AL||1st||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.|
|Mickey Morandini||Philadelphia Phillies||2B||September 20, 1992||Pittsburgh Pirates||NL||6th||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.|
|John Valentin||Boston Red Sox||SS||July 8, 1994||Seattle Mariners||AL||6th||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.|
|Randy Velarde||Oakland Athletics||2B||May 29, 2000||New York Yankees||AL||6th||Caught line drive, tagged runner, touched 2nd.|
|Rafael Furcal||Atlanta Braves||SS||August 10, 2003||St. Louis Cardinals||NL||5th||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.|
|Troy Tulowitzki||Colorado Rockies||SS||April 29, 2007||Atlanta Braves||NL||7th||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.|
|Asdrúbal Cabrera||Cleveland Indians||2B||May 12, 2008||Toronto Blue Jays||AL||5th||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.|
|Eric Bruntlett||Philadelphia Phillies||2B||August 23, 2009||New York Mets||NL||9th||Caught line drive, touched 2nd, tagged runner.