Whatever happened to triples? If Pittsburgh Pirates DH Daniel Vogelbach can hit one, anyone can!

AP Photo/Paul Beaty

The biggest news Tuesday wasn't the Houston Astros hitting five home runs in one inning off Nathan Eovaldi, or even the Boston Red Sox fan sitting in the Green Monster seats who caught two of those home runs.

No, the biggest news: Daniel Vogelbach hit a triple.

Let's get this out of the way first: The Pittsburgh Pirates designated hitter is not the slowest player in major league history. That's probably Ernie Lombardi, who possessed a legendary lack of speed. "Ernie Lombardi was a huge man, with huge, oak-trunk legs and huge feet and huge hands and a promontory with nostrils that protruded from a lumpy face," Bill James once wrote of the Hall of Fame catcher. "As he got older, he acquired a huge belly, which he lugged around with a huge effort. His knees were too low to the ground, and his center of gravity was four feet behind him, so that he was never endowed by nature with adequate speed. As he got older, he slowed down, becoming surely the slowest player ever to play major league baseball well."

But even Lombardi hit 27 triples in his career, including nine in his first full season in the majors.

Vogelbach is also not the slowest active player. Thanks to the marvels of Statcast, we can now measure these things. Vogelbach's top sprint speed this season ranks in the third percentile of all players, so 97% of players have recorded a higher top speed. He's been marginally faster than seven catchers, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, and ... this is weird ... Giancarlo Stanton. I'm not exactly sure what's going on with Stanton. He doesn't run anymore. I'm not sure if he's incapable of running even moderately fast or just chooses not to run.

Whether or not he's zooming around the bases, Stanton, at least, looks the part of a professional athlete. Vogelbach is built like the kid who played right guard on your high school football team, or maybe an undersized sumo wrestler, or the truck driver who has had a few too many greasy meals at the all-night diner. He is listed at 6 feet (which might be generous) and 270 pounds (which might also be generous). His legs are too short for his torso, his torso too large for his legs. From a standing start, it takes him forever to get any momentum going, his arms churning like a salmon swimming upstream, if salmon had arms. He tries really hard to run fast.

When Vogelbach stepped up to the plate for the Pirates in the fourth inning Tuesday at Wrigley Field, he had gone 1,023 career at-bats without ever hitting a triple, the most of any active major leaguer. That wasn't the longest current stretch without a triple. Stanton, for example, has gone 1,347 at-bats since his last triple early in the 2018 season. Yadier Molina last hit a triple in 2017, Cabrera's last was in 2016 and Pujols has gone 3,276 at-bats since his last triple in 2014.

(I looked up the video on that one. Pujols hit a grounder over the first-base bag, and the ball rolled into the corner as Texas Rangers right fielder Michael Choice lollygagged after the ball. The highlight pans to a smiling Mike Trout, who scored on the play and couldn't believe Pujols had hit a triple.)

So Vogelbach was batting against Chicago Cubs starter Keegan Thompson in the fourth inning on Tuesday and lifted a fairly routine fly ball to deep left field that Ian Happ drifted back on and ... well, here's the highlight.

Vogelbach didn't even need to slide.

You are probably aware that the triple is bordering on extinction. There are just 0.13 triples per game (per team) in 2022, matching 2020 for the lowest rate ever. There are more than three times as many hit batters as triples, which maybe says something about the state of baseball in 2022. Back in 1980, when there were 0.26 triples per game, double today's rate, there were 64% more triples than hit batters. Last season, Shohei Ohtani, David Peralta and Bryan Reynolds led the majors with eight triples, the lowest major-league-leading total (other than 2020) since 1872, when Charlie Gould of the Boston Red Stockings paced the National Association with eight three-baggers -- in just 45 games.

There are basically three ways a triple is hit these days:

1. A fast or moderately fast batter hits a deep fly ball over an outfielder's head, usually in the gap, usually in one of the parks with bigger power alleys. The park with the biggest triple factor over the previous three seasons is Comerica Park, which makes sense given the big gap in right-center. Comerica was Curtis Granderson's home park in 2007 when he hit a remarkable 23 triples (which is more than 16 teams hit last season). Coors is next, and then Wrigley, where the odd configurations can create some wild ricochets.

2. The ball goes into a corner and either sticks there, with the fielder perhaps playing well off the line, or goes into the corner and rebounds away from the fielder. Some speed on the part of the batter is usually required for this triple but is not always necessary.

3. The fielder misplays the ball in some shape or fashion. Maybe it's an outfield collision. Maybe he loses it in the sun. Maybe he mistimes a leap at the wall. This is what happened with Vogelbach's triple. Statcast gave it an expected batting average of .480, so it wasn't a routine play, but certainly catchable. Vogelbach wasn't even busting it out of the batter's box, but since the ball bounced so far away from Happ, he made it into third with relative ease.

The one triple you don't see much anymore compared with a generation ago is the line drive in the gap or even a hard-hit grounder that goes all the way to the wall. Three reasons for this:

1. More hitters with the ability to hit the ball over the fence means outfielders playing deeper to prevent fly balls from going over their heads. (And more hitters trying to hit the ball in the air to hit those home runs.)

2. The new parks in general have less outfield space than their predecessors, especially the old multipurpose stadiums like Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati or Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, where the power alleys were deeper. That means less ground for outfielders to cover and less likelihood that a ball in the gap will go all the way to the wall.

3. No artificial turf. A ball could hit the turf and scoot much quicker to the fence.

There are other reasons to consider. Maybe there are simply fewer faster players in the game -- certainly fewer of the Willie Wilson/Lance Johnson speedster types who could slap their way to double-digit figures in triples. (Johnson averaged 14 triples per season from 1991 to 1996 but hit just 25 home runs over those six seasons. That type of player doesn't really exist now.) And many of the fast players, like Ronald Acuna Jr. or Ohtani or Tyler O'Neill or Byron Buxton or Trout, are also big-time sluggers. Also, perhaps players just don't hustle like they once did -- in part because teams don't want players making outs on the bases so they take fewer risks on the bases.

Anyway, Vogelbach's triple wasn't even the best Vogelbach highlight of the night. Because after the triple this happened.

That is an amazing highlight. It's hard to watch ... yet you can't stop replaying it. Everything about it is awesome, from Vogelbach's mad dash to Seiya Suzuki's great throw to the non-collision collision to Vogelbach pushing Willson Contreras' mask aside in disgust to his slight stumble trying to get up to the bump and exchange of words all of which actually led to the benches emptying.

By the way, we need to mention that Vogelbach is having a pretty good season at the plate, hitting .252/.336/.486 with six home runs and a 137 OPS+. He was a regular in the leadoff spot for much of April, which was certainly one of the goofier things we'll see this season. He's been the Pirates' best hitter (I know, not saying much about a team that in its past three games has been shut out twice and no-hit in the other game). He could actually end up as the Pirates' All-Star Game representative, although Jose Quintana and David Bednar have pitched well.

If Vogelbach does make it to Dodger Stadium, it would be his second All-Star appearance, as he represented the Seattle Mariners back in 2019, when he had 21 home runs at the All-Star break before faltering in the second half. Since Seattle, he has gone from the Toronto Blue Jays to the Milwaukee Brewers and now to the Pirates, emerging as a fan favorite wherever he goes. Let's hope he doesn't go another 1,000 at-bats before his next triple.

Oh ... and you're up, Victor Caratini. The Brewers catcher has 954 at-bats without a three-bagger.