19to21: May 14, 2008
John Shiffert on Triple Play Man Asdrubal Cabrera of the Cleveland Indians
19 to 21
No, that’s not how many unassisted triple plays there have been in major league history, it’s Baseball...Then and Now
So how difficult is it to turn an unassisted triple play? Considering that last night the Indians’ Asdrubal Cabrera came up with just the 14th in major league history (which itself dates back to 1871), the answer would seem to be… pretty difficult. But that’s not really true. In reality, the unassisted triple play is incredibly rare, but not incredibly difficult. All it really takes is a hard-hit ball near a middle infielder (12 of the 14 have been turned by the second basemen or shortstops), and some dumb baserunning… or maybe play calling.
Check out the video of Cabrera’s play last night. With men on first and second and none out (duh…) the Blue Jays’ Lyle Overbay hits a line drive up the middle. Cabrera, who is shading the left-handed hitting Overbay up the middle a bit, dives to his right and catches the ball just off the ground, holding up his glove to show the umpire he has indeed caught the ball. It was a nice play, but nothing special for the vast majority of major league second baseman. Ahh, but then the rare part of the play comes into play. With the Blue Jays mired in a multi-game scoring drought and a four-game losing streak, manager John Gibbons, in a bit of strategy left over from the Deadball Era, had the brilliant idea to send both Marco Scutaro from first and Kevin (The) Mench from second on a 1-0 count to Overbay. Bad idea, John. By the time Cabrera caught the ball, Mench was already on third and Scutaro was past second. All the second baseman had to do was get to his feet, take four steps to his right and tag second, and then reach out with his glove and tag an abashed-looking Scutaro for the third out. Even if Scutaro had headed back towards first, instead of standing there with his hands at his sides, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Nothing could be easier.
And that was pretty much the case in the other 13 unassisted triple plays in history. While the circumstances have to be just right, the actual execution of the play itself isn’t that tough. Take, for instance, Mickey Morandini’s unassisted triple play against the Pirates on September 20, 1992. Jeff King hit a line drive right at Phillies’ good field, no-hit second baseman Morandini, who then waltzed over to second to double off Andy Van Slyke. Much to Morandini’s surprise, he turned and found the Pirate runner who had been on first base practically standing still in front of him, most likely pondering the subject of chemical enhancements in baseball, or some other esoteric matter. Morandini lightly tagged Barry Bonds for the third out, and that was that. The aspect of Morandini’s play that has been forgotten by all but die-hard Phillies fans, and that underscores the fact that plays like this aren’t particularly difficult, was that another Phillies’ second baseman, the good hit, no field Randy Ready, could have done exactly the same thing the season before. With two on and none out, Ready speared a relatively easy line drive, stepped on second, and then suffered brain death – throwing to first to complete the triple play instead of tagging the adjacent brain dead runner.
But, don’t take my word for it. The last player to turn an unassisted triple play was Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki on April 29, 2007, against Atlanta. His comment at the time? “It fell right in my lap.” And that’s pretty much been the case every time. With the exception of Paul Hines’ disputed play from centerfield in 1878 (which is not counted among the 14), every unassisted triple play has basically followed the same scenario… caught line drive, tagged base, tagged runner (sometimes these last two are reversed.) A good Little League infielder (my son Jared turned an unassisted double play last year and he was only eight at the time) could do it, given the right circumstances.
So maybe the most interesting thing about Cabrera’s play, outside of proving that poor baserunning/play calling is still alive and well, is that the Indians were involved. While little of note has happened in baseball regarding the teams of the city of Cleveland since the Spiders went 20-134 in 1899, there should be no doubt that the Indians are the unassisted triple play kings of baseball. Not only was Cabrera’s play the third such rarity turned by an Indian, but, for good measure (remember, there have only been 14 of these in more than 130 years) they’ve also hit into three unassisted triple plays. Assuming you don’t count Hines’ play, the first unassisted triple play in major league history was turned by Cleveland Naps’ shortstop Neal Ball, on July 19, 1909. Yes, he caught a line drive, touched second and tagged the runner.
On the other side of the diamond, the last player to pull an unassisted triple play against the Indians was Senators’ shortstop Ron Hansen, on July 30, 1968 – a feat for which he was rewarded by being traded to the White Sox three days later. Hansen is now an advance scout for the Phillies, and, wouldn’t you know it, he was at Progressive Field to see Cabrera's feat. Going back further, on September 14, 1923, Red Sox first baseman George Burns took advantage of some really bad baserunning, catching a line drive, tagging the Indians runner who was right by him, and then outracing the other runner to second base for the third out. Less than four years later, on Memorial Day on 1927, the same thing happened, only this time it was Tigers’ first baseman Johnny Neun who caught the line drive, tagged the closest runner, and then ran to second for the third out. And you wonder why the Indians have only won two World Series in 107 seasons.
However, the most famous unassisted triple play in history was indeed turned by a Cleveland Indian, and it was during one of those two World Series wins. Asdrubal Cabrera is not the first typographical mistake-named Indians second baseman to pull off an unassisted triple play. That honor went to Bill Wambsganss (Ring Lardner once rhymed “Wambsganss” with “clam’s chance” in a limerick, so, c’mon Jim Baker – the current Poet Laureate of Baseball -- here’s your chance to do better with Asdrubal) in game five of the 1920 Series, held on October 10. In one of the more remarkable games in Series history (it also featured the first Series grand slam, the first Series home run by a pitcher, and the first hitter in a Series to account for five outs with one swing of the bat), the Indians jumped out to a 7-0 lead on the Brooklyn Dodgers, who nonetheless put Pete Kilduff on second and Otto Miller on first with no one out in the top of the fifth. The batter was the Dodgers’ left-handed spitballer, Clarence Mitchell (who would later hit into a double play in the same game). He lined a ball up the middle that Wambsganss made a running leap to his right for, spearing the ball for the first out. His momentum took him right to send base, wherein he retired Kilduff. In the famous photo of this play, Kilduff is rounding third, looking back over his shoulder as if to say, %$^*((! and Wambsganss is tagging Miller, who is standing, dumbfounded (with the accent on the first syllable) with his arms at his sides, just short of second base. Triple play.
-- John Shiffert