The Curse of the Triple Play

Why was I screaming at my TV in agony as the Yankees turned their first triple play of the year on May 21st to get them out of a jam against the White Sox?  This may seem like a weird reaction from a lifelong Yankees fan…unless you knew about the Curse of the Triple Play. A curse associated with lack of postseason success, ending careers, and even death.

From the 1986 season on, there have been 140 triple plays turned.  Not 1 of those teams managed to win a World Series the same year they turned a triple play.  There are about 4 triple plays turned a year, giving each team about a 13% chance of turning one.  Given these odds, over 35 years we would expect to find that a team turns a triple play and wins the World Series about 5 times

To make things worse, after the Yankees turned their 3rd triple play of the year they joined a group with 7 other teams since 1900 to achieve this feat.  However, all 7 other teams didn’t make the playoffs.

Here is a spray chart of the past 55 triple plays from Baseball Savant

Over half of the most recent triple plays were started around third base (29 of the 55).

The above data is from SABR and shows the 10 most common triple play combinations with the number for each position that was involved with an asterisk above each position where an out was recorded. For example, the most common play was 5*-4*-3* meaning it was a play to the third baseman who stepped on third, threw the ball to second base where the second baseman then completed the triple play by throwing the ball to the first baseman at first.

1920 Cleveland Indians:

The 1920 Cleveland Indians are still the only team to ever turn a triple play in the postseason.  This team went on to win the World Series, so why am I mentioning them with the curse?  Look no further than the two “Rays” on the team.  Ray Chapman and Ray Caldwell each had something happen to them that hadn’t happened previously or since in the MLB.  In a game on August 16th of 1920 Ray Chapman was hit in the head with a pitch, and later died the next morning in the hospital.  About a year earlier, during the 9th inning of the game, Ray Caldwell was literally struck by lightning.  Oh yeah, and he finished out his complete game afterward…It was definitely a different time in baseball. 

In the very same game of their triple play, the Indians also hit the first World Series grand slam (Elmer Smith) and also hit the first World Series home run by a pitcher (Jim Bagby Sr.).  To put it into perspective, there have been 18 World Series grand slams since, 14 World Series home runs by pitchers, and no World Series or even postseason triple plays.  That means that out of a total of 1,849 official playoff games, only 1 has had a triple play.

By inning, triple plays have been relatively consistent with numbers fluctuating from 75-95 in innings 1-8. Of the 9 innings, the 9th has seen the least amount of triple plays totaling 60 (2 coming this year from the Yankees).

One and Done

If the name Larry Hesterfer doesn’t ring a bell, it may be because he only played one MLB game ever and it was in 1901.  He still holds the title of only player to ever hit into a triple play in his first at bat.  To go along with this he ended up giving up 15 runs (only 5 earned due to 7 errors) in 6 innings.  All in all, I am sure he felt a bit cursed after having that game as his only one in the MLB.

Another strange coincidence occured after Lyman Bostock hit into a triple play on July, 23rd 1997. Just over a year later his brief career was ended when he was shot and killed.

Twin Triple Plays

On July 17th, 1990 the first team to turn 2 triple plays in a game was fittingly the Minnesota Twins. Unfortunately for them though despite the two triple plays, they still ended up losing that game.

In a sport filled with superstition and curses, the Curse of the Triple Play fits right in.

No matter how much data we gather to try and explain why various feats are achieved on the baseball field, there will always be room in the game for superstition.

Three famous curses (Curse of the Bambino, Curse of the Black Sox, and the Curse of the Billy Goat) were all around for a long time until ended in the last 20 years.

The Curse of the Bambino for example cannot be explained by analytics why the Red Sox went the next 84 years without a World Series title while the Yankees won 26 of their titles in that span. Yeah maybe the first few years or a decade after the sale of Ruth would make sense for the Red Sox to struggle, but not the next 84.

All this being said, I would love to see the Yankees put an end to the curse and leave it in baseball’s past along with the curses above.

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