Of course, Kevin Pillar remembers his triple last season. How could he forget? Pillar, the Toronto Blue Jays’ center fielder, smoked a deep drive into the right-field corner at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Cardinals’ Stephen Piscotty leapt and smashed into the fence, never touching the ball, which caromed hard off the padding and skipped far away.
Pillar pulled into third with the triple — but that wasn’t what made the play memorable. The runner ahead of him, Chris Coghlan, vaulted his way into an eternal video highlight, launching his body over catcher Yadier Molina to score. The oddity of Pillar’s feat, alas, was an afterthought.
“It’s definitely a huge thrill to hit a triple,” Pillar said. “But that’s usually one of the only times you’ll see a triple now, when a guy leaves his feet and the ball gets by him. To hit a ball in the gap and just flat out outrun the defender and the ball to third base is something you don’t see very often.”
Last season, the Blue Jays did it less often than any other team in major league history. They hit five triples in 2017 — yes, five, a record low by a team in a season, including strike years. The Blue Jays’ hitters were in no hurry to see Luis Rivera, their third-base coach, unless they were slapping his hand on a home run trot. At least Rivera didn’t take it personally.
“Only five?” Rivera said recently, before a Blue Jays workout here. “You know, our ballpark is not good for triples, I think. It seems like now they play deep against us, and balls in the gaps that probably in the past would be doubles or maybe triples, now they’re outs.”
Rogers Centre, with its symmetrical dimensions and artificial surface, was only partly to blame for the lack of triples. The Blue Jays hit three at home, but their opponents managed 12 there. Two ballparks — Camden Yards and Angel Stadium — featured fewer triples than Rogers Centre last season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and three other parks had just as many.
The Blue Jays’ aversion to triples did not cause them to stumble to a 76-86 record last season. But after they had reached the American League Championship Series the previous two years, that shortcoming symbolized a season gone awry.
“It’s definitely not our philosophy; John Gibbons is not that way at all,” General Manager Ross Atkins said, referring to the Blue Jays’ manager. “He wants guys to succeed by pushing the envelope and trying, not being afraid of failure. There’s a lot of variables there — the home run-hitting approach; the ballparks we’re playing in are smaller; the age of our position-player roster was the oldest. But we’re obviously cognizant of it, and not happy about it.”
The Blue Jays’ window to win seems to be closing, with their star third baseman, Josh Donaldson, facing free agency after this season. The team has tried diligently to rebuild its prospect inventory and made only minor, low-risk changes over the winter, adding complementary parts like infielders Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte, starter Jaime Garcia and outfielders Curtis Granderson and Randal Grichuk.
Granderson, 36, is an expert in the Blue Jays’ most feeble category. With the Detroit Tigers in 2007, he hit 23 triples, the most by any player since 1950. Of course, Granderson was much younger then, and he benefited from the spacious gap in right-center field at Comerica Park.
At his next stop, with the Yankees from 2010 through 2013, Granderson confronted much tighter right-field dimensions. He hit just 23 triples in those four seasons combined, becoming both a victim and a beneficiary of baseball’s most famous short porch.
“Those triples that I would hit to right-center field, they were going out at Yankee Stadium,” Granderson said. “But then I had some past the first baseman where I was like, ‘Yes! That’s my triple!’ — and it would bounce and shoot right back, and I had to stop at first. So it went in two different directions: Some were homers and some were singles.”
The active leader in triples is the Mets’ Jose Reyes, who has hit 128 in his career, but got just four of them as a Blue Jay from 2013 through mid-2015. Reyes said the park had a lot to do with his slowdown.
“In Toronto, it’s hard,” Reyes said. “The ball gets there quickly because of the turf. You’ve got to hit it in just the right spot, but even down the line, the fence is kind of close. Maybe right-center or left-center, but you’ve got to hit it in the right spot, because the outfielders there play deep because the ball carries.”
Even so, the Rogers Centre effect can be exaggerated. Eight other ballparks have featured fewer triples over the last five years, according to Elias. The Blue Jays may simply exemplify the aversion to risk in modern baseball.
More than ever before, major leaguers last season arrived at the plate already in scoring position. With a record 6,105 home runs, they sent a clear message to baserunners: “Stay right there. I’ll get you home with one swing.”
Accordingly, perhaps, batters see less value in digging for the extra 90 feet between second and third. Major leaguers hit just 793 triples last season, down from 873 the year before and from 939 in 2015. Since the 1998 expansion, every season but one (2013) has yielded more triples than 2017.
Steve Pearce, a Blue Jays utility man, spent part of 2016 with the Baltimore Orioles, who hit just six triples that season yet won a wild-card spot. Pearce, who has seven triples in his 11-year career, said he understood why triples were down.
“Unless you’re a speedster and it’s a guarantee, you don’t see guys busting it that much anymore because you’re already in scoring position at second,” Pearce said. “Outfielders can get to the ball so fast, and they get it in really fast.”
Pillar, one of baseball’s best defensive center fielders, also believes outfielders have better arms now, and run crisper routes. If you’re fast enough to hit a triple, he said, you can probably score from second on almost any single. So why not just stay there?
“We feel like we’re better off with a hitter at the plate, trying to force the pitcher to get all 27 outs of a game as opposed to maybe running into an out baserunning or stealing a base,” Pillar said. “And most lineups are set up to where you’re always kind of one hitter away from scoring multiple runs.”
For Granderson, it is a far different game from the one he played in college, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. There, he said, coaches taught him to think triple as soon as he connected; if the ball cleared the fence, he could always trot.
“That ‘go, go, go’ all the time, across the board, that’s kind of changed,” Granderson said. “It hasn’t been said, like, ‘Hey, we don’t want you to get triples.’ It’s just kind of slowed.”
The anticipation in the crowd as a runner nears second base — will he or won’t he? — is one of baseball’s joys. Now, alas, the answer is usually obvious, especially in Toronto.