We are reader supported. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Also, as an Amazon affiliate, we earn from qualifying purchases.
Of all the unusual elements of baseball, descriptions of certain plays must be near the top of the list of most amusing. For instance, what is that 5-4-3 triple play the announcer just reported? What’s with the numbers and hyphens?
A 5-4-3 triple play in baseball refers to the number assigned to the defensive position that initiated action that resulted in 3 putouts on a single play. The first number indicates who fielded the hit ball, followed by a hyphen connecting to the position where the ball was thrown. In this instance, the play involved the third baseman throwing to the second baseman, who then tossed to the first baseman for the final out.
In the example above, if the third baseman first steps on his base for a forceout and then starts the second-to-first play for the second and third outs, it’s a 5-4-3 triple play. For scoring, the number of outs achieved, circled near the point of the putout, indicates whether it was a 5-4-3 double play, or 5-4-3 triple play (more on baseball scoring below).
A 5-4-3 triple play also can be accomplished if the third baseman catches a line-drive or pop-up and then throws to second to force a runner who did not tag up, and the second baseman tosses the ball to first base for the same force-out result.
Numbers and Hyphens in Baseball Scoring
To understand this scoring lingo, it helps to know the numbers attached to baseball’s defensive positions:
1 = pitcher
2 = catcher
3 = first base
4 = second base
5 = third base
6 = shortstop
7 = left fielder
8 = centerfielder
9 = right fielder
The designated hitter in a lineup is listed simply as DH. In softball, a 10 could represent a rover, or fourth player, in the outfield.
The hyphens between the numbers in scoring refers to assists, which means a throw. In a 5-4-3 double play, the third and second basemen are awarded assists, while the first baseman logs an official putout. Assists, putouts, and errors are used in determining defensive statistics for professional baseball players.
The numbers were invented to make it more simple for official scorers to track a game. Anyone who has seen a baseball scorebook knows the little squares representing each out or hit is quite small ~ barely big enough to write 5-4-3, plus the letters “DP,” and circled 1 and 2 (or 3 for a triple play) to indicate how many outs were recorded on the play (and, generally, where the putouts occurred).
The 5-4-3 triple play could occur in 2 different ways, actually, both with runners on at least first and second base. First, if a grounder is hit to the third baseman, who steps on the base near him and quickly tosses it to second, where it is relayed to first, is a 5-4-3 triple play in the scorebook.
Second could be a triple play started by a line-drive out. With at least 2 runners on, the batter hits a hard liner to third where the defender catches it; and then tosses to second base to nab a runner off the base who failed to tag up. If that’s successful, and the second baseman continues by tossing the ball to first base for a third out, voila! A lineout triple play. (Which may be distinguished in the scorebook by circling the 5, or entering 5U, to indicate the first out was done unassisted).
Scoring baseball games ~ logging all hits and outs and keeping score by inning ~ has evolved since it was developed in the latter 1800s. But not much, really.
The age-old box score is an extension of a stadium’s scoreboard, except it is created post-game and adds performances by each hitter and pitcher. To make a game box score, an official scorer keeps track of the game.
To simplify matters, the 1-9 numbers system to identify positions was created. That way the scorer doesn’t have to write a player’s name as well as the full position, as in:
Tim Mott, Pitcher
Scorer’s can just fill in a box next to the name, so it would look like this:
1 Tim Mott
Secondly, before each game, managers exchange lineup cards. This tells the opposing manager who will start the game, at which defensive position, and in which slot in the batting order. The same space limitation as scorebooks applies ~ lineup cards are literally just that, cards ~ so those same defensive numbers were added to each name.
Some managers get creative to save either space on the card, or time. For instance, in the example above a manager might just write 1 Mott. Famed managerTony La Russa is known to skip vowels in names on scorecards, so Jose Canseco would have been something like Jse Cnsco. Go figure.
Not that often, but it does happen, a scorer might be forced to write in a small box something like, 1-2-5-6-1 for a DP. That meant an initial out pitcher to catcher, then the catcher chucked the ball to third base to create a pickle between second and third. Then, the pitcher eventually joined in and made the tag for the second out of the play.
Among the rarest ground-out double plays are the ones started at first base. One is the 3-2-3, grounder to first, fire home to make a putout at home, and then the catcher fires right back to the first baseman to nab the batter. Another is the 1-2-3, which is a bases-loaded special: pitcher to catcher to first base. That latter combo is a morale killer for the offensive team, who were looking at 3 runners with just zero or 1 out, a lot of potential to score, only to have 2 outs made quickly on one play.
Pickles don’t usually last long in the major leagues because infielders are taught to run at runners to force them back to the “smaller” of the bases, e.g. furthest from home plate. So if a pickle starts between second and third, the third baseman should run the runner back to second (the smaller base) and make 1 throw to the second baseman for the tag.
When they fail, like when a fast or nimble runner just won’t give up, it gives scorers fits with something like 3-6-4-5-1, because infielders are taught to join in a line for pickles.
If you see a pickle that took more than 1 throw, have sympathy for the scorekeeper.
The 6-4-3 double play is the most common, shortstop to second to first. It’s classic Tinkers to Evers to Chance. Baseball statistics guru Bill James figured that for every 100 of those double plays, there were 53 of the 5-4-3 variety. Basically third most common, behind also the 4-6-3 which logged 83 for every 100 6-4-3s.
It’s an indication of how often the ball is hit to the middle part of the field, compared with extreme pulls to the first- or third-baseman. First, you have 100 6-4-3 double plays, which start with the shortstop. Then, No. 2 starts at second base for the 4-6-3, so tack on another 83. Then there are lineout double plays so 6-3 tacks on 27, and 19 more on 4-3 plays. The total balls struck to the middle to ignite a DP is 229.
Of the rest ~ for balls first struck to first- or third base ~ the total is 43. One can quickly see why a player’s defensive skill can be quite valuable at shortstop or second base. Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith (SS) and Bill Mazeroski (2B) come to mind.
Of all types of triple plays, the 5-4-3 is actually the most common, encompassing more than half of the 700-plus triple plays in MLB history. The 6-4-3 triple play accounts for another 30%.
Of unassisted triple plays, the 6-6-6 has occurred most, 8 times. It means the shortstop caught a fly ball or liner, tagged a runner off second base, and then also tagged the runner coming from first base. Basically, he made all 3 outs by himself ~ very rare.
Question: Does the 5-4-3 double play have any nicknames?
Answer: Some call it the “around the horn,” that is, the ball goes from the left of the diamond to the center (second base) to the right. Basically a three-quarters of a square, clockwise circuit.
Q.: Are there other nicknames?
A.: Some people (namely managers and pitchers) call the double play “the pitcher’s best friend.” Another popular nickname is “twin-killing.”