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Each baseball season, without a doubt, sportscasters will rave about an unusual or rarely seen play out on the field. But are they all that unusual? It made us want to dig deeper, to explore and discover the rarest play in baseball.
The rarest play in baseball is the unassisted triple play. This occurs when one fielder completes all 3 putouts in an inning without assistance from teammates (e.g. without throwing the ball to anyone).
This play usually involves a line drive, a step on a base to nab a runner who did not tag up, and a tag out of another runner off a base ~ all within seconds.
There have been only 15 unassisted triple plays in Major League Baseball history. The last was in 2009 (See Related Questions at bottom of article).
The most famous of this rarity is probably the unassisted triple play completed by 2nd baseman Bill Wambsganss of the Cleveland Indians in 1920 ~ during the World Series!
In the 5th inning of Game 5 of the series versus the Brooklyn Robins (later renamed the Dodgers), a batter hit a liner toward the middle, and Wambsganss leaped to make an incredible catch, then stepped on 2nd base to force the runner headed for 3rd, and then tagged the other runner approaching 2nd.
It is the only unassisted triple play during the postseason in MLB history.
Interestingly, it took until the 33rd season of Major League Baseball to even see an unassisted triple play.
The very first occurred in July 1909 when Cleveland Naps shortstop Neal Ball turned the first one. It was so unusual, in fact, that legendary pitcher Cy Young was confused about what had happened ~ because it had never occurred before, and he happened to be on the mound.
Other Rare Plays in Baseball
The perfect game by a baseball pitcher also is very rare ~ only 23 have been recorded since 1876. And even without the unassisted part, regular ol’ triple plays are quite rare also.
A regular triple play involves at least 2 defensive players. As of the All Star break in 2022, there have been 730 triple plays in MLB history, or about 5 per season.
Here are some other rare baseball plays that we thought of:
Home runs that bounce off a foul pole are pretty rare. Probably even more so before they added the flag-like extension that most have to help umpires see balls pass by better.
There is an automatic out when a batter bunts the ball straight down, and it bounces back up to strike the bat before he can even get out of the batter’s box. That’s pretty rare.
Stepping on any part of home plate while squaring to bunt, or doing anything else in the batter’s box for that matter, is rare. It’s sometimes seen in youth baseball, very rarely in professional ball.
A play that many people say never works, sometimes does, and when that happens it’s rare. With runners on 1st and 3rd base, the pitcher takes a step toward 3rd as if to throw for a pickoff, but holds the ball to spin around and throw quickly to first with hope of getting that runner leaning. (Note: doing this backward, e.g. faking to 1st and throwing to 3rd base, is a balk; it is okay the other way because a balk cannot be called on pickoffs to 2nd or 3rd base).
“The cycle has only occurred 339 times in the history of MLB dating back to 1876. A cycle is when a single batter hits a single, double, triple, and home run in a single game. It occurs in less than 1% of games.”
But it’s the triple play, and especially the unassisted triple play, that remains the rarest of plays. If you see one, or participate in one, consider yourself lucky. Let’s take a deeper look into the triple play.
How Triple Plays are Set Up
The situations for almost all triple plays are the same: runners at first and second, and a well-struck ball fielded cleanly by the infielder.
Of all the triple plays in baseball history, over 67% occurred with runners on 1st and 2nd. Another 130 happened with the bases loaded.
A fast and exciting triple play is the 5-4-3, where the 3rd baseman fields a hard grounder, steps on that base and then tosses the ball to the 2nd baseman to step on that base, before throwing to 1st to beat the runner for that 3rd out.
But most triple plays in baseball have these common denominators:
- At least 2 baserunners, and no outs. (For the record this does not occur as frequently as you might imagine; one recent study found it in about 1.5% of all at bats)
- Some baserunner motion must occur, that is, runners who take off on the pitch as if to steal a base.
When the latter occurs, those base runners are prone to putouts when line drives, or not-so-high pop-ups, are struck, because they have to scramble back to the base from whence they came. It is not rare to see double plays in this fashion.
The single type of triple play that seems to occur most is in the proximity of second base, where a fielder can catch a liner and step on 2nd base to get the lead runner, and just tag the other runner as he approaches that same base.
But stranger things do happen in baseball.
Some of the Strangest Triple Plays
Here are some unusual triple plays, some real, some imagined.
- Runners on 1st and 2nd base, 2nd baseman begins close to that base, and a hard grounder is hit up the middle so he can field the ball and in one quick motion tag the lead runner before he takes off toward 3rd, then throws to 1st base to get the batter for the last out.
- Very recently, there was the first-ever “8-5” triple play, which means only the centerfielder and 3rd baseman were involved. Byron Buxton made a spectacular catch near the wall, and the runners were far off their bases and surprised that the drive was caught. Buxton threw to the 3rd baseman, who tagged the rear runner who had rounded off 2nd base. Then, he just stepped on 2nd base to put out the lead runner, who was way ahead near 3rd base.
- Many triple plays involve rundowns, or “pickles,” which involve many throws and therefore really weird scoring in the scorebook. Of all the triple plays in MLB history[LINK https://www.baseball-almanac.com/feats/triple_plays.shtml ], the first to involve more than 3 defensive players occurred on Aug. 1, 1877 ~ and it went in the scorebook as a 9-1-2-3-6-2 triple play. (Those involve, in order, the right fielder, pitcher, catcher, 1st baseman, shortstop, and back to the catcher).
Question: Who achieved the last unassisted triple play in the Major Leagues?
Answer: Eric Bruntlett while playing 2nd base for the Philadelphia Phillies on Aug. 23, 2009, vs. the New York Mets. With runners on 1st and 2nd base and no outs in the 9th inning, the Mets sent the runners on the pitch. Jeff Francoeur hit a line drive up the middle, but Bruntlett was near the keystone to cover the bag for the attempted steal. Bruntlett caught the liner, stepped on 2nd base to double up the runner who had taken off for 3rd base on the pitch, and tagged the other base stealer as he approached 2nd. It was the first unassisted triple play to end a game in National League history.
Q.: What were the unassisted triple plays before that?
A.: Interestingly, even though there have only been 15 since MLB started in 1876, the last 3 occurred in consecutive seasons: Bruntlett’s in 2009, 2nd baseman Asdrubal Cabrera of the Cleveland Indians in 2008, and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies in 2007.
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