Triple plays happen infrequently - there have been 722 triple plays in Major League Baseball (MLB) since 1876, an average of approximately five per season - because they depend on a combination of two elements, which are themselves uncommon:
First, there must be at least two baserunners, and no outs. From analysis of all MLB games 2011-2013, only 1.51% of at bats occur in such a scenario. By comparison, 27.06% of at bats occur with at least one baserunner and fewer than two outs, the scenario where a double play is possible.
Second, activity must occur during the play that enables the defense to make three outs. Common events - such as the batter striking out, or hitting a fly ball - do not normally provide opportunity for a triple play. A ball hit sharply and directly to an infielder, who then takes very quick action - or unusual action, confusion, or mistakes by the baserunners - is usually needed.
The most likely scenario for a triple play is no outs with runners on first base and second base, which has been the case for the majority of MLB triple plays. In that context, two examples of triple plays are:
The batter hits a ground ball to the third baseman, who steps on third base to force out the runner coming from second (first out). The third baseman throws to the second baseman, who steps on second base to force out the runner coming from first (second out). The second baseman throws to the first baseman, with the throw arriving in time to force out the batter (third out). This is an example of grounding into a 5-4-3 triple play, also known as an "around the horn" triple play, per standard baseball positions.
The baserunners start running in an attempt to steal or execute a hit and run play, and the batter hits a line drive to the second baseman, who catches it (first out). The second baseman throws to the shortstop, who steps on second base before the runner who started there can tag up (second out). The shortstop throws to the first baseman, who steps on first base before the runner who started there can tag up (third out). This is an example of lining out into a 4-6-3 triple play.
The rarest type of triple play, and one of the rarest events of any kind in baseball, is for a single fielder to complete all three outs. There have only been 15 unassisted triple plays in MLB history, making this feat rarer than a perfect game.
Typically, an unassisted triple play is achieved when a middle infielder catches a line drive near second base (first out), steps on the base before the runner who started there can tag up (second out), and then tags the runner advancing from first before he can return there (third out). Of the 15 unassisted triple plays in MLB history, 12 have been completed in this manner by a middle infielder.
Most recent MLB unassisted triple play
The most recent MLB unassisted triple play is consistent with the above - it occurred on August 23, 2009, by second baseman Eric Bruntlett of the Philadelphia Phillies, in a game against the New York Mets. In the bottom of the ninth inning with men on first and second, the base runners were both running when Jeff Francoeur hit a line drive very close to second base, which Bruntlett was covering. Bruntlett caught the ball (first out), stepped on second before Luis Castillo could tag up (second out), and then tagged Daniel Murphy who was approaching from first (third out). This was only the second game-ending unassisted triple play in MLB history, the first one having occurred in 1927.
Unfielded triple play
Political columnist and baseball enthusiast George Will posed one hypothetical way that a triple play could occur with no fielder touching the ball. With runners on first and second and no outs, the batter hits an infield fly, and is automatically out: one out. The runner from first passes the runner from second and is called out for that infraction: two outs. Just after that, the falling ball hits the runner from second, who is called out for interference: three outs.
Whenever a batter or runner is out without a fielder touching the ball, MLB rule book section 10.09 provides for automatic putouts to be assigned by the official scorer. In this case, the first out would be credited to whoever the official scorer believes would have had the best chance of catching the infield fly. The second and third outs would be credited to the fielder(s) closest to the points the runners were, when their respective outs occurred. Under the scenario described above, the same fielder (the shortstop, for example) could be credited with all three putouts, thus attaining an unassisted triple play without having touched the ball.
Joe Pignatano hit into a triple play in the final at bat of his career.
On September 30, 1962, in the eighth inning of the last game of the 1962 Mets' 40-120 season, Joe Pignatano popped into a 4-3-6 triple play in his last MLB appearance. It was also the last game for Sammy Drake and Richie Ashburn, the two runners who were tagged out. Pignatano is the only player to end his career by hitting into a triple play.
The New York Yankees got caught in a bizarre 2-5-3-1 triple play while facing the Minnesota Twins on May 29, 1982. Roy Smalley struck out (first out), while both Yankees baserunners had taken off in an attempted double steal. The ball was thrown to third baseman Gary Gaetti, who chased baserunner Bobby Murcer back to second, where Murcer was safe. Gaetti then threw the ball to first baseman Kent Hrbek to tag baserunner Graig Nettles who was caught between first and second (second out). Meanwhile, Murcer attempted to advance from second to third again. The ball was thrown from Hrbek to third base, where pitcher Terry Felton was covering, and Felton tagged Murcer (third out).
On April 14, 2002, designated hitterRon Wright of the Seattle Mariners grounded into a triple-play in the fourth inning of the only MLB game of Wright's career (against the Texas Rangers). With runners on first (John Olerud) and third (Ruben Sierra, Wright grounded to pitcher Kenny Rogers who threw to shortstop Alex Rodriguez to force Olerud at second (first out). Sierra, meanwhile, had broken late for home, and Rodriguez fired to Bill Haselman. Haselman threw to third baseman Hank Blalock who threw to Rogers in the rundown; with Rogers tagging out Sierra (second out). Rogers then threw to second baseman Michael Young, who tagged out Wright trying to reach second (third out). The play was scored 1-6-2-5-1-4. (Wright's other plate appearances were a strikeout and grounding into a double play, thus accounted for six outs in three MLB at-bats.)
The Yankees also turned one of the more complicated triple plays in MLB history. On April 12, 2013, with runners on first and second in the top of the 8th inning, Baltimore batter Manny Machado hit a sharp one-hopper to Yankees second baseman Robinson Canó. Canó fielded the ball and threw to shortstop Jayson Nix, forcing baserunner Nick Markakis for the first out. Instead of going to first for a routine double play, Nix opted to throw to third baseman Kevin Youkilis, catching baserunner Alexi Casilla between second and third. Youkilis chased Casilla back towards second and threw to Nix, who returned the throw to Youkilis, who tagged Casilla for the second out. Youkilis then threw to first baseman Lyle Overbay, catching Machado in a rundown between first and second. Overbay threw back to Canó, who tagged Machado sliding into second base for the third out. The play was scored 4-6-5-6-5-3-4.
In a rare case of a triple play without the batter hitting the ball, a September 6, 2006 game between the Seattle Mariners and the Tampa Bay Rays resulted in three outs instigated from an attempt by the Mariners' Adrián Beltré to steal second base after cleanup hitterRaúl Ibañez struck out. The Devil Rays' catcher Dioner Navarro saw the attempt and threw the ball to shortstop Ben Zobrist, who tagged Beltré for the second out. Mariners' runner José López, who had been at third base during this play, tried to take advantage of the situation and steal home plate only for Zobrist to throw the ball back to Navarro who tagged López out. At the time, the Society for American Baseball Research believed this to be the only 2-6-2 triple play in Major League history.
Neil Walker was the second baseman in MLB's first 4-5-4 triple play.
On May 9, 2015, with runners on second and third in the top of the 2nd inning, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina hit a line drive that was caught by Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker for the first out. Walker then threw to third baseman Jung Ho Kang who stepped on third before Jhonny Peralta could tag up, for the second out. Kang, after a moment's hesitation, then threw back to Walker who stepped on second before Jason Heyward could tag up, for the third out. It was the first 4-5-4 triple play in MLB history.
On April 22, 2016, in a game between the Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox, with the bases loaded in the top of the 7th inning, Mitch Moreland of the Rangers hit a line drive to right field that was caught by Adam Eaton for the first out. Eaton threw the ball to first baseman José Abreu, who tagged baserunner Ian Desmond after he overran first base into foul territory while attempting to tag up, for the second out. Abreu then threw the ball to catcher Dioner Navarro at home. Adrián Beltré, the runner on second base, had tagged up earlier in the play and had started advancing to third; however, Prince Fielder, the runner on third base, was still at third. Navarro threw to shortstop Tyler Saladino, making Beltré continue his run towards third, which in turn made Fielder start to run towards home. Fielder was then caught in a rundown; Saladino threw to Navarro, who then threw to third baseman Todd Frazier, who tagged Fielder for the third out. The play was scored 9-3-2-6-2-5.
June 11, 1885, by the New York Giants against the Providence Grays, scored as 4*-4*-3*, with a newspaper account the next day naming the fielders, batter, and runners at first and second; however, it is unknown if there was a runner at third base.
Asterisks (*) denote which players recorded outs, per standard baseball positions. Combinations that have occurred at least 10 times are listed.