The mystery of the walk-off triple

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Point: There's no reason we should ever see a walk-off triple.

If the batter can reach third safely, it means the runner ahead of him -- the one representing the game-ending run -- has already left third base, presumably scored and ended the game. The batter's run is meaningless. There is no reward for stretching a double into a triple when the game is over.

Meanwhile, the risk is minimal but existent: The batter might be thrown out at third base before the winning run scores. He might stumble, trip or get lost. Or the lead runner, the one who represents the game-ending run ahead of him, might be forced to retreat to third base, either by stumbling, tripping, getting lost or simply reassessing his plan. In that event, the batter will now have prohibited him from returning to safety.

In stretching a double into a pointless triple, the batter has simultaneously opened up a second front by which his team can be attacked and removed the lead runner's lone option for retreat. It is like trying to block a buzzer-beating 3-pointer when you're up by four. It is like a victorious quarterback trying to get yardage when taking a knee will expire the clock. It is an absurd act to go to third base in a walk-off situation.

Counterpoint: But they happen anyway. What gives?

There were four walk-off triples in 2016. One of the four was a clear exception to our point: Josh Harrison hit a triple and advanced home with the winning run on a throwing error. This wasn't a walk-off triple, but a walk-off triple plus a one-base error. It is exempt. As to why the other three happened, we are prepared to deliver answers. Two answers apiece, in fact.

1. Jay Bruce hits a walk-off triple for the Reds, April 10.

0:06: The ball lands down the right-field line. The Pirates' right fielder, Gregory Polanco, is roughly 1 million miles from it.

0:08: "[Brandon] Phillips on his way to third!" Bruce, rounding first, glances over to see Phillips' progress, about 120 feet ahead of Bruce. Bruce then looks back to right field, sees the location of the ball and Polanco, and keeps running. As Phillips gets to within 30 or so feet of scoring, Bruce rounds second and heads to third.

0:14: Phillips touches home plate with the winning run. The throw home is about 40 feet away and bounces in mockingly. Catcher Chris Stewartflips the incoming ball away in disgust.

0:16 or so: Bruce touches third base, then he starts running back toward second to be swallowed up by teammates.

Explanation 1: One of my favorite things about old-timey baseball -- real old-timey, back in the 1800s -- is that they played the bottom of the ninth inning no matter what. It wasn't how it is now, where the home team only bats if it needs to. What were those unnecessary bottom halves like, I often wonder. Was everybody still trying? Did the fans stick around to see it? Did the coach's son get to pitch? We never play that superfluous half-inning anymore because we all pretty much consider the point of baseball to be winning the game. Baseball exists to deliver a definitive victory or defeat.

It is a reflection of a winner-take-all culture: Once you've won, you've already taken all, and once you've lost, there is nothing left to take, so we all go home. But when you play out the bottom of the ninth after the game has been decided, you're saying something matters about baseball even when a win is not on the line. You're saying there is beauty and meaning inherent in baseball play, and that it means more than an opportunity to declare somebody the winner. You play, and you play hard, because baseball played hard, by its very nature, no matter the stakes, adds to the gross product of the sport.

Jay Bruce went to third because a baseball player playing hard goes to third. Not all artists paint for fame and commissions. Some paint to make something beautiful.

Explanation 2: Phillips was safe by plenty, but there was, at least, a nominal play at the plate. There was only one out. If Phillips had been thrown out, Bruce would have represented the winning run, and there would have been only two men out. By going to third, Bruce increased his team's chances of winning from 61 percent to 68 percent in the rare case where Phillips gets thrown out. Bruce determined this conditional advantage to be greater than the likelihood of his disrupting Phillips' attempts at scoring on his own. He was still playing to win.

2. Stephen Drew hits a walk-off triple for the Nationals, July 23.

0:08: The ball lands at the wall in right-center field. There is one out.

0:10: Padres center fielder Travis Jankowski picks it up and fires it toward his cutoff man, Ryan Schimpf.

0:11: You check: Jankowski and Schimpf are definitely real people.

0:12: Schimpf turns around and readies to throw. Drew is just circling second base; he'll be out by forever if Schimpf throws to third, though Anthony Rendon would score the winning run. Wil Myers, the second cutoff man, stationed between Schimpf and home plate, points toward third.

0:13: Schimpf throws toward home instead. On-deck hitter Ben Revere, anticipating the winning run scoring, is already in the field of play, ready to mob Stephen Drew.

0:14: Rendon scores, ending the game. Drew, roughly 35 feet from third base, is still pumping his arms and running hard.

Explanation 3: It is, basically, irrational to go to third base if you're Drew. What Drew is banking on, though, is that the other team is as capable of acting irrationally as he might be, and that potential consequences of his irrational choice are far less costly than the potential consequences of the Padres' irrational choice would be gainsome.

Here, we see it almost happen: Myers, taking the role of field captain, points to third base and directs Schimpf to throw it there. This would be hilarious, of course. Drew as a runner doesn't matter (the premise of this inquiry!), and there is almost no chance that they'll tag him out before Rendon crosses home plate and ends the game. And yet: There's Myers, worried about the meaningless trail runner, instead of the winning run, and trying to make his teammate do something ridiculous.

Players know that they are fallible and they make mental errors. They know, just as confidently, that their opponents are fallible and will make mental errors. Drew, in this instance, gives the Padres the opportunity to make a mental error. He was doing game theory.

Explanation 4: A few years ago, I wrote about Roy Halladay's failure to complete a single game in 2012. Before that, Halladay's complete games were a singular achievement: He had more complete games over the course of a decade than entire franchises. He had led the league in complete games in each of the previous five seasons, and he had bold ink in that category in seven of the previous nine seasons. He had eight complete games the season before. Then, suddenly, he had none. I argued at the time that Halladay's lack of complete games was more than an odd blip, or even a typical decline, but rather the canary in the coal mine of his career. It represented a cliff that he had fallen off; he was a man suddenly old. The next year, Halladay had a 6.82 ERA and never pitched again.

Stephen Drew was very good at many things in his long career, but he was especially notable for hitting triples. He wasn't that fast, but he had a knack for finding gaps, corners and 12-plus seconds for uninterrupted running. From 2008 to 2010, he led all major leaguers with 35 triples, hitting 11 or more in each of the three seasons. Drew is old now, and he's not very good at many things. This is apparent in all of his stats, and in the contracts he gets, and in the role he plays (he was pinch-hitting in this game), but perhaps nothing conveys his age and his decline like his triples totals:

2013: 8

2014: 1

2015: 1

Before this swing in this game, he had no triples in 2016. When the day comes that Stephen Drew can't hit even one triple, he might cease to be Stephen Drew. He is an exposed popsicle that, in the 5 minutes you ignore it, has turned into a stick. That triple wasn't just a triple but an entire career fighting for one more spring training invite. So he went for it. He just ... ran.

And he made it. Notably, if you search for walk-off triples on's highlights, this play is not returned.

But thankfully -- for Drew -- baseball's official records are not kept in highlight-video metadata. Baseball's Rule 9.06 (f) guarantees his extra base went into the record books:

The official scorer shall credit the batter with a base touched in the natural course of play, even if the winning run has scored moments before on the same play. For example, the score is tied in the bottom of the ninth inning with a runner on second base and the batter hits a ball to the outfield that falls for a base hit. The runner scores after the batter has touched first base and continued on to second base but shortly before the batter-runner reaches second base. If the batter-runner reaches second base, the official scorer shall credit the batter with a two-base hit.

If he had been even one step past second base when Rendon crossed home plate and ended the game, he would have been allowed to complete the play, and the triple would have counted. He rounded second and saw nothing in his way. In a sense, Drew found the world's emptiest highway, and he rode it. All night long.

3. Derek Dietrich hits a walk-off triple for the Marlins, July 31.

0:09: The ball lands in or around the glove of Cardinals center fielder Tommy Pham.

0:10: Now it's loose, rolling all the way to the left-field wall. Nobody is close to the ball. This play is over the second it gets past Pham.

0:14: Adeiny Hechavarria, representing the winning run, lopes casually down the third-base line. He will score easily. It's not clear a Cardinal will ever even pick up the ball.

0:19: Dietrich is mobbed by his teammates in foul territory past the third-base bag. They punch him, douse him with water and strip his jersey off.

0:45: You notice, for the first time, what amazing shape Dietrich is in. Wow, you say, without any particular intent.

Explanation 5: Two important things to know about on-field celebrations. The first is that the mob is going after the batter who drives in the winning run, not the runner who scores, in pretty much all cases. The second is that these celebrations are performative. There was a long period of baseball history in which even teams winning the World Series didn't celebrate on the field. They just jogged into the dugout and shook hands with one another. But once television became the sport's primary broadcast medium, players began to celebrate in ways that fans expected them to: glove-throwing, teammate-assaulting, dogpiles, etc. They began to perform.

So in one sense, the game-winning batter's role ends the moment he reaches first base safely. In another, though, his role goes on long after the run scores. A camera will be isolated on him to capture his raised arms, his fist pumps, and, eventually, his disappearance under a flood of teammates. So what we see from Dietrich is pointless to the game but very important to the show. He keeps running partly because a triple is more exciting than a double, and partly because, with his team in the third-base dugout, he is really running to join them in merriment as they run to join him in merriment. For this latter detail, the existence of third base is irrelevant, a vestigial prop that he happens to pass on his way to the party. Third base is just a step on the way to showing off his torso, which, wow, check out that torso.

Explanation 6: But third base is not totally perfunctory, either. Dietrich gives away his motives at 0:34 in that clip, when he takes a split-second glance at the bag before he reaches it. He's going to make sure he touches it. He doesn't need to, but he's going to make sure he does. That's because Dietrich cares about his slugging percentage. Ultimately, this is the explanation that probably holds the truest in all of these cases: Baseball players care about their slugging percentage. Maybe that extra base won't get him any more money in arbitration, and maybe that extra base won't be the one that makes him the Marlins' all-time leader in slugging percentage. But your vote probably won't swing the presidential election, and you still vote, right? Derek Dietrich is voting for Derek Dietrich's slugging percentage. There are worse crimes.

Thanks to Darin Padur, who has served as an official scorekeeper for major league and Triple-A games since 1992, for help with the scoring details.