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Triple Your Pleasure

ForbesFieldLocation, location, location. Just like in real estate, where a guy plays can have a huge impact on our perceptions of him. Newly eligible Paul Waner shows us this clearly.

Waner spent most of his career at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, one of history’s best triples parks. The result? Twice he led the league in triples, five other times he finished second, and he’s10th all-time for his career with 191. They weren’t leg triples either. Waner was no slap-hitting Lance-Johnson type of speedster. He tripled with a powerful line-drive stroke. He also doubled 605 times, good for 11th all-time, and he’s 47th all time in total bases. His career OPS+ was 134.

Despite this, he finished with only 113 homers. We don’t see a lot of hitters like Waner anymore. Statistically, he’s kinda sorta a slower, left-handed, hard-drinking Paul Molitor. But even then, his approach was very un-modern. Bill James and The Baseball Biographical Encyclopedia both mention that “Big Poison” often aimed liners at the foul lines. His mastery of that tactic resulted in a strategic advantage: with outfielders closer to the lines, his line drives toward the middle of the field were more likely to find a seam and reach the wall.

So, an open question is whether Waner was hurt by Forbes Field or helped. Although they changed subtly over time, when he debuted, the dimensions at Forbes were (according to Green Cathedrals):

  • 360 in the left field corner
  • 403 to left center
  • 462 to just left of dead center
  • 442 to center
  • 408 to right center
  • 300 to the right field corner

If you’re thinking that’s roughly the size of a nature preserve, you’re in the right neighborhood. Perfect conditions for a line-drive hitter with decent power, like Waner, to rack up triples.

So how much of an effect did Forbes Field have? Here’s a few ways to look at it:

  • In its 58 full years of service, Forbes Field hosted 17 NL triples leaders, once every 3.4 years in an eight-team league (and later ten).
  • The probably unbreakable record for triples in one season is held by Owen “Chief” Wilson, a Pirate (36 in 1912).
  • Fifty men have tripled 150 times, among whom Max Carey (159), Pie Traynor (164), Roberto Clemente (166), and Paul Waner spent all or most of their careers at Forbes Field. In addition three other members of that list—KiKi Cuyler, Honus Wagner, and Rabbit Maranville—also spent several seasons there.

To get a little more granular, from 1911 to 1969, the Bucs tripled twice as often at home as on the road, doubled exactly as often at home, and homered 25% less often at home. At first blush that doesn’t make sense, right? How could the park affect triples positively and homers negatively but not affect doubles? The guess here is that a lot of gap doubles in other parks were triples in Pittsburgh’s vast open spaces. Likewise, a lot of homers in other parks were doubles or triples in Pittsburgh because the fences were further from home plate, so a long drive might short hop them or clang off of them. Because triples are rarer than doubles and homers, the net effect on doubles was basically nothing.

Paul Waner, who tacked on a few tepid years after leaving the Pirates, tripled 129 times at home and only 62 times on the road; this despite a home/road split of 316/289 in doubles and 58/55 in homers. Traynor, as a righty hitting into that huge left field, showed a similar but more extreme split: 174/197 in doubles, 103/61 in triples, and 23/35 in homers. Here’s Clemente, who also spent a few years at Three Rivers Stadium: 224/216 doubles, 103/63 in triples, and 102/138 in homers.

How does all of this shape what we know about Waner and, later, Clemente? For Waner, we could say that we may not get the full picture of his power profile because Forbes Field kept him in the yard. But the record strongly suggests that Waner’s line-to-line offensive game was ideally suited to his home park. We might actually get a slightly exaggerated sense of his power because doubles in other parks became triples in Pittsburgh. Maybe if he had come up with the Dodgers, he would have played differently and gone after the long ball in Ebbets Field’s short alleys, but in a line-drive hitter’s palace, he was king.

With his negative home-run split, Clemente’s home run power was probably destroyed by Forbes Field. In fact, from its first full season in 1911 through the emergence of Ralph Kiner in 1946 and the installation of “Greenberg Gardens” in 1947 (to help righty hitters), only two Pirates hit more than twenty homers in one season: Johnny Rizzo’s 23 in 1938 and Vince DiMaggio’s 21 in 1941. No other NL team in that era had so few twenty-homer seasons, and the Bucs are the only NL team of that period that didn’t get even one thirty-homer season from a player. So while Forbes Field may have drained Clemente’s power, his athleticism allowed him to adapt by converting homers and doubles into triples, clawing back some of what the park tooketh away. If he had been with the Red Sox, we might be talking about a player more comparable to Al Kaline and his 399 homers and 75 triples.

One final place where both Clemente and Waner were helped by Forbes Field is defense. Clemente’s howitzer right arm created a record 254 outfield assists, leading his league three times and otherwise finishing in the top three pretty much every year. But you know something? Paul Waner is third all time with 236 base runner kills. In fact, he held the career right field assists record for eight years. Waner led the NL once and finished in the top three nine other times. For both these guys, it’s likely that Forbes Field played right into one of their strengths, its vast dimensions luring foolish base runners into incorrectly weighing their chances against two strong-armed assassins.

—Eric

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