Of all players who started their careers after 1970, who are the top two in hitting triples in the majors? How about two of our guys who used to don the powder blue – Willie Wilson and George Brett! Wilson, with his blazing speed, should really be no surprise. Unless you saw him play on a regular basis, or if you already knew this particular piece of trivia, or if you hadn’t read the title of this article, you probably may not have guessed George Brett. We all know he was a hit machine (3,154, 15th all-time) and almost no one was better at pounding out doubles (665, 6thall-time), but triples? Come on!
Unlike Willie Wilson, Brett wasn’t particularly fast. Not that this stat is particularly good at measuring speed but Brett stole 201 bases in 298 attempts. That is only a 67% success rate. He earned his doubles and triples by hitting the ball very hard and he “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” More importantly, he hustled. George Brett may be known as much for his hustle and hard-nosed play as he was for everything else in his career. Make no doubt about it though, his success was because how he played. Brett never dogged it to first base. He was looking for extra bases out of the box every time. If a ball scooted by an outfielder on that old, hard, Astro Turf, Brett wasn’t caught off guard; he didn’t have to kick it into another gear. He was already in that higher gear. Just how many doubles and triples did Brett create in his career? That number is unknowable at this point but it had to be hundreds. Hustle is what Brett did and it worked.
For his era, Brett’s accomplishments in the triples category were amazing. Triples is one of the most slanted stats in baseball when looked at historically. If you look at the top 100 triples hitters in the history of the game, only 11 of them played most of their years after World War II – Stan Musial (19th), Roberto Clemente (27th), Wilson (55th), Lou Brock (61st), Willie Mays (62nd), Brett (68th), Pete Rose (72nd), Brett Butler (77th), Robin Yount (86th), and Steve Finley (89th). Brett hit 20 triples in 1979. This feat has been accomplished 113 times in major league history but only 7 times since 1950, and Brett was the first do it in 22 seasons – Mays (20, 1957), Brett (20, 1979), Wilson (21, 1985), Lance Johnson (21,1996), Cristian Guzman (20, 2000), Jimmy Rollins (20, 2007), and Curtis Granderson (23, 2007).
Not only did Brett have that incredible accomplishment of 20 triples in a season but he also led the majors 3 times (1975, 1976, 1979). George Brett had 73 triples before he was 27 years old, good enough for 343rd all-time if he had stopped there. Brett finished his career with 137 triples, which was good enough for 68th all-time.
I would like to tip my figurative cap here to Willie Wilson. Wilson hit 21 triples in 1985, which has only been done 75 times ever and only three times since 1950. Wilson also led the league 5 times (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988). From 1975-1988, a stretch of 14 years, either Brett or Wilson led the majors in triples 8 of those years. Wilson hit 147 triples in his career, good for 55th all-time and the absolute best of all players since 1970. Wilson is also 12th on the all-time list of stolen bases with 668, which is also quite the feat.
Wilson’s accomplishments in hitting triples is amazing in its own right. The biggest difference between Brett and Wilson is that sprinting out three-baggers is all Wilson did as far as extra base hits are concerned. Wilson only had 322 other extra base hits (281 doubles, 41 home runs). These numbers are quite respectable on their own but compared to Brett’s 982 other extra base hits (665 doubles, 317 home runs), they pale significantly. For the blazing fast Wilson, the triples were the mash potatoes and for Brett, they were just the gravy. Just consider that idea for a moment. Brett, the second best triples hitter in the last forty-three years, legging out triples was just bonus bases. I have heard the argument over the years that Kaufman Stadium, back then, Royals Stadium, with its deep fences, stole perhaps up to a hundred home runs from Brett, inflating his doubles numbers and deflating his home runs. The argument could be made that it also inflated his triples numbers to the detriment of his doubles total. Most likely though, Brett earned all of his hits, in whatever form, by being a terrific hitter and hustling every play.
George Brett’s place in history is undeniable. He has to be considering one of the top twenty or so hitters ever. He ranks 15th all-time in hits, 6th in doubles (again, second since 1970, three behind Craig Biggio’s 668), 116th in home runs, 34th in RBI, 49th in runs, 100th in batting average, 174th in OBP, 113th in SLG, and 106th in OPS. Brett is considerably lower in the rankings for some of these stats than he was when he retired. There are many players ahead of him in the power stats that built up their numbers in the last fifteen years. Not to paint any of these recent players with too broad of a brush but one thing is certain and that is George Brett didn’t accumulate his numbers with steroids or performance enhancing drugs. Of all of his incredible numbers though, it is the triples that set him apart in this post-1970 era. As a player who lacked the great speed common among those on the list of great triples hitters, Brett got his with hustle and grit. It is hard to imagine a player in this day and age who could produce the home runs and doubles, and still hit 137 triples like Brett did. It is these triples numbers that set Brett apart in his era.
I would like to take a moment to pay my respects as a person who appreciates stats by recognizing the late, great Stan Musial. As great as George Brett was, he was merely a poor man’s Musial . Stan the Man’s career numbers were Brett’s super sized – 3,630 hits (4th), 725 doubles (3rd), 475 home runs (28th), and 177 triples (19th, and the highest ranked player in the post World War II era). I won’t list all of his statistical accomplishments here but they are all a step up from Brett’s. I have always felt Musial was slightly underrated as an all-time great because he did not reach the 500 home run plateau, but like Brett, he was a double and triple hitting beast. I wish I could have seen him play.