There are many ways a triple play can be performed; most of them are done with runners on first and second base. Typically, a ball hit to the shortstop or third baseman is fielded, the runner heading to third is forced out or tagged out, the ball is thrown to second base for a force play, and then finally to first to throw out the batter. Another common sequence (to the extent such plays can be called common) is a line drive to the shortstop or second baseman that is caught without the runners noticing or after they have taken large leads (as in the case of a hit and run), the runners then being forced or tagged out when they fail to tag up.
Triple plays are very rare, since a triple play requires at least two runners already on base, no outs, a batted ball hit in a way that allows it to be fielded so that three baserunners (usually including the batter) can be put out or unusual incompetence in baserunning, and quick action from the fielders to perform. The unassisted triple play, a triple play in which only one fielder handles the ball, is the least common type of triple play, and is arguably the rarest occurrence in baseball: it has happened only 14 times in the Modern Era. Triple plays, even of the unassisted variety, are not extraordinarily difficult for major league fielders to achieve; their rarity is due to their dependence on specific circumstances arising in a game.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research, there have been 672 triple plays in Major League Baseball from 1876 to September 9, 2007. The most recent of the 14 unassisted triple plays was recorded May 12, 2008 by second baseman Asdrúbal Cabrera of the Cleveland Indians against the Toronto Blue Jays. Since the year 2000, the chance of seeing a triple play in a given inning has been less than 1 in 10,000.
In 1973, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson started two 5-4-3 triple plays: one on July 7 against the Oakland Athletics' Gene Tenace, and one on August 20 against the Detroit Tigers' Frank Howard. In both cases, Bobby Grich was the second baseman.
Playing against the Boston Red Sox on July 17, 1990, the Minnesota Twins became the first (and to date the only) team in baseball history to turn two triple plays in the same game. Despite their defensive heroics, the Twins lost the game 1-0.
Two of the most recent triple plays occurred in the same stadium less than two weeks apart. On May 14, 2006, during a game between the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota's Luis Castillo popped up a bunt attempt with two runners on in the bottom of the sixth inning. The ball was caught by Chicago first baseman Paul Konerko for the first out. Konerko then threw to second baseman Tadahito Iguchi covering first to double up Shannon Stewart who was on the move. Iguchi then threw to shortstop Juan Uribe covering second to triple off Nick Punto, also on the move. The play was the Sox's first since July 7, 2004 against the Angels and the first against the Twins since September 18, 1996.
Thirteen days later at the Metrodome, during a game between the Minnesota Twins and the Seattle Mariners on May 27, 2006, Seattle's Kenji Johjima hit a ground ball to Luis Castillo with the bases loaded in the top of the eighth inning. Castillo ran down Seattle's Adrián Beltré who was coming from first base, and tagged him out before throwing the ball to first baseman Justin Morneau to get Johjima out. Morneau quickly threw to third baseman Tony Batista who tagged Seattle's Carl Everett for the third out. Everett had come from second and overran third before deciding to stay at third, but by that time Batista was able to make the tag. Minnesota had not turned a triple play since its 1990 game against Boston.
On June 11, 2006 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, in a game between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Kansas City Royals, the Royals turned an unconventional triple play with the help of an umpire appeal. Tampa Bay led Kansas City, 1-0, in the top of the second inning with men on first and third when Rays right fielder Russell Branyan lofted a fly ball to shallow center field. Royals outfielder David DeJesus caught the ball and threw home trying to get the runner going to home plate, but it went over catcher Paul Bako's head, and pitcher Scott Elarton, who was backing up the play, caught the ball. Rocco Baldelli tagged up at first and tried to make it to second base, where he was thrown out. The Royals appealed to third-base umpire Bob Davidson that Aubrey Huff had tagged up before DeJesus caught the ball. Shortstop Angel Berroa threw to third baseman Mark Teahen, which nullified the apparent run, and completed the 8-1-6-5 triple play.
Some observers questioned whether this was a valid triple play, due to baseball rule 2.00 which provides: "A triple play is a play by the defense in which three offensive players are put out as a result of continuous action, providing there is no error between putouts." That argument was based on the assumption that DeJesus' wild throw would be an error between the first and second outs. However, the scoring rules also state that "A fielder is charged with an error when he fails to catch a ball hit or thrown to him, or he inaccurately throws a ball to another fielder, allowing a runner to reach safely or to advance a base or allowing a batter to prolong his time at bat, if the official scorer concludes that the fielder should have successfully made the play." The scorer would have noted the fact that none of those conditions were met, thus there could be no error on the play, and the play stood as a triple play.
On September 2, 2006, the Rays produced the first ever Major League triple play comprising a strikeout and two baserunners caught off base, against the Seattle Mariners. Tampa pitcher J.P. Howell struck out Raúl Ibáñez. Catcher Dioner Navarro fired the ball to shortstop Ben Zobrist, who tagged Adrián Beltré out. During that throw, Jose Lopez tried to go home from third, but Zobrist returned the ball to Navarro in time to put Lopez out at the plate, completing the first 2-6-2 triple play in MLB history.
The White Sox turned a triple play yet again on September 18, 2006, against the Detroit Tigers. With runners on first and second, Carlos Guillen lined out to third baseman Joe Crede. Crede then threw the ball to second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, who stepped on second and tagged the runner coming from first base to complete the play.
During 2007 spring training in Arizona, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim completed triple plays on three separate occasions; because these did not occur during the regular season, they do not count in the statistics.
On April 21, 2007, the Philadelphia Phillies turned a triple play against the Cincinnati Reds. After a walk by Josh Hamilton and a single by Edwin Encarnacion, catcher David Ross grounded a ball that went from third to second to first (Abraham Nunez, Chase Utley, and Wes Helms, respectively) for the triple play. It was the first triple play for the Phillies since 1999 and the first against the Reds since 1997.
Eight days later, on April 29, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies turned an unassisted triple play vs. the Atlanta Braves. In the seventh inning, Tulowitzki caught Chipper Jones' line drive with the runners moving, stepped on second to retire Kelly Johnson and tagged Edgar Rentería before he could return to first. Even Tulowitzki seemed confused as to what he had done. After tagging Renteria, he went back and tagged second base again (even though Johnson had already been put out); he then threw the ball to first baseman Todd Helton.
On August 27, 2007, the Cleveland Indians turned a triple play against the Minnesota Twins. Mike Redmond grounded to Casey Blake, who stepped on third base, threw to Asdrubal Cabrera at second, who then threw to Víctor Martínez at first to complete the play. It was the first triple play that the Indians had turned since August 7, 1992, and the first triple play turned at Progressive Field.
On September 12, 2007, the Philadelphia Phillies completed a triple play against the Colorado Rockies. Runners were at first and second with no outs in the top of the first inning. Matt Holliday hit a line drive to third baseman Greg Dobbs who caught it for the first out. Then he threw to Chase Utley who put out Cory Sullivan by stepping on second base. Utley then tagged Troy Tulowitzki, running from first base, to complete the third out.
On May 30, 2008, the San Francisco Giants completed a triple play versus the San Diego Padres, at AT&T Park. In the top of the eighth inning, Kevin Kouzmanoff hit the first pitch, a grounder to third baseman Jose Castillo. Castillo stepped on third base to force the runner from second, Brian Giles. He then relayed the ball to the second baseman, Ray Durham, to force the runner from first, Adrian Gonzalez. Durham then fired the ball to the first baseman, John Bowker, in time to put out the batter, Kouzmanoff, by half of a step. NOTE: One pitch TP