Ostensibly Clean

This morning at breakfast I invented a baseball concept I’m provisionally calling the small ball ‘tricycle’ (aka ‘little cycle’).  Huh?  Whaaa?  Here’s whaaa: Baseball players have long been celebrated for their batting prowess, one aspect of which is the relatively infrequent accomplishment of ‘hitting for the cycle’: recording a single, double, triple and home run in the same game.  Getting those four hits in that specific order (what we might call the ‘straight flush cycle’) is truly rare.  Because of its mathematical simplicity –one, two, three, four–  the cycle will never go out of fashion.  However, under major league baseball’s drug-testing regime in the post-Bonds/McGuire/Canseco era, the emphasis on brute force offense that relies on moonshot home runs has somewhat moderated.  Instead, many in the sport have been celebrating the virtues of small ball –the practice of scoring runs by methodical accumulation of incremental, minor offensive plays that advance runners from base to base, batter after batter. Scoring one run at a time, one after another, instead of all at once.


Small ball is an offensive strategy in which the batting team emphasizes placing runners on base and then advancing them into scoring position for a run in a deliberate, methodical way. Small ball is a contrast to a style sometimes called the “big inning”, where batters focus more on … getting extra-base hits and home runs. The big inning strategy may produce many innings with [numerous] strikeouts and flyouts, but occasionally results in innings with several runs scored.

And yet … despite striking advances in data-driven baseball analysis, small ball aficionados (and legions of sportswriter/ broadcast propagandists) are still lacking a pithy catchphrase that succinctly encapsulates the apotheosis of individual batting performance in the small ball era.  Statistical measures such as on-base percentage, RISP and (more recently) exit velocity just don’t do enough to evoke the spirit of the game-within-the-game that makes baseball so appealing to its fans.  So, as a public service, I herewith propose the ‘tricycle‘  –not because it has merely three components, but instead as an symbol of smallness.  Alternatively, focusing on the four (or more) little wheels that make it go, we might choose to call this concept ‘the little red wagon‘.  Whatever.  In this context, I’m gonna claim copyright to both terms right now.

What’s more important than the name is what counts as an element of the tricycle, the (extremely) minor batting feats that incrementally contribute to a demonstration of small ball prowess.  Here are my candidates, ranked in descending order of the batter’s actual agency in the outcome:

  • bunt single/ infield hit
  • walk
  • reach base on error/ strikeout + passed ball
  • hit by pitch
  • catcher’s interference

Remember: we’re looking to recognize individual batting “prowess” with this metric.  Note that each of these plays results in the batter reaching base, thus advancing the incremental goals of small ball while also directly rewarding the batter himself with an opportunity to score in subsequent play.  A mere sacrifice fly or bunt thus wouldn’t qualify for inclusion in the tricycle because these plays result in an out and the batter’s return to the bench.

OK, so these are the components.  How does the tricycle work?  Simple: any batter who reaches base by a combination of any four of these plays in the same game would be deemed to have hit for the tricycle.  All five?  Wow.  The mind boggles.  The guy should probably go directly to the Hall of Fame.  Or be named honorary president-for-life of the Elias Sports Bureau.  Just sayin’.

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