Baseball terminology is complex and can be confusing to a novice fan, especially since many feats have unofficial names that have been used for decades. Everyone knows what a home run is and which players have the most MLB hits, but terms like ‘hitting for the cycle’ sound mysterious and more arcane than they really are. Behind this descriptive term is a statistical achievement that is quite difficult to make – a batter needs to have an amazing offensive performance throughout a game to qualify for it.
A deeper understanding of traditional terms allows new fans to enjoy the game more, so we’ll try to break down what’s a cycle in baseball and explain why it’s so impressive. At the same time, we will try to moderate the hype surrounding this statistical achievement and examine some of the reasons why certain players are more likely to complete it than others.
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The definition of a cycle in baseball
To record a cycle in a game, a hitter needs to be successful in four different at-bats and collect a different number of runs each time. By combining a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in the same game, a player is said to have ‘completed the cycle’, which refers to the positions of the bases around the field. The order of the hits is not essential, although if they occur in the exact order listed above the achievement is described as a ‘natural cycle’, while if they are made in the descending order (home run coming first), it is called a ‘reverse cycle’.
This term describes strictly an individual accomplishment, so it’s irrelevant how many runs a team scored on those hits or whether any runners were tagged. The number of plate appearances or the number of innings in the game are disregarded as well, so theoretically the player could have more than four total hits. However, the player must gain all bases after hits, without being walked to first base or benefiting from a fielding error. On the other hand, the home run component of the cycle doesn’t have to be an over-the-fence blast, as long as the player hits a fair ball and manages to round up all bases.
How often a cycle occurs in baseball?
This accomplishment is quite extraordinary and attracts a lot of media attention when it occurs, much like the ‘no-hitter’ for pitchers. The cycle was achieved a total of 339 times between 1882 and 2022, an average of little above two per full season. A good illustration of the exceptional nature of this feat is the fact that Miami Marlins never had a player hit for a cycle in their uniform, despite competing in the MLB since 1991. Another example of its rarity is that it has never been achieved by two different players in the same Major League Baseball game, although it did happen twice on the same day.
The frequency of cycles changed over time in response to rule updates and evolving play styles, but it’s generally slightly lower today than it used to be in the early 20th century. Improved pitching partly explains this trend, but a more important reason is the relative absence of the short game in the contemporary MLB. The record for a season with most cycles in MLB history was set in 1933 with 8 and stood for more than 70 years before it was tied in 2009, which goes to show you how tricky it is to reach this achievement with any consistency.
Which players have the most cycles in MLB history?
Given the difficulty of hitting for the cycle in baseball, even the greatest players in history struggled to collect more than a few. The record for an individual player for career cycles is just three – and it has been shared by six different hitters.
John Reilly was the first to collect three cycles for Cincinnati between 1883 and 1890, and he was later joined by Bob Meusel who did it with the New York Yankees from 1911 to 1928, and Babe Herman who played for the Brooklyn Robins and Chicago Cubs between 1931 and 1933. In the modern era, Adrian Beltre recorded three cycles from 2008 to 2015 while wearing Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers uniforms, Trea Turner achieved the same from 2017 to 2021 with Washington Nationals, while Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers was the latest player to join them after completing the feat in 2022.
A total of 44 MLB players have two cycles in the record books, while only five managed to hit two cycles in the same season. When it comes to the natural cycle, the feat has been realized just 15 times in the entire history of the league, and no player ever did it twice.
Should you judge a player by the number of career cycles?
If you properly understand what a cycle is in baseball, you know it’s not a good proxy for evaluating a hitter’s dominance. This statistic rewards versatility far more than efficiency, and some of the players with the most hits in MLB season don’t hit for the cycle even once. A player needs to be very good in all facets of the game, from getting on base to power hitting, to have a chance of achieving it, so specialists who only chase home runs every time at the plate will never succeed with this feat.
Apparently, luck is involved as well since one good move by a defender can easily spoil a cycle in progress. Top players are also frequently intentionally walked by pitchers, eliminating their chance to record a hit. If we are looking for correlation, players that ate most adept at hitting triples (the rarest of hits in baseball) are also the most likely to hit for the cycle. While versatility and an ability to win multiple bases on hits inside the park are important, there is plenty of space for narrowly specialized players to thrive in their roles without truly having a chance to hit for the cycle.