Josh Willingham began his career with the Marlins, becoming an everyday starter in 2006. For three years, he posted remarkably consistent offensive numbers: wOBAs of .364, .365, and .363. Much like then teammate Hanley Ramirez, Willingham sandwiched a very poor UZR mark in 2007 with ratings that hovered around the league average. This past offseason, he was traded to the Nationals, along with Scott Olsen, in exchange for Emilio Bonifacio and a couple of prospects. Despite employing a glut of outfielders, the Nationals have been able to give Willingham 133 plate appearances this season, and boy has he responded.
Willingham is staying relatively true to his career marks with a .252 BA and .376 OBP, but has produced a .550 SLG so far that dwarfs his career .477 mark. The surge has helped his wOBA soar to a robust .393. Most of the total bases involved in the SLG calculation come from Willingham’s nine home runs, but there is something much more interesting about those dingers – they are all solo home runs!
Nine home runs, all solo, which makes his 9 HR-12 RBI line quite comical. Curious about the nature and frequency of solo homers, I tallied the number of solo dingers in my database for each player-season, divided by the total home runs hit and determined the solo home run percentages. To find the leaders and trailers for all players since 1954, it really depends on the floors set.
For instance, of anyone with at least 15 total home runs in a season, Ken Singleton has the record for highest solo percentage at 1.000, as he went a perfect 15-15 in 1975 for the Orioles. On the flipside, Tom Brunansky went 1-16 in 1990, a 0.0625 rate. How about if we adjust the minimum to 20?
Curtis Granderson launched 23 longballs in 2007, but 21 were solo homers. In fact, many of the leaders in solo homer percentage were leadoff hitters, which makes intuitive sense given that a leadoff home run comes with nobody on base, and that they might come to the plate with the bases empty less often with poor hitters in front of them. Behind Grandy is Dave Winfield, who went 18-20 in 1974 with the Padres. At the bottom of the list is Greg Luzinski, who went 3-21 in 1976, a 0.143 percentage. When we make a subtle adjustment from a minimum of 15 to a minimum of 20, the lowest percentage jumps from 6.3% to 14.3%.
Toby Harrah tops the list with a minimum of 25 homers, when he went 22-25 in 1982 for the Indians. Behind him is Bobby Bonds, who went 22-26 in 1970. At the bottom of the list: Frank Thomas (not the White Sox guy) in 1956 for the Pirates went 5-25, and Hank Aaron went 8-38 in 1970. Kevin Youkilis had one of the lowest percentages last season, as only eight of his 29 home runs were of the solo variety.
How about if we place the minimum at 40 home runs? Of the 239 player-seasons, nobody had a higher solo percentage than Richard Hidalgo, who hit 35 solo home runs out of 44 total in 2000. Barry Bonds could have tied Hidalgo but decided to hit one more total home run with runners on in 2003, when he went 35-45. The lowest such percentage belongs to Bonds’ godfather, Willie Mays, who hit 14 solo homers out of 51 total in 1955. Recently, Alex Rodriguez went 18-54 in 2007, the same year in which Ryan Howard went 17-47. Howard also went 22-48 last year.
What makes Willingham’s “feat” all the more interesting is his spot in the lineup as well as the team for which he plays. Josh generally hits fifth for the Nationals, behind such on-base luminaries as Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn. That he has not hit a home run with any of these guys on base is particularly mind-boggling. He projects to finish the season with 23 home runs, which would put him in Granderson territory if he can keep up this solo pace.
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