For the Astros, Jon Singleton can be bad, and better than what the team has been running out there. To date, Astros first basemen have combined to be worth -1.0 WAR, worst in baseball by most of a win. No, the same players don’t project to be that bad going forward, but they certainly don’t project well, and Singleton’s promotion has been a while coming. The platoon that’s played was always intended to be a placeholder, and the place no longer needs to be held.
Yet the Astros don’t just hope for Singleton to be tolerably mediocre. He’s one of their top prospects, maybe a tier below George Springer, and he’s 22 years old until September. Most significantly, Singleton has had a huge campaign in Triple-A after struggling through a difficult and sometimes miserable 2013. Singleton’s made a leap forward, and this one is seemingly pretty easy to explain. That also makes it easy to buy into.
I don’t want to get into the politics of marijuana, but I think it’s safe to say that, earlier, Singleton was more than just a casual smoker. What he was going through got him suspended and sent to rehab, and while you might or might not be a believer in the idea of weed addiction, Singleton was definitely preoccupied and not taking the best possible care of his body or career. Then, upon Singleton’s return from suspension, observers remarked that he looked lethargic and out of shape. He was bad in his first exposure to Triple-A, but from the above linked article:
Last season, when he made his debut in Triple-A after stopovers in low Class A and Double-A following his suspension, he struggled. He hit just .220 in 73 games, and his demons resurfaced.
“I went through some slight anxiety, some depression because I wasn’t being successful,” he said. “That was definitely difficult, and that drove me to drink.”
He admits to abusing alcohol as a substitute for marijuana, getting drunk almost every day and “waking up hung over every morning.”
Certainly, lots of baseball players drink. Certainly, this might be reaching for too easy of an explanation. Certainly, troubled players are gambles, because they can never be considered truly reliable. But I think it stands to reason drinking heavily would affect one’s performance against high-level competition. And I think it stands to reason cutting out that behavior could pay some significant dividends. Singleton has always had wonderful talent. For a few months, now, he’s finally been able to try to harness that talent without other habits on his mind. He’s by no means in the clear for the rest of his life, but right now he profiles as an excellent hitter who’s living a clean life.
What’s the stuff we can put statistics to, instead of just pointing to improved overall numbers? One criticism of Singleton has been that he struggled to do very much damage against lefties. It’s not an uncommon problem, but it’s a big problem for a bat-first first baseman. Singleton, in 2014, has done more than ever, against the best pitchers he’s seen. A table of his numbers against southpaws:
Singleton’s always been fairly good against righties, if not better than that, but this year he’s started to erase his giant platoon split. Which means he’s reduced a major vulnerability, carrying over a trend that began last winter in Puerto Rico. Assuming Singleton won’t end up a reverse-platoon sort, he’s always going to be worse against lefties than righties, but if he can keep from being exposed against lefties, then he’ll be able to stay in the lineup every day. And that’s how a guy can become a valuable first baseman.
And there’s another thing. Let’s look at a couple spray charts, from MLB Farm. The first shows where Singleton put the ball in 2013. The second shows where he’s put the ball in 2014.
In theory, you want a guy to use the whole field. This season, though, Singleton has lifted his numbers while simultaneously becoming extremely pull-heavy. He’s always hit most of his homers to right, but this year he’s been pulling everything, getting the bat ahead of the ball and almost entirely avoiding the other half of the field of play.
Some numbers, from StatCorner. After the year, you’ll see Singleton’s rate of pulled fly balls. Then you’ll see the league average, then you’ll see Singleton’s rate of homers per outfield fly.
Singleton’s been hitting for more power than ever, because he’s been pulling the ball more than ever, and it’s easiest to hit dingers to the pull side when you can maximize your bat speed. He’s hit two of every three fly balls to right or right-center, where the typical lefty comes in under half. In this way, Singleton has been hunting for pitches to yank, and he was successfully yanking them in Triple-A for the first time.
There are some valid concerns. Singleton has reportedly improved in the field, but he’s still not amazing, and he’ll always be a first baseman or a DH. He doesn’t make a high degree of contact, so he’ll forever be strikeout-prone. One wonders if the pull-heavy approach will be taken advantage of in the majors, as pitchers try to work him outside over and over again. And there’s always going to be the worry of addiction and addictive behavior. Singleton’s personal issues are more significant than most, and there’s the possibility of additional career derailment. It sounds cold to spell it out like that, but it’s the truth, and every party involved is aware of it. That could in part explain why Singleton was willing to take a long-term contract many have already criticized as being too cheap.
But this is a good prospect who’s still young and who has gotten himself back on track. He’s earned his way to the major leagues, by reducing his weaknesses against lefties and by punishing a greater rate of pitches, mostly to the pull side. We’ll see how Singleton does in the majors, and we’ll see how he does after pitchers identify potential holes, but now we can say he’s done what he’s had to do in the minors. Baseball at every level is about sinking or swimming, and now Singleton is diving into the deepest end. So far, it’s been a year of passing tests.
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