In one of last week’s posts discussing whether or not the Yankees needed a speedy leadoff hitter, I mentioned in a parenthetical aside that “even [Mark] Teixeira is going to hit some singles.” I was trying to be openly hyperbolic, but some readers dutifully pointed out that even the most powerful hitters hit more singles than any other kind of hit. To what extent is this true, and what practical application might it have?
It is true, of course, that most hitters literally hit “more singles than any other kind of hit.” However, it isn’t always true. Yes, Jose Bautista hit 56 singles compared to “only” 54 home runs last season. But there are two hitters who have hit more home runs than singles over a single (substantial) season. One is Barry Bonds, who hit 49 singles and 73 home runs in 2001. The other is Mark McGwire, who did so four times (if we include his injury-shortened 2001 and 1995 seasons in which he had 364 and 422 plate appearances, respectively), and also hit the same. McGwire also hit exactly the same number of singles and home runs in 2000, although he only had 321 plate appearances that year.
These are exceptional seasons, of course. What about players who hit more extra-base hits than singles? As one might guess, a high proportion of the greatest individual offensive seasons of all time involve singles-per-hit rates (apologies for being too lazy to convert this to ratios) under 50 percent. Babe Ruth‘s 1919, 1921, 1920, 1927, and 1928 seasons all did. Bonds not only did so in 2001, but in 2002, 2003, and 2004. Lou Gehrig hit fewer singles than extra-base hits in 1927 (a decent year for the Yankees, I guess). You get the idea.
To have fewer hits go for singles than extra bases is rare, but among the qualified hitters in recent seasons, there are a few each year whose singles make up less than 50 percent of their hits. Moreover, they aren’t always very good seasons. Most of them are: besides Bautista, Adam Dunn had a very good year in 2010 with a 47.6 percent singles-per-hit rate, and Alfonso Soriano had something of a bounceback while only 47.7 of his hits went for singles. However, Mark Reynolds was a below average hitter this season while having more than half of his hits going for extra bases, although Reynolds’ issue is not that he fails to hit enough singles, but that he fails to make enough contact. Most of the 2009 less-than-50-percenters did well (including Reynolds), but Reynolds’ teammate Chris Young managed only a .314 wOBA during that season. The 2008 list of hitters who had more extra base hits than singles makes for entertaining reading: Dunn, Mike Jacobs, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Dan Uggla, Jim Thome. Which one of these is not like the others?
On a practical level (for example, to determine where a player might best fit in the batting order), how do we measure whether a player is a “singles hitter” or not? The simple way of classifying them thus would be to see who is above and below average. Over the last 10 seasons, the league average rate has been about 66 percent, and there isn’t much year-to-year variation. Few hitters are likely to be “true” less-than-50-percent single-per-hit hitters, but there are a fair number who project to be substantially less than 66 percent. Taking a look at the simple Marcel projection for 2011, of the 854 projected hitters, none of them project at less than 50 percent (Carlos Pena, Dunn, Bautista, and Russell Branyan have the lowest projected rates, between about 52 and 54 percent). Compared to the 66 percent average from above, 332 are “above average.”
Let’s try to apply this practically in relation to the aforementioned batting order issue. This is overly simple, as everything is relative to the other players in the order, but let’s arbitrarily say that if we think a player’s true talent singles-per-hit skill is under 60 percent, then he is the sort of hitter that doesn’t need speed ahead of him, as he doesn’t need very much help getting a player over. Over the 854 projected players, only 51 meet that criteria. In addition to the players mentioned above, we have some of the other usual suspects: David Ortiz, Mark Reynolds, Jim Tome, ann Ryan Howard. There are also some surprises: Andres Torres, Alfonso Soriano, and Lyle Overbay among them. To take things back to the beginning, Mark Teixeira is ranked 18th from the bottom in projected singles-to-hit rate, right between Kyle Blanks and Carlos Quentin, and ahead of every other hitter for the 2011 Yankees. Speed in front of him will help sometimes, but he probably needs it less than any other player on his team.
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