Q&A: Ken Singleton

Ken Singleton is among the most underrated players of his era. The former Expo and Oriole finished in the top 10 in OBP nine times from 1973 to 1983 — topping the .400 mark four times, and seven seasons receiving MVP votes. In the words of Bill James, “He drew so many walks and hit so many homers he would produce runs if he hit .220, but he didn’t hit .220; he hit .300.”

The switch-hitting outfielder finished his 15-year big-league career with an OPS-plus of 132 and a slash line of .282/.388/.436. In 17 postseason games — Singleton has a World Series ring with the 1983 Orioles — his line was .333/.391/.421. Despite his career numbers, he didn’t get one vote in 1990 when he became eligible for the Hall of Fame.

More than two decades since his playing days ended, Singleton now is as an analyst for the Yankees on the YES Network.

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David Laurila: Why were you such a good hitter?

Ken Singleton: I was disciplined. My first year of pro ball was in the Florida State League and I led the league in bases on balls. I walked 87 times. I maintained that — the ability to recognize balls and strikes — throughout my career. It’s hard enough to hit strikes, so why would you want to swing at something that’s a little tougher to hit? My thing was that if the ball was somewhere I couldn’t reach, it probably wasn’t a strike and I wasn’t going to swing at it.

You’re normally going to get something to hit in an at bat. I can remember walking back to the bench after being called out on three straight pitches. The pitcher was a left-handed reliever named Bob Lacey — his nickname was Spacey Lacey — and all three were perfect, knee high on the outside corner. That’s the only time I can recall that happening, and I probably had 8,000 to 9,000 plate appearances. Usually you get at least one pitch that you should be able to hit. Whether you hit it or not is another story. You might swing and miss, or foul it off and not get another one. But 999 times out of 1,000, you’re going to get at least one.

DL: I have to believe that you were pitched around more than once?

KS: Yes, there are certain times you get pitched around. You can sense it, during the at bat, that the pitcher doesn’t want anything to do with you. Maybe you’re really hot, or he just feels he can get the next guy out. But for a lot of my career, I had Eddie Murray hitting behind me. That often got me better pitches to hit.

DL: Are you a believer in protection?

KS: Yes I am. Most definitely. I could sense what was happening as soon as they started batting Eddie behind me. He was younger and a little more aggressive than I was, and he was trying to make a name for himself. And he was doing so. He was in the process of building a Hall-of-Fame career. Pitchers had a choice. We were both switch hitters and they could either pitch around me and go after him, or they could try to get me and be careful with him. It was sort of a “pick your poison” sort of thing.

DL: You mentioned leading the league in walks in your first professional season. Is plate discipline mostly innate?

KS: I had always had it, but you see a lot of hitters come to the major leagues who don’t have it. They’re very aggressive. They’re swinging, they’re swinging, they’re swinging. Their whole idea is to go up there and get a hit. I did too. My first thought when I went up to the plate was hitting. But my second thought was that I’d be willing to take a walk, if there was nothing to hit. Some of these hitters aren’t that way. Even when a pitch is out of the strike zone, they’re still going to go after it.

Some of the better pitchers will take advantage of that. Greg Maddux used to go over the stats of the other team. He knew who he had to throw strikes to. He could see their walk totals and know he had to throw strikes to certain guys. Or, if he saw that a guy had 10 walks, he knew he probably didn’t have to throw anything close, because he was going to swing at it.

DL: Did you look at charts to see how pitchers were likely to attack you?

KS: No. I knew what type of hitter I was, and I knew, basically, how the whole league tried to pitch me. I was a very good breaking-ball hitter, a very good off-speed hitter, so I got a lot of fastballs and a lot of changeups. One reason I got a lot of fastballs is that I drew a lot of walks and the best pitch to control is the fastball. If they missed with their breaking balls, they knew I wasn’t going to swing and all of a sudden they were behind in the count. Then they had to throw a fastball and I might really get into one. So, their whole idea was to get ahead of me with fastballs, then maybe change up some things.

The pitchers who had the best breaking balls, they were going to throw them. Somebody like a Bert Blyleven — or a Steve Carlton or a Ron Guidry — are going to throw you their curveballs or sliders, because they have Hall-of-Fame types of pitches. They’re going to use them, but the ordinary guys had to try to get me out by locating their fastballs.

DL: Was on-base percentage underrated in your era?

KS: Most definitely. I think that nowadays — with the attention paid to OBP and OPS — people would have seen me in a different light. That said, I was fortunate enough to play for Earl Weaver, who, maybe before his time, knew what on-base percentage meant.

My first year in Baltimore, there really weren’t a lot of guys stealing bases. He called me into his office in spring training. I thought that maybe I was in trouble, but what he wanted to tell me was that I was going to lead off. I told him that I wasn’t capable of stealing many bases, and he said, “That’s not the idea. The whole idea is that you walk a lot, and Bobby Grich walks a lot, so you’ll bat first and he’ll bat second.” I set the Orioles record for walks that season [118] and it still stands. Bobby Grich walked 107 times that season.

My first at bat in the American League came in Tiger Stadium on a cold day. I drew a walk. I went to third on a base hit and scored on a three-run home run [by Lee May]. I scored our first run of the season. When I got back to the dugout, Earl Weaver looked at me and said, “That’s what I was talking about. Get on base.” I got on base 40-something percent of the time that year.

DL: Were you equally disciplined from each side of the plate?

KS: Yeah, I believe so. I did swing at a bad pitch every once in awhile, but sometimes I did it to set pitchers up. I might swing at a breaking ball in the dirt, hoping to get another one that was a strike, up in the zone. I’d do that every so often, but overall, my idea was to not swing at pitches out of the strike zone. My idea was to force pitchers to throw strikes.

DL: Discipline aside, were you the same hitter from both sides?

KS: I felt so — although maybe toward the end of my career, I was better left-handed. During my prime — a five or six year period — I was the same from both sides. I had home-run power from each side, and I was disciplined.

DL: Plate discipline is obviously more than not swinging at pitches outside the strike zone.

KS: Exactly, and I think that’s a key for a lot of hitters, although a lot of hitters don’t do it. I used to take pitches ahead in the count, including on 3-1. Say you’re behind by a run, or by two with a man on, and you have a chance to hit a home run to tie the game — or at least do some damage. I’d be looking for a specific pitch. The whole thing is counts; you have to get ahead in counts. If you do that, you have a better chance of the pitcher catching more of the plate, because he doesn’t want to walk you.

If I didn’t get what I wanted, I wasn’t afraid to take. I wasn’t afraid to hit with two strikes, so if I was looking in — and the pitch was away — I was willing to take it for a strike. Going deep into counts is a good thing. I always felt that when the count got to 3-2, it was time for the pitcher to put up or shut up. I had made him work, I had seen most of his pitches, and it was time for him to either make the pitch he wanted, or to make a mistake.

DL: Was there a certain style of pitcher who gave you trouble?

KS: Guys who threw really hard, but I think that’s true with everybody. I hit .300 against Nolan Ryan, but he was tough. He wasn’t comfortable to face and I didn’t hit any home runs against him. Guys who could change speeds very well — especially with a good changeup — and also threw hard, were tough. Guys like Andy Messersmith and Don Sutton were pretty harsh. So was Oil Can Boyd. He had a great changeup. I got my 2,000th hit against Boyd, but his changeup was exemplary. It was one of the best. His motion was exactly the same on his changeup as it was with his fastball.

DL: What was it like to hit against Luis Tiant?

KS: Luis was a challenge. I don’t think I hit him all that well. He had a lot of different pitches. The first time I faced him was in a spring game, in Florida, and the first pitch he threw to me was right over my head. It was, “Welcome to the American League.” That was always in my mind when I faced him.

DL: Were you ever concerned about your strikeout numbers?

KS: No, but there was more of a stigma in those days about striking out. I think there were only two years where I struck out over 100 times, and in one of them I hit the most home runs I ever hit in a year [35]. I also walked over 100 times that season. Over the course of my career, I walked more than I struck out. I take pride in that.

DL: In the eyes of many, you were an underrated player. Who did you play with, or against, who was underrated?

KS:  One person who comes to mind is Dwight Evans. First of all, he was probably the best right fielder in the league when we played. He was an excellent fielder. His on-base percentage was good, because he drew a lot of walks. He also hit a lot of home runs, well over 300. I think he was underrated maybe because there were so many star players, including Hall-of-Famers, around him.

I was maybe underrated because I didn’t say too much. I just played. I’ve always said that I’d rather be underrated than underpaid. I used to tell my agent that I felt I was one of the top 5% or 10% of the players in the league and I wanted to be paid that way. He made sure that I was.

DL: Is there anybody playing today who reminds you of Ken Singleton?

KS: Maybe somebody who just retired and will certainly go into the Hall of Fame. That’s Frank Thomas. He hit for power, he hit for average and he drew a lot of walks. He was very disciplined at the plate. I heard my name mentioned in conjunction with his, and that was an honor. I consider myself to have been a good player, but the great players are in the Hall of Fame.



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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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