The Resurgent Jon Singleton

In January, I wrote about my optimism regarding Jon Singleton. Coming off a disastrous 2013 season in which he slashed just .220/.340/.347 in Triple-A, he has rebounded in a way that should find him back in the upper tier of prospects. I’ve had the opportunity to see Singleton play quite a bit this year — throughout this piece, I will revisit my remaining concerns about Singleton from four months ago, discussing how the 22-year-old has easily surpassed even my own high expectations in 2014.

The first signs of life came in winter ball, as he led the Puerto Rican Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente with nine home runs. At the time, I wrote the following:

It’s only a 35-game sample, but he hit .268/.396/.537 and he showed more power against lefties than ever before, swatting five homers in just 49 plate appearances against left-handers. While it’s obviously a tiny sample, consider the fact that Singleton had hit just five homers in his previous 443 plate appearances against lefties over the last three years. The one bad trend from his stint in winter ball? His strikeout rate remained a bit high, at 24.8%.

Scouts have long wondered whether the left-handed first baseman would ever be able to hit left-handed pitching, and he hit .170/.301/.245 against lefties in 2013. The small sample from winter ball was certainly encouraging, but I wanted to see if he could carry it over into the 2014 season. Here’s where we see Extremely Positive Indicator No. 1:

  • vs. LHP (2013, Triple-A) – 113 PA, .170/.301/.245, 1 HR
  • vs. LHP (2014, Triple-A) – 58 PA, .320/.414/.600, 4 HR

Throw all the small-sample arguments at me that you want to. Singleton had five home runs in 443 plate appearances against lefties from 2011-2013. Since then, he has nine homers against southpaws in his last 107 PA. For everyone who questioned his ability to adjust to hitting same-handed pitching, he’s answering those questions about as loudly as he can.

The second point I raised in the previous quote from January was the strikeout rate. Singleton’s career strikeout rate coming into this season was 22.3%, which isn’t bad for a power hitter, but that figure ballooned to 30.3% in Triple-A last year. This year, he’s whiffing in 23.5% of his plate appearances, much more in line with his career average. What’s even more encouraging is that his walk rate is sitting at a career-high 17.9%. All told, he has 35 walks and 46 strikeouts through 196 plate appearances. That, my friends, is Extremely Positive Indicator No. 2.

However, Singleton’s ability to hit lefties, or improve his plate discipline, wasn’t my chief concern:

Most reports you’ll read out there say something to the effect of Singleton showing up out of shape. That’s quite the understatement, folks. He wasn’t simply out of shape, he was downright chubby, looking more like a beer-league softball player than a future major-leaguer. As a result, he was a completely different player than I’d seen the year before.

Singleton’s swing had slowed down so much with the added weight that he simply couldn’t barrel up the ball with any consistency.

Indeed, upon returning from his 50-game suspension to open 2013, Singleton wasn’t in anything resembling game shape. Here’s where Extremely Positive Indicator No. 3 enters the equation: This year, he looks more fit than ever. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s lost more than 20 pounds. In fact, I’d be kind of shocked if he hasn’t.

His bat speed has returned fully, and he’s once again consistently driving the ball to all fields. On the year, Singleton is hitting .269/.398/.563 with 12 homers in 196 PA, and that’s with a .301 batting average on balls in play – a full 47 points lower than his career .348 BABIP.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow recently praised Singleton’s development, saying, “He’s got a lot of self-confidence right now, and he’s becoming a complete player. That’s really what gets me excited about him.” Part of what Luhnow is talking about is Singleton’s improved production against lefties, but I’d imagine a significant part of that statement is in regards to his defensive abilities.

Coming into this year, it would have been hard to find anyone who viewed Singleton as anything more than a league-average defensive first baseman in the long run. Well, I’ll say it now: Singleton’s defense has improved to the point where I can see him being an above-average defender. His hands are much improved, he seems to have better range and, overall, he just looks really smooth in the field. That’s not something I used to say about him.

Singleton’s call-up to the majors is likely imminent, and I can’t wait to see if he can carry over all of these positive adjustments at the game’s highest level. What I can say with confidence is that he’s doing everything he can to indicate that he could be a force for years to come.

While most of the Astros’ top pitching prospects are still a couple years away, their lineup looks like it could be very strong in the near-future. Once the current core of Jose Altuve, George Springer, Dexter Fowler and Jason Castro is supplemented by Singleton and Domingo Santana — and once Max Stassi arrives to platoon with Castro — there’s a whole lot to like about this offense. Now if only Chris Carter could consistently hit above the Mendoza Line…

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Scott Strandberg is a writer by day and musician by night. He is the film critic for The Norman Transcript, and his baseball writing has been featured at The Hardball Times and MLBDepthCharts. He enjoys cooking and professional wrestling. Follow him on Twitter @ScottStrandberg.

19 Responses to “The Resurgent Jon Singleton”

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  1. brian says:

    If only they had Kris Bryant

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  2. Richie says:

    Glad he got back into shape, but for the long haul isn’t letting himself ever get out of it in the first place a red flag? Just seems to me that professional athletes who let themselves go at some point while young do return to such shape not all that far down the line. Charles Barkley got and kept the fat off. Any baseball examples of guys who got the faith and kept it?

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    • southie says:

      There is a pretty in-depth story (google it) about him being basically down and out. He was depressed and self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana. He said he didn’t even care about baseball for a while.

      He’s young and deserves a second shot. I think he could be legit and am wondering why he isn’t already up with the big club.

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      • jim S. says:

        If he had emotional issues in the past, it’s highly likely he’ll have them in the future.

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      • Yeah, Jim S makes a good point. Everyone knows that no one can overcome depression. Just look at that Zack Greinke kid. Too bad he never panned out.

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      • Steven says:

        Yeah, Scott Strandberg makes a good point. Everybody knows that pointing out one example can prove a generalization wrong.

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      • It was a pretty ridiculous generalization, I didn’t feel the need to take it more seriously than that. Still don’t. Thanks for your input though, Steven.

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      • Jason says:

        Not if someone gets the right treatment. Depression can be overcome. My day job is a psychotherapist, so I see people overcome mental health issues all the time. It can be tough, but it’s far from impossible. I read a lot about Singleton’s issues last year, and everything I read indicated he was headed in the right direction. His performance in 2014 only provide more support as well.

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  3. Spa City says:

    I acquired Jon Singleton recently… unfortunately in an exchange for Garin Cecchini and Mookie Betts (OttoNeu FG Points league). The salaries were a wash, so it is purely a talent-based trade. The trade could look really bad for me if Singleton falls apart again. But he is clearly a talented hitter who could provide some big years.

    Was I fleeced? I hated to give up on Mookie, but I am not sure he can handle short, he is blocked at 2B and he might not hit enough to be a force as an outfielder. Cecchini does not seem like a major asset in OttoNeu.

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    • Jonathan Sher says:

      Mookie walks twice as often as he strikes out, has elite contact and base stealing skills and has posted an ISO above .200 this season and last. He’s good enough as a hitter to start in the Boston OF and will likely fill in enough games in the middle infield to qualify there too. Not sure which Ottoneu format you are using but I think Betts will be a force.

      Singleton’s advantage is he seems more likely to get called up sooner, likely before the end of June, while I think Betts most-likely won’t see Boston until after the all-star break. Playing at first base means he’ll need to approach his ceiling to be a valuable player at that position.

      I like Betts more in a keeper league, but if you have a major hole at 1B, Singleton might offer more value this season.

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      • Just to piggyback onto Jonathan’s analysis (which I think is pretty much spot-on), I absolutely believe that Mookie’s bat will play in the outfield. Kid’s gonna have value at any position.

        I like Singleton much better for 2014 — I’ll honestly be pretty shocked if he’s not up by some point in early June. Long-term, I’d say it’s pretty close to a wash, and kind of comes down to your preferences and needs. Need a slugger with 30+ HR potential? Singleton’s the easy answer. Need a speedster with a plus-plus hit tool? Mookie’s your man. Can’t really go wrong either way if you ask me.

        As for Cecchini, I think he’ll do enough to be a valuable fantasy 3B at some point. He has almost zero power (36 of his 43 hits this season are singles), but I’m pretty sure he was born on base, and he’ll pick up enough steals to be a solid option. However, I wouldn’t be too concerned about giving him up. I don’t ever see him being an elite fantasy 3B, and the Stephen Drew signing means he’s essentially blocked for the foreseeable future.

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  4. S. Urista says:

    He’s slowed down a bit the last couple of weeks (only batting .200 in last 10-12 games, just 1 HR, only 4 RBI) and his K% has nudged up a bit…but he’s still walking a ton, including 4 BB in 6 PA a couple days ago. Great to see him staying disclipined even when he’s not getting a ton of hits.

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  5. Paul says:

    Singleton or Smoak ROS H2H 14 team points league (K=-1)? Help me out guys.

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  6. Grant says:

    Scott, you wrote about Eddie Butler a few months ago. What are your thoughts on why his strikeouts are down? Thanks.

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    • Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to see him pitch since I wrote that (the only trip I’ve made to Tulsa so far this year was to see Jon Gray, who looked terrific), but there’s red flags all over his peripherals.

      April: 2.87 ERA/2.88 FIP/3.56 SIERA, 25 K/7 BB, 31.1 IP
      May: 2.45 ERA/4.64 FIP/5.84 SIERA, 8 K/9 BB, 25.2 IP

      I’ll try to get to Tulsa sometime soon to see him pitch again; there’s clearly something wrong, but I can’t tell what it is just from looking at the numbers.

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