June 1, 2023

Making Singles Sexy

February 27, 2023 by · Leave a Comment 

2022 MLB Singles Leaders

2022 MLB Singles Leaders

Do you know who led the majors in singles in 2022?  If so, go to the head of the class: you are the ultimate stat geek. If not, don’t feel bad. The one-base hit is the least sexy safety. Just check the stat sheets.

Go to the Baseball Reference web site and dial up the stats on any hitter. You will readily see that columns are devoted to GDPs, HBPs, SHs, SFs, and IBBs. The one-base hit does not merit a column. Oh, if it matters all that much to you, you can figure it out. Just take the total number of hits and subtract the doubles, triples, and home runs to find out. Of course, the stat solons could figure it out for you, but column space is too precious to waste on the humble single, the Rodney Dangerfield of stats. It don’t get no respect.

Granted, the single doesn’t help a player much when it comes to slugging percentage. And we’ve all heard the famous Ralph Kiner line about singles hitters driving Fords while home run hitters drive Cadillacs. Such elitism does no credit to our national pastime, not to mention our democracy!  Can we say that one ballplayer is less than his peers because he cuts down on his swing and specializes in one-baggers?

It wasn’t always this way. The dead ball era was the golden age of the one-base hit until a hulking brute named Babe Ruth came along and persuaded old school seamheads that less is not more – more is more. Thus swinging from the heels became more and more acceptable.

Nevertheless, if you surf the net a bit, it is possible to find a leaderboard for singles hitters over the years. So let’s mingle with the singles hitters.

Jesse Burkett

Jesse Burket

It is not surprising that the singles leaderboard is dominated by Willie Keeler and Jesse Burkett, whose late 19th Century totals – even with shorter seasons – were rife with singles. Of the top 13 seasons for singles hitters, Burkett is represented four times and Keeler three times. More recently, Ichiro Suzuki of the 21st Century (at least so far as his major league career is concerned), tied Burkett with four appearances in the top 13.

Ichiro had the best season ever for singles with 225 in 2004. This was also the season in which he set a single-season record for total hits with 262 and batted .372. In addition to his off-the-chart 2004 season, Ichiro led MLB in singles with 203 in 2007, 192 in 2001, and 186 in 2006, all while he was with the Mariners.

Ichiro is a normal-size guy (5’11”, 175 lbs). Much the same could be said about Jesse Burkett who was 5’8” and 155 pounds, which was pretty much normal in the 1890s. He collected 191 singles in 1896, 186 in 1898, and 185 in 1895 for the Cleveland Spiders, and 185 in 1899 for the St. Louis Perfectos.

As for size, Willie Keeler, was not known as Wee Willie Keeler for nothing. When you stand 5’4½” (most sources list him at 5’4” but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt) and weigh 140 pounds, you have to expect such an alliterative nickname. Keeler is the only batter, other than Ichiro, to surpass the 200 mark in singles. He got 206 one-baggers for the 1898 Baltimore Orioles, who perfected the famed Baltimore chop.

Arguably, Keeler’s achievement was more notable than Ichiro’s two 200+ seasons, as he did it in far fewer plate appearances (604 vs. 762 in 2004 and 736 in 2007 for Ichiro). In other words, more than one out of three of his plate appearances resulted in a one-base hit. Remarkably, he had just 7 doubles, 2, triples, and one home run in those 604 plate appearances. Though he led the league in hitting, his slash line of .385/.420/.410 was otherwise unimpressive.

Keeler also shows up on the leaderboard with 193 in 1897 for the Orioles, and 190 in 1899 for the Brooklyn Superbas. The former season was remarkable as he also led the league in hitting with a lofty .424. That enabled him to lead the league in OPS (1.003) without any home runs!

Ichiro, Burkett, and Keeler hog the leaderboard, but a couple of 20th Century  players managed to sneak into the club. One was Lloyd Waner, who singled 198 times in 1927, his rookie season with the Pirates and a pennant-winning year for the franchise. His brother Paul, who led the NL with a .380 BA in 1927, stroked 168 singles that year. The Waners’ combined total of 366 singles is likely the all-time record for singles by teammate brothers. FUN FACT: Paul Waner’s nickname was Big Poison; Lloyd’s was Little Poison. Yet Paul, who debuted with the Pirates one year before his younger brother, stood  5’8” and weighed 153 lbs, while Lloyd is listed at 5’9” and 150 lbs.

There is just one more 20th Century player in the top 13. That would be Wade Boggs, who had 187 singles in 1985 for the Red Sox. Boggs prospered throughout the 1980s, as he led the AL in hitting five times and on-base percentage six times. He also led the league in OPS in 1987 and 1988.

Unlike the other members of the leaderboard, Boggs had more heft, as he stood 6’2” and weighed 190. Also he is the only third baseman – indeed the only infielder (though Keeler started as one) – among the leaders. Third base is not a position associated with speedsters, and Boggs’ career total of 24 stolen bases bears this out. Unlike the other names on the list, he probably didn’t leg out too many grounders. He might be better described as a line-drive hitter than a contact hitter. He led the league in doubles in 1988 and 1989 and his career total of 578 ranks 24th all-time.

There is a reason why I chose to focus on the top 13 rather than the more conventional top 10. That is because the five men named in the top 13 are in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps just as notable, though it should not be a surprise, is that all five men were left-handed batters. Over the course of a season, that will result in a few more safeties on close plays at first base.

That the left-handed batter is closer to first than his right-handed counterpart is obvious, but he also has another advantage. When the left-handed batter completes his swing, he is facing first base. The right-handed batter, upon completion of his swing, is facing away from first base. That split second of pivoting to begin the sprint to first can also make a difference over the course of a season.

When we move beyond the top 13 seasons for singles, right-handed batters finally show up. Appearing in 14th space with 184 singles (tied with Juan Pierre of the Marlins in 2004) is Willie Wilson of the 1980 Royals. Wilson, however, was a switch-hitter, and given the preponderance of right-handers on pitching staffs, it is reasonable to assume that most of his singles came while he was batting left-handed. The same would be true of Pete Rose, who shows up tied for 18th place with 181 singles for the Reds in 1973. Moving right along, the next switch-hitter to show up is Maury Wills, who authored 179 singles for the Dodgers in 1962.

We have to go down to 31st place to find our first full-time right-handed hitter, namely Curt Flood, who stroked 178 singles for the Cardinals in 1964. Right-handers appear with more and more frequency as the list goes on, but it takes a long time before they approach parity.

Flood played all 162 games and led the league in plate appearances with 739 in 1964. This brings out two important but obvious observations. Your hit total (and hence your singles total) is enhanced if you stay off the injury list. And if you bat lead-off, as Flood did, you will get more plate appearances over the course of a season than someone who hits at the bottom of the order.

When it comes to career leaders in singles, however, the right-handers show up at the top with more frequency.  Almost all of the top 25 career leaders are in the Hall of Fame. The most glaring exception is a biggie: Pete Rose, the all-time singles leader with 3,215 (and in hits with 4,256).  His absence from Cooperstown, however, is not related to his achievements on the field.

Omar Vizquel, in 17th place with 2,264 singles, is a long shot for the HOF, but one day he may attract some attention from the Veterans Committee, if not for his offense (2,877 hits; .272/.336/.352) then for his stellar shortstop play (11 Gold Gloves) and longevity (24 seasons).

The next 25 career leaders are also mostly HOF members, but some of the outliers are subjects for further research:

Doc Cramer

Doc Cramer

No. 26, Doc Cramer, 2163 singles. A five-time All-Star, Cramer was a 20-year (1929-1948) veteran with the A’s, Red Sox, Senators, and Tigers. He finished with 2,705 hits (.296/.340/.375). He led the AL in singles five times. There were no Gold Glove awards during his playing days, but if they had, he probably would have won his share. He led center fielders in fielding percentage three times, and right fielders once, and led the league in range factor [putouts plus assists] per game twice. Absent some sort of campaign to champion him for the Hall of Fame, Cramer appears to be consigned to the memory hole, as few people today remember him.

No. 38, Lave Cross, 2,057 singles. Since Cross’s career ended in 1907, he is hardly a name-brand player, even among seamheads. In his 21-year career he piled up 2,651 hits and had a slash line of .292/.329/.383. Eminently respectable but not HOF material.

No. 49, Adrian Beltre, 2,015 singles. He will not be an outlier for long. He is a lock for the HOF, and if he doesn’t make it on the first ballot, it will raise eyebrows.

No. 50, Bill Buckner, 1994 singles. The only man in the top 50 with fewer than 2,000 singles, Buckner had 2,715 hits when he retired in 1990 after a 22-year career. A tough nut to crack so far as strikeouts go, he led the league four times in AB/SO. While with the Cubs, he won the batting title with a .324 average in 1980. Like Vizquel, he may one day attract some attention from the Veterans Committee. Unfortunately, his induction will have to be posthumous. Also unfortunately, his infamous misplay in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series haunted him to his grave and may haunt him beyond the grave so far as the Veterans Committee goes. Surprisingly, he had just one (1981) All-Star selection.

So it is pretty much a given that if you can amass 2,000+ singles, you have a shot at having a plaque in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. That does not mean you have to give up power-hitting. Henry Aaron, for example, sits in 14th place among career singles hitters. His 755 home runs are at the top of his resume, yet his all-time total bases record of 6,856 includes 2,294 singles.

Eddie Murray, author of 504 home runs, sits in 29th place with 2,156 singles. Other notable sluggers on the singles list are No. 18, Carl Yastrzemski (452 HRs, 2,262 singles); No. 19, Stan Musial (475 HRs, 2,253 singles); No. 40, Al Kaline (399 HRs, 2,035 singles); No. 47, Dave Winfield (465 HRs, 2,017 singles). Adrian Beltre, as referenced above, also fits into this group, as he hit 477 home runs to accompany his 2,015 singles.

In pursuit of 2,000+singles, it helps if you have good speed, bat left-handed, and typically appear at the top of the batting order. Cooperstown will look kindly upon a batting title or two, and maybe a goodly amount of stolen bases. Some extra-base hits would beef up the slugging percentage, and a good batting eye, hence a lot of walks and a robust on-base percentage, is a definite plus. A few Gold Gloves would surely burnish one’s reputation.

Singles in large quantities are impressive, but that doesn’t mean an individual single need be a ho-hummer. Exit velocity, one of the more interesting statistics to arise in recent years, has served to endow the single with a modicum of respect. The stats show that the proverbial frozen rope may have a higher exit velocity than a home run. In fact, the highest exit velocity of any batted ball ever measured (in other words, since 2015) occurred on August 24, 2022, when the Pirates’ Oneil Cruz singled to right field in the bottom of the 3rd inning. The ball rebounded off the wall so quickly that Cruz could not advance to second. More singles like that and respect would surely follow.

And now that you’ve read all the way to the end of the article, your reward is the answer to the question posed at the outset of the article: Amed Rosario of the Guardians led the way in 2022 with 134 one-baggers. It’s a respectable enough number but nowhere near enough to get him within striking distance of the Top 500 singles seasons.

In all of major league history, has anyone ever boasted of leading his league in singles?  I doubt it; nevertheless, Rosario has bragging rights for 2022. Lucky for him, the steep rise in major league salaries since Ralph Kiner’s day will allow him to buy a Cadillac – or just about anything on wheels.

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