10 Degrees: The single is vanishing, a victim of strikeouts, shifts and swinging for fly balls

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Of the 3.87 million or so hits Major League Baseball players have logged over the last 140-plus seasons, nearly 2.8 million have been singles. The single is the humblest of hits, achieved in sundry manners and varieties. There’s the solid base knock and the seeing-eye sort, the blooper, the bleeder and the bunt – push or drag, depending on your pleasure. Singles can bounce off the Green Monster in Boston or die 15 feet from the plate if placed just so. Exit velocity and launch angle matter not to the single. It is honest and simple.

If it seems odd to celebrate the least of baseball’s four hits – and even the single’s staunchest advocates will admit its productive inferiority – that’s understandable. Thing is, with more hitters endeavoring to lift the ball, fewer concerning themselves with strikeouts and fielders shifting all around the diamond looking to hunt singles, this feels less like a celebration and more like an Irish wake.

No, the single isn’t dead, exactly, but it is less a part of baseball than it’s ever been. Of the 12,980 hits in baseball this year through Sunday, just 63.69 percent have been singles, on track to be the lowest percentage in the sport’s history. It’s consistent with last year’s 63.76 percent, which dipped nearly 1.5 percentage points from 2016. This may be the ne plus ultra of the sabermetric revolution: swing changes that came about because of analytics, excessive strikeouts and habituation to them that grew from core tenets of analytics, and defensive shifts borne of analytics.

Part of baseball’s charm is its sameness, the notion that the game is the game and it has looked the same, more or less, for the better part of a century. That is not baseball in 2018. For a sport that has evolved like the world, slow bordering on imperceptible, today it looks like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly (or, for those who may not like the differences, a boring-looking moth).

While singles are at an all-time low, the percentage of hits going for doubles is higher than ever (20.79 percent) and the home run rate of 13.55 percent is second only to last season. More than a quarter of at-bats end in strikeouts – a sure record. And batting average, a number scoffed at by plenty that recognized on-base percentage as a superior measure but still plenty important, is at .245, the lowest it’s been since 1972. Only eight seasons have seen lower batting averages: 1884, 1885, 1888, 1908, 1909, 1967, 1968 and 1972 – a lovely mixture of the Dead Ball Era and a pitching epoch that prompted the mound to be lowered.

There is no one caucus to blame or culprit to charge in the petering out of the single. We hear plenty about the launch-angle successes; there are copious failures, too. The correlation between strikeout rate and single percentage is nonexistent; those who hit a lot of singles strike out, too. And for all the singles that have been thieved from three-infielders-on-the-right-side defenses, lefties this year still are singling at a higher rate (64.26 percent) than righties (63.36 percent) or those laggard switch hitters (63.11 percent).

So let us raise a glass to the single, which has been more prevalent in baseball than even the most desperate of bars. While it will never go away, it is something of an anachronism, a hit for an undemanding world, a relic that only the finest practitioners can keep alive. And even …

Houston’s Jose Altuve is singling on 71.62 percent of his hits compared to 67 percent each of the last two years. (Getty Images)
Houston’s Jose Altuve is singling on 71.62 percent of his hits compared to 67 percent each of the last two years. (Getty Images)

1. Jose Altuve, the current King of the Single, needed to develop an extra-base affinity before he was recognized for his greatness. While he lacked the thump of his MVP season until recent days, Altuve was kept afloat by his singlability. Only Jon Jay has more singles this season than Altuve, who is singling on 71.62 percent of his hits compared to 67 percent each of the last two years.

The weekend provided the sort of performance to which we’ve grown accustomed. Entering his fourth at-bat Friday hitting .301/.352/.397 on the season, Altuve proceeded to rip off hits in 10 consecutive at-bats – five singles, three doubles, a triple and a homer, an Altuvian mix if ever there were one – and raise his season line to .333/.385/.461. Yes, it’s as though he wanted to say, you really can raise your OPS 100 points over the course of 10 at-bats two months into the season.

Altuve’s feats never cease to amaze. The same can be said of …

2. Mike Trout, whose 5-for-5 day against the New York Yankees on Saturday served as the most public reminder of what he shows on a daily basis: There is him, and there is everyone else. Trout is one of 33 players this season with more extra-base hits than singles this season, a list that includes a who’s who: Kris Bryant, Jose Ramirez, Bryce Harper and, yes, Mookie Betts, who has 37 extra-base hits to 29 singles.

With 31 of 56 hits going for extra bases, Trout is no slouch. And among the hits and the baserunning and his glove, Trout is setting a pace that seems almost impossible to keep. Before the Angels’ game Monday in Detroit, Trout had played 53 games. FanGraphs said he had produced 4.4 wins above replacement. Baseball-Reference had him at 4.8 WAR. Over 162 games, that paces out to 13.4 and 14.7 WAR, respectively.

Both sites agree on the finest season ever by a hitter: Babe Ruth, 1923, when he hit .393/.545/.764 with 41 home runs, 131 RBIs, 151 runs and – get ready, because this is the most amazing part of it all – 17 stolen bases. FanGraphs says that was worth 15 WAR, Baseball-Reference 14.1.

Either way, the season is nearly one-third in the books and Trout, getting on base nearly 45 percent of the time and slugging over .675 and stealing bases like a madman and playing a tip-top center field all the while, has been positively Ruthian – except that The Babe still singled on more than half of his hits. Things in the middle of the order in New York haven’t changed much, seeing as …

3. Gary Sanchez looks at that number and scoffs. Nobody singles as infrequently as El Gary in 2018. He has 35 hits this season: 12 singles, 11 doubles and 12 home runs. Nobody else in baseball has the same number of singles as he does home runs, though the list of those close is longer than one might think.

The Padres’ Christian Villanueva: 15 singles, 14 home runs. Pedro Alvarez, long a practitioner of the all-or-nothing approach: nine singles, eight homers. Joey Gallo is 16 and 14, Adam Duvall 11 and nine, Tyler Austin 10 and eight. Bryce Harper’s home run Sunday gave him 16 on the season – just shy of his 19 singles. In that respect, he’s a lot like his teammate …

4. Max Scherzer, who eschews singles for extra-base hits. Actually, eschew is the wrong word. Scherzer isn’t actively seeking to give up doubles and triples and home runs. He just seems allergic to allowing singles.

It’s not exactly great company to find oneself in. Of the 47 hits Scherzer has allowed this season, 25 have gone for extra bases. And if that sounds bad – well, only a few starting pitchers are even close to Scherzer’s 46.81 percent of hits for singles, and they are not good. The difference is simple: Those 47 hits have come in 71 2/3 innings. When Scherzer has allowed hits, they’ve been of the damaging variety, but only three starters have allowed a lower batting average against than Scherzer’s .180: Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Patrick Corbin.

Which just goes to show that allowing a high percentage of extra-base hits doesn’t mean squat if the number of hits that pitcher allows is almost squat itself. Not everybody, after all, can be …

5. Walker Buehler, who has been doing his best Clayton Kershaw impersonation in anticipation of the maestro’s return Thursday. Coming into Sunday’s start, Buehler had allowed 24 hits in 34 innings – only three of the extra-base variety. Regression, buzzkill that it is, saw to it that of the four hits Buehler allowed in seven sparkling innings Sunday, three of them were doubles.

Still, Buehler’s ascendance, and the misery that has permeated the National League West, gives the Dodgers the chance that they almost wanted to give away during a stretch of ugly baseball that saw them 10 games below .500 at one point. A rotation of Kershaw, Buehler, Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling beats what everyone else in the division is offering at this point, and while the Dodgers’ offense leaves plenty to be desired and its bullpen is a choose-your-adventure novel on a nightly basis, there’s enough to squint and see more than hope.

As the days go by, it gets harder for …

6. Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets to do the same. Their division, unlike the Dodgers’, isn’t relenting. If anything, the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals are getting better. After the Chicago Cubs, they had the three best run differentials in the NL entering Monday. They even seem to have luck on their side, whether it’s the Braves avoiding a disaster with Ronald Acuña’s ugly-looking knee injury primed to be a short DL stint and Washington soon to add Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton to a lineup with ample thump.

The Mets’ 11-1 start seems like a year ago. They’re 14-24 since, and Monday’s walk-off loss to the Braves blew another strong deGrom start. He entered the game among the game’s elite extra-base misers, and he lived up to it, allowing only a Tyler Flowers home run and keeping his single rate at 83 percent.

He’s up there with Aaron Nola (who will face Kershaw in his return) and Luke Weaver (who, with Michael Wacha, Jack Flaherty and Carlos Martinez each at 75 percent singles or better, is making life easy on the St. Louis Cardinals’ defense – or perhaps vice versa). They are diametrically opposed to …

7. Marco Estrada, the King of the Extra-Base Hit, who isn’t quite to pitching what Gary Sanchez has been to hitting but is making quite the effort. The .282 batting average against Estrada is not good, by any means, but a pitcher can survive with it. The .555 slugging percentage, on the other hand, means Marco Estrada has essentially turned every hitter he has faced this year into Ozzie Albies.

It wasn’t always this way. It wasn’t even close. Estrada used to be the guy hitters couldn’t touch. Seriously. In 2015 and 2016, Estrada’s first two seasons with Toronto, opponents hit .203 against him both years and slugged .364 and .361, respectively. Now, the batting average on balls in play against him both years were multiple standard deviations below league average, and these days it is slightly above league average. To see someone who was so unhittable for two years have little demonstrable change in stuff and go from being a good pitcher to someone who gets Albies’d whenever he throws a pitch illustrates the difficulty of baseball – and the magnetic power of the mean to pull in outliers.

It gives the Los Angeles Angels hope that …

8. Kole Calhoun starts looking like Kole Calhoun and not this imposter who can’t hit and who, when he does happen to, can hit only singles. For a few years, Calhoun was a slightly better-than-league-average hitter good for 50 extra-base hits a year. Entering Monday, he was hitting .154/.198/.191. Since the end of the Dead Ball Era, no hitter has qualified for a batting title with a slugging percentage below .215.

So there are two choices: Calhoun can start hitting the ball hard and erase the memory of his current 22-singles-out-of-25-hits season, or the Angels will consider sitting him. In an American League with the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros and New York Yankees, plus the Seattle Mariners playing well, there is little room for sub-.200 slugging percentages no matter how good the glove (and Calhoun’s is good).

He’s got company up there among the disappointing hitters this season, whether it’s Marcell Ozuna at over 80 percent singles for the Cardinals or Marwin Gonzalez at 75 percent for the Astros. Even …

9. Joey Votto, typically an extra-base practitioner of the foremost variety, has gone atypically singles-heavy at 71.7 percent. During his monster 2017, Votto singled just over 60 percent of the time. His career average coming into this season was a hair over 61 percent.

Votto is a wonderfully productive player nonetheless, his walks supplementing his lack of slug, his immunity to pop-outs ever impressive, his strikeout total still exceedingly low for a player with his ability to hit the ball hard. And for all of the blame laid at sabermetrics for its contributions to the single’s obsolescence, the ability to know that Votto’s high single rate isn’t likely to stay does offer some comfort.

His exit velocity this season is 2 mph higher than last year both on balls in play and balls in play that fall for hits. In other words, Votto hasn’t turned into some singles-hitting ninny. Votto is Votto, good as he’s always been, a consistent beacon for the Cincinnati Reds, the same purpose …

10. Jose Altuve serves with the Astros. He doesn’t hit the ball quite as hard as Votto. Or Kole Calhoun for that matter. It’s true: Altuve’s average exit velocity this season on balls in play is 87.4 mph and Calhoun’s 87.5.

Sometimes numbers don’t capture the entirety of a player, and whether it’s Altuve’s height or exit velo, he is not the sum of what some digits may say. He is someone for whom the single was a gateway drug to the indulgence of the extra-base hit. He could’ve carved out a plenty productive career whacking base knocks from pole to pole. He could’ve been Ichiro.

When he sorta, kinda retired earlier this season, Ichiro left behind one of the most single-riffic legacies the game has known. Only seven players have finished their careers with more than 2,500 singles: Pete Rose (the leader with 3,215), Ty Cobb, Derek Jeter, Cap Anson, Eddie Collins, Ichiro and Wee Willie Keeler. Ichiro’s 81.39 percent single rate is the second highest behind the slap-tastic Keeler’s 85.7 percent – and seeing as Keeler played before live balls, his predilection is understandable.

For Ichiro, it was about perfecting a craft, and that he chose a craft that lacked the excitement or productivity of those swinging for the fences didn’t make him any lesser. It’s how Dee Gordon, carrying on his former teammate’s modus operandi, conducts himself. There was a nobility to what Ichiro did, what all those who worshipped the one-base hit did, to his obsession, to his purpose, to the kind of single-mindedness that vanishes by the day.

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