The Death of the Single, or, Can Starlin Castro Survive Derek Jeter's Retirement?

The Death of the Single, or, Can Starlin Castro Survive Derek Jeter's Retirement?
Can Starlin Castro beat the geeks as a singles hitter?

In major league baseball, the single is dying.

I don't know what started me on this kick of obsessing over base hits, but I feel pretty confident in my assertion that the singles-hitter is on his way out of the league. Just look at the data.

In 1980, 72.4 percent of all hits were singles. And just over 17 percent of all plate appearances ended with a single.

In 2013, just 67 percent of hits were singles. And only 15.3 percent of plate appearances ended with a single.

Those may sound like small changes, but the trend is real, and is more significant the further back you go. The last time the Cubs won the World Series, for example, more than 80 percent of all hits were singles. (That was 1908, for those of you who haven't heard.)

Earlier I said that the generic "singles-hitter" may be on his way out. In the meantime, The Singles Hitter recently announced his retirement.

That would be Derek Jeter, the current active leader in total singles, and the man listed sixth on the all-time list. Jeter so far has 2,470 singles to his name; he's just 43 1Bs behind Willie Keeler, and within shouting distance of former Cub great and intense racist Cap Anson.

While the single has gone out of style over the past few decades, Jeter has just kept on rapping them out. From 1996 to 2012, nearly 21 percent of his plate appearances ended with a single, constituting nearly 75 percent of his hits.

Of course, it's not enough to note that many of Jeter's hits were singles. We should also mention that he got a lot of hits generally -- 3,316 so far, with a career batting average of .312. Over 455 games between 1998 and 2000, Jeter hit .337 (!), averaging 222 hits per 162 games.

Now that we've set out the evidence that the single is fading, and talked a bit about baseball's greatest singles-hitter, let's think about why singles might be going away, as a percent of total offense. The perfect way to understand that trend is through the lens of Starlin Castro. (Can Starlin Castro be a lens? He's one now.)

When Castro came to MLB, his offensive style looked a lot like -- and don't be doing any spit takes now -- Derek Jeter's. Yes, Jeet can draw a walk while Starlin apparently cannot, but look at the stats for each player's second season in MLB:

Castro: .307/.341/.432, 13.4% K%, .125 ISO, .344 BABIP, 152 1Bs

Jeter:    .314/.370/.430, 15.6% K%, .115 ISO, .361 BABIP (!), 142 1Bs

In Castro's second season, more than 21 percent of his plate appearances ended with a single -- typical Jeter range. From there, however, the ratio started falling: in 2012 just 18.5 percent of Castro's PAs ended with a 1B, and in 2013 that fell to 16.6 percent.

Cub fans can probably theorize why Castro's singles-rate is falling: management wants him to drive the ball for doubles and homers, rather than slap pitchers' pitches to right for one base. And he doesn't seem to be taking well to the transition, which is causing his output to slide.

Ever the stats guys, Theo and Jed have a reason for re-formatting Castro: balls batted into the field of play usually only fall in for hits so often. It's a concept that has been crucial to the recent surge in popularity of sabermetrics, and you know it as good ol' BABIP. Leaguewide BABIP was .297 last year; most years, it'll settle in right around .300. Put another way, Theo and Jed don't want to bet that Castro can consistently put up BABIPs significantly above the league rate.

And we end this post by returning to Derek Jeter -- who did exactly that for 15 years. Derek Jeter's career BABIP was .353; since 1995, only one hitter with at least a few thousand plate appearances has a higher figure (pop quiz!). In those years when Jeter hit .972 over a zillion games, his BABIPs were .375, .396, and .386. He posted a BABIP above .360 eight times in his career; just nine hitters managed the feat in 2013 alone.

There may be no point to all this: single-hitting is unsustainable, so teams are valuing it less now, even though Derek Jeter was really good at it. Or maybe there's a lesson in here about letting Starlin Castro do what he does -- hit -- and see if he can't beat the geeks with his BABIP.

@ajwalsh08

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  • I think a lot of Castro's drop in BABIP has to do with the fact that he rarely ever swung at the first pitch this year. The front office had it so engrained in him that he needed to take pitches that he would almost always fall behind in the count. As a result, Castro had far fewer good pitches to hit, which led to less hits when he did make contact. Honestly, if he gets a good first pitch, he needs to swing. I'd much rather he get out on the first pitch than fall behind 0-2 and weakly ground out on a bad pitch.

  • I don't think that the single was valued since the Sox traded for Scotty Pods where the sole reason for a leadoff man was to get on base in any way possible,and then generate something from there.

    I'm also not sure that percentage of plate appearances by themselves should constitute the metric, as it doesn't reflect how many times someone walked (see above) nor how many times Castro and his buddies struck out on bad pitches (or struck out in any event). My impression from Stats Sunday was that BABIP excluded strikeouts, and thus only tracks stuff like the weak ground out 2438 mentioned.

    This presentation also doesn't reflect how many times Cubs hitters failed to get a clutch hit of any kind.

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    I remember reading an article in SI a couple years back that talked about Castro's uncanny ability to make contact. The kid was a free swinger, but he almost never swung and missed. But rather than just treat him like the naturally-gifted hitter that he was, the FO saw the need to correct or improve upon that talent. I get that to an extent. Then again, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

  • Nice piece. Your piece overlook the greatest singles hitter of the current era: Ichiro... if you include his Japanese numbers, but still a fine piece. There of course is nothing wrong with being a singles hitter if you are putting together a championship team. You need them. You need the OBP machines to set the table. But of course in the PED era, which player will prefer to be the championship winning singles hitter, or get the big bucks by achieving a big OPS and WAR by pumping up the total bases? And with PEDs it is within reach for more players than ever. But would Whitey Herzog have a chance today of convincing Willie McGee and Vince Coleman to beat balls into the ground to beat them out in today's smaller stadiums that make the gaps and bleachers in reach of more hitters? Would they have even made the majors now that catchers and pitchers have made the changes to partially negate their speed?

    But something tells me a new brand of player who can only get to the majors by being singles/contact machines will exploit the opportunity and break through and become all-purpose, top-of-the-order Ichiros. The game goes through regular periods of change and adaptation. Adam Eaton of the White Sox comes to mind as maybe a future example depending on his success.

  • In reply to SkitSketchJeff:

    Thanks for mentioning the PED (not to mention roids) era especially given the comparison to 1980 in the article. And, if the Biogenesis mess last year proves anything, it isn't over yet.

    It is one thing that the Big Hurt was hitting homers, another that SamMe was and he was making the money for the Cubs.

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    I really think that BABIP is one of the most overrated and worthless stats in baseball. The reason being, is that it assumes that all contact is identical. You know why Castro and Rizzo's BABIP was so much lower last year? All you had to do was watch the games and see how many times they were hitting off balance and with weak contact. Castro because he was trying to be something he is not, and Rizzo, because the League made an adjustment that he hasn't been able to overcome yet.

  • In reply to Richard Madsen:

    Maybe if Len Kasper actually explained it after the 3rd or so try, and actually put up a consistent formula on screen, it would help. Or maybe I would find another source if I really cared.

  • If Castro lived at 300/340/450 I would be happy. Sure he may have the frame to up that slg. But let it come naturally. I really hope Renteria is his calming/guiding force this year.

  • In reply to Tom Loxas:

    I too would be happy with Castro at those offensive numbers, as long as he got his errors down to the mid-teens. A big if, but he made some strides in last year in the second half, Otherwise he's Garry Templeton, which as Whitey Herzog determined isn't a player you win a championship with.

    (Although thanks to Leon Durham, Garry -- and his 26 errors in 1984 -- did get to the World Series with the Padres. The only time ever that a Silver Slugger shortstop who never won a Gold Glove has started at SS in a World Series. Something to keep in mind with both Baez and Castro. The glove is hugely important at that position.)

  • In reply to SkitSketchJeff:

    Yes, though Jeter was never all that great at SS, he got it done. He never had mental lapses.

  • Great stuff AJ, so glad to have you as contributor..

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