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.
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