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…

Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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