Monday, March 28, 2016

What has happened to Jon Singleton?

Jon Singleton was optioned to Triple-A Fresno today. Again. Let's recap Singleton's career to this point...

Singleton was picked by the Phillies in the 8th Round of the 2009 draft. I'm not going into the ins and outs of his early minor-league career, but he was highly-regarded as a prospect. After his first professional season, Baseball America had him at #39 on their prospect list while BP had him at #63.

He was traded on July 29, 2011 with Jarred Cosart, Domingo Santana, and Josh Zeid for Hunter Pence in what honestly seemed like a lop-sided trade. Hunter Pence was good, but holy crap, Singleton *and* Cosart? And Domingo Santana as the PTBNL? Easy Eddie Wade hit a grand slam.

After hitting .284/.387/.413 in High-A Clearwater for the Phillies, the Astros sent him to the corresponding league - High-A Lancaster. Singleton hit .333/.405/.512, his contact skills and 14 walks in 148 plate appearances. This made the 40 strikeouts easier to swallow, because who can argue with a .405 OBP? We were happy, as were the prospect ranking systems. Prior to the 2012 season, Baseball America had him at #34 while rated him at #27. BP - wasn't as impressed, listing Singleton as the #73 prospect in baseball.

Singleton was sent to Corpus in 2012 which, keep in mind, was his Age 20 season. Playing at a level just a shade over four years younger than his competition, Singleton hit .284/.396/.497 with 52 extra-base hits and 88 walks again offsetting the 131 strikeouts in 555 plate appearances. This sent his stock to a level higher than it had ever been. Baseball America ranked him #27, ranked him #27, BP ranked him #25.

He spent the majority of 2014 in Oklahoma City, hitting a somewhat disappointing .220/.340/.347 with 89 strikeouts in 294 plate appearances. And so his rankings tumbled from #27 in Baseball America's rankings to #82. dropped him to #50, and BP dropped him from #27 to #57. But he was in his Age 21 season, so what can you do?

And so Singleton was given another opportunity at Triple-A, and he seemingly took advantage of it. In 54 games, Singleton hit .267/.397/.544. Half of his hits went for extra bases (13 doubles and 13 homers) and he drew 42 walks to 52 strikeouts. Singleton was called up to Houston and made his Major League debut on June 3. He struck out in his first plate appearance, walked in his second, struck out in his 3rd plate appearance, and hit a home run off Matt Shoemaker in the 8th. So, a .333/.500/1.333 slash line after one game. Exactly what we signed up for.

The rest of his 94 games in Houston in 2014 did not go as well, despite hitting four home runs in his first eleven games as an Astro. Ten days after his debut Singleton was hitting .250/.292/.568. By the end of the season he was hitting .168/.285/.335.

What was the issue? An inability to hit right-handed pitching. Against lefties, the lefty Singleton hit .247/.337/.468 - nine extra bases and ten walks in 89 plate appearances. Righties, though, amirite? In 273 plate appearances against righties, Singleton hit .142/.267/.292 on a .198 BABIP. He struck out 103 times in 273 plate appearances - an astounding 37.7% K-rate. If he got two a 2-0 count (which happened a nice 69 times) Singleton would destroy you: .261/.507/.413, but by God if he got behind, he was done. When the pitcher threw a first-pitch strike, those plate appearances resulted in a .134/.197/.268 slash line, with 85 strikeouts in 178 plate appearances in which the first pitch was a strike.

Remember Chris Carter went nuts in the 2nd Half of the 2014 season, hitting .252/.338/.521 in 64 games after the All-Star Break. Eighteen of his 37 homers came in his final 64 games. If you want more of an arbitrary endpoint, beginning with an early July road trip to Anaheim through the end of the season, Carter hit .268/.346/.572 on a perfectly not-excessive .312 BABIP. He hit 24 homers and added almost three wins to the Astros 2014 total in 73 games.

So the Astros could give Singleton a little more time. No matter about 2014, yeah? It was a one-year blip. He would go into 2015 with a year under his belt, and it would still only be his Age 23 season. Carter could continue being cHRis carter while Singleton got a little more seasoning.

And it looked like Singleton rewarded the Astros. He opened the season in Fresno and hit .280/.387/.553 with 17 doubles, 17 home runs, and 63K:47BB in 70 games. After he went 2x4 with two homers and 4RBI against Sacramento, Singleton was called up to Houston and made his season debut on June 27. He went 0x4 with 3K. Two days later he went 1x4 with a double and two walks. Singleton would get sent down again after the July 29 game against the Angels when he went 2x3 with a homer, walk, and 2RBI. He was hitting .205/.321/.318. That one game raised his OPS 134 points. It was also the day the Astros traded for Mike Fiers and Carlos Gomez, and Singleton - the guy with a .639 OPS - was sent back to Fresno.

But a crazy thing happened to Singleton's batting: remember how he couldn't hit righties in 2014? .142/.267/.292 against righties? And he killed left-handed pitching? .247/.337/.468? Yeah that went out the window. In 2015 - between Fresno and Houston, mind you, because he only had 58 plate appearances in Houston in 2015 - Singleton put up a .290/.414/.595 line against righties, and a .181/.257/.307 line against lefties. Totally switched. I don't know why. There may not be a knowing as to why.

At a town hall meeting with A.J. Hinch back before the Astros left for Spring Training, he told Jexas (and everybody else in the room) that it was Singleton's "time to step up." This was after - in December - A.J. Hinch admitted that Singleton didn't get enough ABs. Luhnow said (same link):
Where our club is today, [Singleton] needs to perform to stay on the team, and he knows that. He knows coming into Spring Training, it's his job to lose, but he's gotta keep it...I have confidence that he'll step up to the occasion.

Reid Ryan wondered aloud at FanFest in January: "Is Jonathan Singleton [ed. note: Uh-oh! He full-first-named him!] going to win this job that we've all been kind of waiting to see him win?"

The answer, so far, is, well, no. We're just over two years removed from the Singleton/Marijuana interview. And we're just under two years removed from Singleton signing that infamous 5yr/$10m contract ($9.5m + $500K buyout) with three option years and bonuses that could push it to an additional $25m. The main thing I remember is Bud Norris getting extremely butthurt about it. This, to be honest, made me like the deal even more. It seemed like a tremendous deal at the time: Singleton had only endured one minor-league season with an OPS under .800 - and that was 2013, the year he was suspended for the last part of his 50 games for marijuana.

The deal brought the Astros a low-risk/high-reward situation. $10m guaranteed is only $5m more than the Astros paid the Pirates to take Wandy Rodriguez. To date the Astros have paid Singleton $3.5m. They paid Matt Albers $2.5m to throw 10 innings in 2014. It was an unorthodox, mildly unprecedented deal, but then again, so are the Astros.

We can also realize that Singleton has played in 114 Major-League games, with only 19 ML games in 2015. He is still in his Age 24 season. Jon Singleton is three months younger than Nolan Fontana, six months younger than Max Stassi, and he is 15 months younger than Preston Tucker.

Singleton has had 420 career plate appearances -

[Pause for obvious joke to make itself]

- is that enough to write off his career? Did the Astros bring him up too early? Does Singleton need the dreaded Mark Appel Change of Scenery? Will he be the subject of the horror/comedy J.D. Martinez "But!" Scenario? Maybe. We wrote this when Altuve dropped off in 2013 - before the Astros pounced and he signed the team-friendliest contract in baseball - there's an emotional side of baseball that maybe we don't always take into consideration.

It's too soon to tell. The Astros will certainly give him another 12 months and at least two more chances to figure it out. I just hope he does.