Joey Gallo
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Outside the Boxscore

Is the Single Becoming Obsolete?

Updated On: September 3, 2020, 12:32 am ET

Major League Baseball has become a lonely place for singles.

The lust for long balls and sympathy for the shift have benched one of baseball’s most routine, yet beloved plays - the single.

With half of this truncated 2020 season now complete, there have been 37,118 plate appearances in games as of Monday morning with just 5,003 of those matchups ending in a 90-foot base hit, a meager 13.4%.

If that 13.4% figure holds through September, it’ll mark a sixth consecutive season of singles decline.

Batters safely hit for one base 13.9% of the time last season, 14.2% in 2018, 14.5% in 2017, 14.9% in 2016 and 15.2% in 2015.

The heyday of the single came in 1921 and 1922, when the one-base hit came at rates greater than 19% in both seasons.

When presented with the downward singles data, former seven-year MLB infielder Andy Stankiewicz wasn’t surprised and bluntly observed: “Nobody wants to hit a single.”

"The words we hear a lot of players say is, ‘I’m going to do damage,’" Stankiewicz, now the head baseball coach at Grand Canyon University, told NBC News. “Damage isn’t a single, it’s a double, an extra-base hit, a home run.”

For most of the 20th century, the single occupied a comfortable spot in MLB’s pecking order of offensive weapons.

Between 1946 and 1997, the number of plate appearances that ended in a one-bagger hovered between 15.9% and 17.1% in all but four of those 52 seasons.

The single rate dipped to 15.8% in 1998, the season best known for the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase, ushering in MLB’s long-ball-loving steroid era.

But even in a time of fearsome, early 21st century sluggers like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, singles remained steady. The rate gently fluctuated between 15.1% and 15.8% from 1999 to 2015.

In recent years, the anti-singles movement picked up steam as MLB teams, armed with reams of data, have correctly concluded that home runs are much more efficient path to scoring runs.

And even if teams wanted to score the old-fashion way, by stringing a series of hits, that’s no longer a viable option in an age of remarkably precise shifts.

The end result is fans being treated to more, thrilling home runs - but with fewer, singles-fueled sustained rallies. A record 6,776 home runs were hit in 2019, beating the short-lived record of 6,105 in 2017.

“We are losing action on the base paths,” noted baseball stats guru Bill Chuck said recently. “These things created excitement during the game. I believe the game is suffering from a lack of singles, lack of baserunners.”

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Chuck said he’s moderately hopeful the 13.4% singles rate could be bottoming out or least coming close to its floor.

“It literally can’t get much lower," he said.

Or can it?

To the horror of traditionalists, the trend toward walks, strikeouts and home runs could still heap more dirt on the grave of singles in coming years.

John Soteropulos, a hitting trainer at Driveline Baseball, the Seattle-based academy most closely associated with data-driven training, believes singles still has room to dip, perhaps into the 12% range.

Short of any radical rules changes, he predicted singles will rebound once additional defensive data drives shifts to be even more radical than today's alignments - deeper into outfield grass, with bunched infielders and outfielders both running down more fly balls and potential extra-base hits.

Only at that point will higher percentages of mishit grounders trickle through tumbleweeds and deserted infields for one-base hits.

“The single will be higher when we play start playing four outfielders," Soteropulos said. "Extra-base hits produce so many more runs than a single, it'll be a risk (surrendering more singles) you'd (a defensive team) want to take because extra-base hits do so much more damage."

The 56-year-old Stankiewicz insists he grasps and appreciates nuances of modern baseball and isn't trying to fight it. But to the native of Southern California - who grew up watching Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn pave their roads to Cooperstown, 90 feet at time - the under-value of singles still seems odd.

“Getting a nice line-drive base hit (single) up the middle (today) is like, ‘Whatever,’ it isn't necessarily a good thing. ‘Yeah, I guess I got a hit,’” Stankiewicz said in faux, mocking disappointment. “I mean could you imagine Tony Gwynn saying that? Rod Carew? The guys I grew up seeing, line drive machines.”

Stepping away from the batting cage and putting on his thinking cap as millennial consumer, Soteropulos insisted the three true outcomes of baseball are second nature to younger Americans.

Soteropulos - the fan, not the baseball instructor - said he'd gladly trade several grounders up the middle for a series of whiffs, walks and one 400-foot blast.

"Three strikeouts and a home run, that’s way more interesting to me than three singles," said Soteropulos, 26. “The home run is so exciting, you can't recreate that. The home run is just so amazing, I don’t think (younger) people mind waiting for that.”

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