The recent article on Ken Singleton by Fangraph's own David Laurila got me thinking this morning about the esthetic quality of the "slash line." Singleton's own unique skill set for example, his elite walk rate with only marginal power, lends to some really beautiful, if not odd-looking slash lines. If you take the time to give a cursory glance of his player page, you'll see exactly what I mean. In particular, it was his 1975 season that really jumped out at me:
.300/ .415/ .454
It has an exotic feel to it, doesn't it?
It's like some sort of rare, colorful beast captured by a team of pre-industrial age expeditioners from a strange and uncharted land. I suppose this is largely because we typically don't see this brand of advanced plate discipline without having the advanced power to reinforce it. When we see a .415 OBP in Albert Pujols's 2010 season, we also see that it's complimented by a hefty .596 SLG. This .312/.415/.596 slash line creates a picture for us. It manifests an image of a burly, dangerously powerful batter at the plate, striking fear into the heart of the pitcher, who therefore refuses to throw anything near the plate. Yet when we see Singleton's 1975 OBP of .414 with a mere .454 SLG beside it, what do we see? We see something we're not quite familiar with. We see something bizarre. Something special. Something almost gorgeous.
I've always been fascinated by such slash lines, and recently it's become something of an obsession. Earlier in the 2011 season, with the benefit of limited sample size, I spotted a number of them that absolutely thrilled me. Using Fangraph's "My Team" tool, I regularly check on the status of my fantasy team, and at one point in the season I discovered this gem:
That's the one and only Mike Napoli at about six weeks into the season. Beautiful, isn't it? What kind of freak of nature has a 163 point difference between his AVG and OBP and mashes over .500 SLG?
Then, at that same point in the season, I saw this masterpiece from Billy Butler:
.293 /.406 /.436
It's exactly this type of slash line that I wanted to investigate. The rare skill set of a combined marginal-AVG, high-OBP, and low-SLG. It's not easy to come by, and although Billy Butler could not sustain it in 2011 (he's now hitting .300/.373/.474), Ken Singleton was one of a select few that did for an entire season.
Using the Baseball Data Bank, I queried all batting seasons with at least 500 AB's, that had a .300 AVG or less, a .400 OBP or greater, and a SLG under .455. Since 1960, it's only happened thirteen times:
Adam Dunn meeting this criteria before his power stroke really clicked makes sense, as he's never hit for average, but has always walked. Tony Phillips really learned how to draw a walk as he got later into his career, and he barely misses the criteria in '93 and '94 as well. Brett Butler doing it twice is impressive, a testament to how underrated he may have been. A Willie Randolph power outbreak showing up makes sense as well, considering his lifetime slash of .276/.373/.351. But I have to admit, I was certainly hoping that early seasons from Ricky and Morgan would make the list, as this seems to be right around their profiles. Though both did go on to hit for power, their first few seasons before they bulked up, were all very close to meeting the criteria as well.
The common thread for all of these seasons, naturally, is a high walk rate. Because of the .300 batting average cut-off, we won't see any BABIP-inflated OBP's. This group definitely earned their base with their eyes as much as their bats, as 12 of the 13 showed a BB% above 14.5 for that season. The lone exception is Ron Hunt in 1971, who while walking in only 9.1% of his plate appearances, still managed an OBP of .400. How's that possible? Well, the dude led the league in HBP's consecutively from 1968 through 1974, but in '71 amassed a very painful 50 HBP's! (Now that's a grinder!)
But Singleton's season is also exceptional in that of the 13 seasons that met the criteria, he has the fewest stolen bases of the group. We understand that Ricky, who stole over 100 bases that season, sees his Bases on Balls as an opportunity to steal second, and then third, and from there hopefully a teammate knocks him in. And this is largely true for everyone else on the list as well. If you don't have power to offer, you might as well take the walk and steal a base to help your team. This is especially true in the pre-steroid era, before the value of the walk became fully appreciated. Butler, Morgan, and Randolph all stole more than 30 bases their seasons. Even the young Adam Dunn had almost 20 that year. And I suppose Buford's knack for the walk in his age 33 season was just a leftover habit from his earlier years of swiping 50 bags or more. After that you are left with only Bando (6 SB), Hunt (5), Cunnigham (3), and good ol' Ken Singleton with only 3 stolen bases-- The Original Moneyballers.
The slash line is fairly new in it's popularity. I want to say it's really only been within the last decade that it has caught on as the go-to, quick-and-easy way of visualizing a batter's skill set. But in that short period of time it has charmed me and wooed me. Much in the same way the backs of baseball cards had when we were all much, much younger. We used to say, "will he hit .300/30/100?" But now we are offered a much more descriptive "will he hit .300/.350/.500?" And yes, the slash line is not as accurate as wOBA at putting a value on the hitter's performance. But there is something about the imperfect slash line's beauty and visual personality, that is worth more than accuracy. Because the slash line, unlike wOBA, tells a story. And in the case of Singleton's 1971 season it tells us a very unique story.
In his Historical Baseball Abstract, referring to a discussion on Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace, Bill James said, "People think in terms of images." And this is especially true in baseball statistics. When we see an Albert Pujols slash line, it creates an image. When we see Mike Napoli's, it creates an entirely different image. And every now and then, we get an image that defies reason, like Ken Singleton in 1975, if only just enough, to fascinate us.