When you hear the name Ken Singleton, you probably think of the broadcaster, formerly for the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos, pairing with Gary Thorne for ESPN’s international broadcast of the World Series, and now working for the Yankees on MSG Network and now the YES Network. Previously one of the main analysts and backup play-by-play men to Michael Kay (that role has been reduced as he eases into retirement), he has been noted by colleagues as one of the nicest men around the game. You may also know that he grew up in Mount Vernon, NY in real estate previously owned by Ralph Branca and that he is a cousin of NBA coach Doc Rivers.
With such a stellar career behind the booth, you may forget that the former third overall pick had a pretty productive Major League Baseball career, spending the majority of his career with the Baltimore Orioles. In fact, his 44.4 career fWAR ranks 112th among all qualified outfielders, and his 134 wRC+ has him tied for 68th among the same category.
Is this article going to be a soliloquy to try and get Singleton into the Hall of Fame? Hell no. As productive as 44.4 fWAR in 15 seasons is, it is not “Hall of Famer” material (unless, of course, I were to use the rulebook that got Harold Baines a plaque). Instead, this article will discuss how underrated he was as a player, evident by how rarely you hear the name Ken Singleton in baseball talks nowadays — unless you’re a diehard Orioles fan — and just one highlight of his playing career on YouTube:
Of course, that 44.4 could have been greater if not for horrendous defense and lack of any type of speed. According to Fangraphs, his total zone (TZ) was -62 between left field and right field, albeit most of that comes from a -76 TZ in right field. Along with having “the speed of a turtle”, he was not a good baserunner overall, finishing with -7.8 BsR. That’s where the negatives of Singleton’s game based on statistics alone end.
Let’s start with his most powerful trait: plate disipline. In a 1977 interview, he stated:
“Pitchers have to be careful with me, because I have the size and strength to hit the ball out, but I also have such a good eye that they can’t just nibble around the plate. My job is mainly to get on base and if they don’t put the ball over, even if it’s just barely inside or outside, I usually won’t swing.”Ken Singleton, from ‘Beat Feet But Eyes Right‘ by Larry Keith
Nowadays, we have seen a trend of players looking for one of the three true outcomes (walk, strikeout, homerun), and it seemed like Singleton was doing that before it became a trend. Throughout his career, his walk percentages were well above the 8.5-9% average around the league in a given season. In fact, his walk percentage dipped below 10% just one year (1984, his final season). Even in a year plagued with a serious eye problem (1977), he was able to walk 16.4% of the time, his fourth-highest walk percentage.
That’s not to say walking was simply a myth or completely unprecedented in the 70s. Elected Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Willie McCovey, and Willie Mays, as well as Jimmy Wynn, contributed to five of the six 20% or higher walk seasons, while Singleton’s best walk season was just 23rd in that timeframe. But if we are talking about consistency, throughout the 70s, just 11 players had a better walk percentage (15.4%) than Singleton. If you want to extrapolate that to another decade, that number increases to 22.
That leads to a career .388 on-base percentage, tied for 63rd among outfielders, including the late Tony Gwynn. In his Orioles career, the same .388 in 10 seasons only ranks behind Frank Robinson in Orioles’ history. This includes a .438 mark in his career-high season. A down season in his prime was a .405 OBP.
To make his walk rate that much better, Singleton did not strikeout a ton. Yes, on multiple occasions, in an era of baseball where striking out was still a sin to the game, his K% was well beyond the league average, but in terms of what we know about strikeouts now, he was not a three-true outcome hitter at a 14.6 career K%. Take his career 14.8 BB% and 14.6 K% and you have a 1.01 BB/K ratio, probably not respectable in his era, but a godsend in today’s game.
While never much of a pure home run hitter (246 career HRs, .154 ISO), it is not like he was completely lucky in getting to a career .824 OPS. He had a career .310 BABIP, and with the exception of 1977 (.365) and a few sub-.280 seasons, his year-to-year BABIP did not deviate that much from his career number. I don’t think I need to tell you that Statcast did not exist then, and just one career highlight exists on video, so that’s about the extent any of us can provide about “luck”.
And just to provide some traditionalism just because, Earl Weaver called Singleton “the kind of hitter…who can start a rally by getting on base or end one by driving in the winning run.” For whatever stock you want to put into “clutch”, Weaver’s point is somewhat true with a career .828 OPS in high leverage situations.
According to traditional counting stats, Ken Singleton was just a good bat with a strong arm and not much else. That’s likely why, despite having the 7th highest OPS and the 19th highest JAWS in his one year on the Hall of Fame Ballot, he was 1BZD (first ballot, zero votes, and done). It’s also likely why his playing career is kept quiet, notwithstanding the outstanding broadcasting career and having the privilege to play in the exact same era as other great offensive talents such as Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray (on his own team), and Hank Aaron.
That said, Ken Singleton is absolutely one of those players that would probably be well respected in today’s era of sabermetric baseball. The lack of speed or defense and uncertainty of what his batted ball profile looked like and how it would translate — not even considering a completely different profile in pitchers around the league — is a bit of a concern. Maybe the ability to take Statcast technology into the past will exist and it will show a completely different story. But solely based on what we know now, I am confident that a hitter like Singleton would be beloved in this era for his very good walk-to-strikeout ratio, ability to get on base, and his pure hitting talent when he does swing the bat.
None of this mentions how likable he was, both in terms of personality in looks, which applied when he was a player and now in his post-playing career in the booth.
Luckily, Singleton has garnered recognition for his playing career. He was a three-time All-Star — albeit was not recognized for his league-leading OBP season in 1973 — finished 2nd in the MVP race in 1979, and was inducted into the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame with Jim Palmer in 1986. In 2020, Camden Chat’s Tyler Young ranked Singleton as the 14th best Oriole of all-time.
Still, as his broadcasting career comes to a close, there is likely so much more to appreciate from the overall playing career of Ken Singleton.
I do believe, in this day in age, that my ability to get on base would be more appreciated. In fact, in 1973, I led the National League in OBP and no one really said anything about it. It wasn’t even a negotiating point in my next contract. In this day in age, if you lead the league in OBP, someone is going to know about it. It would be pointed out. I think that year in 1973, I reached base 43% of the time and it wasn’t talked about.Ken Singleton, interview with River Ave Blues
Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14).