Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Orioles and Sabermetrics

Sparked by a comment about Reggie Jackson's one season in Baltimore, I was surfing Baseball-Reference.com today and clicked on Ken Singleton.  I was amazed.

Singleton's career spanned 15 seasons, from 1970 to 1984, the final 10 of which he spent in an Orioles uniform (note: I was born in 1981, so I can't really remember his career).  After playing his first two seasons with the Mets, he was traded to the Expos for Rusty Staub.  In Montreal, he had three very good seasons, including a monster 1973 campaign where he led the league in on-base percentage, hit 23 homers and drove in 103 runs.  A "disappointing" 1975 season (he only hit 9 homers en route to a 110 OPS+) led the Expos to trade Singleton to the O's for a 31-year old Dave McNally (who would pitch 77.1 innings in 1975 and then retire), Rich Coggins (a speedy outfielder who peaked in 1973 at age 22), and AAA pitcher Bill Kirkpatrick (who would never reach the Majors).

In his first seven seasons with the O's, Singleton was among the very best players in the American League.  He hit .298/.403/.471, numbers good enough for a 149 OPS+ (interestingly, his slash line an awful lot like another underappreciated Orioles rightfielder), but he only managed to make three All-Star teams.  He was 2nd in the MVP balloting in 1979 (35 homers and 111 RBI, but Don Baylor, who hit behind Rod Carew's .419 OBP, drove in 139) and 3rd in 1977 (when Carew hit .388 and posted a 178 OPS+).  All told, Singleton finished his career with a .282/.388/.436 line, good enough for a 132 OPS+ (remember, the 1970s favored pitchers, generally, and Memorial Stadium favored pitchers, specifically).

Shockingly, Ken Singleton did not receive a single vote for the Hall of Fame in 1990. Not. A. Single. Vote.  And why not?  Because he didn't hit home runs or accumulate big RBI totals.  Jim Rice, career OPS+ 128, is in the Hall of Fame, yet a reasonable case can be made that Singleton was actually a better player than Rice.  So what's my point?

Orioles fans grew up on sabermetrics; we just didn't realize it.  Ken Singleton is exactly the type of player saberists love but who goes underappreciated: he doesn't hit tons of homers or put up big RBI totals, but he gets on base a ton.  Earl Weaver understood this, which is why Baltimore was the perfect fit for Singleton.  And it's also what makes Baltimore fans so frustrated with this year's team.

Miguel Tejada racks up gaudy RBI totals (or, at least he did in a previous life), but only gets on base 34% of the time.  Adam Jones swings at everything.  The manager fails to put relievers in a position to succeed.  The defense is awful.  Outfielders throw to the wrong base.  I can go on and on.

The Oriole Way was the original sabermetrics way: pitching, fundamentals, and the 3-run homer.  I hope the O's figure out a way to bring it back someday.


Kyle said...

According to Moneyball, Earl Weaver was ahead of his time. Baltimore baseball is a crying shame. It's almost to the point where we need to replace everyone including the players. Miguel Tejada well good riddance!

The Oriole Way said...

I agree, Kyle. O's fans are definitely ready for some classic Baltimore baseball!