Singles Hitters Who Walk
July 1, 2014 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
My colleague Jeff Kallman has already written a tribute to Tony Gwynn for this site. Hundreds of people have written tributes for Gwynn, one of the most beloved superstars in baseball, and I have nothing to add to the many great stories about Gwynn, as a man or a ballplayer. But Gwynn was an example of a type of hitter that fascinates me — a singles hitter who walked a lot.
Sluggers are mostly the guys who get walked. Pitchers fear power, and with men on base or a close game in the late innings, power hitters don't see many pitches in the strike zone. Four major league batters walked at least 2,000 times: Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams. Those are three of the best power hitters in history, plus Rickey, who had maybe the most power of any longtime leadoff hitter. The top 10 in BB also includes Jim Thome, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, and Frank Thomas, all of whom hit over 500 home runs and had a career ISO over .225.
ISO is isolated power. It's a measure of power hitting. The formula is simple: slugging percentage minus batting average. Remove BA from SLG and you're left with extra bases divided by at-bats. Babe Ruth has the all-time highest ISO, .348. Ruth's career average was .342, with a .690 SLG. Calculate 690-342, and you get 348. In the lively ball era, MLB average ISO is .129, with a standard deviation of .018, which roughly means that in two-thirds of all seasons, the league-wide ISO is between .111-.147. Isolated slugging bottomed out during the second World War (.091 in 1943) and peaked in 2000 (.167). This season's ISO of .140 is the lowest since 1993.
But it's not ISO that interests me here. I mentioned my fascination with singles hitter who walk, the ideal we crave for leadoff hitters. Singles hitters have low ISO, but I'm interested in really good singles hitters — like Tony Gwynn — who get on base a lot. Lots of bad hitters have low ISO, so by itself that's not what I'm looking for, and lots of sluggers have high on-base percentages. To find singles hitters who walk, I'm employing a simple formula: OBP minus ISO.
I looked at the top 300 hitters of all-time, basically everyone with 2,000 career hits. Tony Gwynn ranks 37th in OBP-ISO. That makes sense, because while Gwynn is a good example of a what we're looking for — a great hitter who would take a walk but didn't have a ton of power — he's not an ideal model of high OBP, low ISO. Gwynn walked, but not a lot. Only once did he walk 60 times in a season, and his 790 career BB is not in the top 250 of all time. Gwynn also had some power; he hit 543 doubles and 135 home runs. Gwynn had 50 extra-base hits seven times, and easily would have had an eighth in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Gwynn hit 2,378 singles, but he wasn't just a singles hitter.
The top of the list, in this reverse-ISO, is Billy Hamilton. That's Sliding Billy Hamilton, the Hall of Fame outfielder for Philadelphia and Boston in the 1890s, not the rookie phenom for the Cincinnati Reds. The original Hamilton retired with 2,164 hits, 1,189 bases on balls, and 377 extra-base hits. Hamilton hit .344/.455/.432, with an ISO of just .088, and an OBP higher than his slugging percentage. Hamilton is a wonderful example of the hitter I'm looking for, and he leads my new stat by a huge margin. His .367 score rates 12% higher than second-place Eddie Collins (.328). Here's the all-time top 10:
1. Billy Hamilton, .367
2. Eddie Collins, .328
3. Richie Ashburn, .322
4. Willie Keeler, .315
5. Luke Appling, .311
6. Jesse Burkett, .307
7. Fred Tenney, .306
t8. Wade Boggs, .300
t8. Dummy Hoy, .300
10. Stan Hack, .298
That's not an altogether surprising list — which means the new stat, simple as it is, works. We wanted good players, and seven of the 10 are Hall of Famers. The other three (Tenney, Hoy, and Hack) were all excellent players. We wanted singles hitters, and all of these players had below-average ISO. Only Burkett (.108) and Boggs (.115) were over 100. And finally, we wanted batters who walk. Eight of the 10 had over 1,000 bases on balls, and all had OBPs over .370, nine of them over .385.
As a group, those 10 players hit .319/.405/.408. They combined for 26,000 hits, of which 21,000 were singles. They walked 11,121 times and struck out just 3,333, with 4,021 stolen bases. They scored 15,000 runs and drove in just 8,500. It's a very specific skill set, and one that's always captured fans' imaginations. When people talk about "pure hitters", this is often the type of player they imagine. Among modern players the most similar are Boggs, Ichiro Suzuki (.319/.361/.414), and Pete Rose (.303/.375/.409). The new Billy Hamilton shares some obvious qualities with the original Billy Hamilton, but he's not really a good fit for the model at this point in his career (.283/.318/.402). Joe Sewell, George Van Haltren, and Appling are even closer fits than Ichiro and Rose; they nearly match that .319/.405/.408 batting line for their careers. But that highlights the problem with our list.
Five of our 10 players were active in the 1890s, and only two (Ashburn and Boggs) played the majority of their careers after World War II. Players like Hamilton and Van Haltren certainly fit our definition, but we've isolated an era and a style of play as much as a style of player. What if we limit this to players from the last 70 years? The top 10, OBP-ISO:
1. Richie Ashburn, .322
2. Wade Boggs, .300
3. Willie Randolph, .297
4. Rod Carew, .292
5. Brett Butler, .291
6. Maury Wills, .280
7. Juan Pierre, .277
8. Jason Kendall, .276
9. Nellie Fox, .274
10. Ozzie Smith, .271
These players are probably familiar to most fans, and you have an immediate image of how they played. They were all pretty good hitters — you don't get to 2,000 hits without being a decent hitter — but none really hit with any power. Boggs leads the group in both slugging (.443) and isolated power (.115), followed by Carew (.429, .101). The last five players (Wills to Smith) were slightly below-average hitters who made up for it as fielders and baserunners.
Juan Pierre, for instance, spent 13 years as a major league regular, with a career high of 3 HR. But he was an athletic outfielder who stole 600 bases, hit triples, and was a good bunter. Incidentally, Pierre's page at Baseball Reference lists the most similar player as Clyde Milan, a Deadball-Era center fielder for the Washington Senators. Also listed among the most similar players are Fred Tenney and Dummy Hoy. If you've ever wondered what baseball was like in the early 1900s, imagine a game where every player was a lot like Juan Pierre.
Our 10 contemporary players include five HOFers (Ashburn, Boggs, Carew, Fox, and Smith). Ashburn, far ahead of the pack, merits particular attention. He really was a unique player for his era. Ashburn was brilliant at reaching base. He hit .308 over 15 seasons and walked 1,200 times. His OBP (.396) was a good bit higher than his SLG (.382), and he scored almost 2½ times as many runs (1322) as he drove in (586). Ashburn had only one season, 1955, with an ISO over .100. He hit .338/.449/.448 that year, with 3 HR and a career-high 32 doubles. Ashburn was a famous and beloved player, who has had three books written about him, and he was the last of his kind. Boggs slugged 60 points higher. Carew hit three times as many HR. Fox was a worse hitter and a terrible baserunner. Ozzie hit almost 50 points below Ashburn. And all of them played the infield. Butler, Wills, Pierre, and Kendall weren't the same caliber of player as Ashburn.
Willie Randolph might be the most similar modern player to Ashburn. They were roughly equal hitters, about 10-15% better than league average, and they got there roughly the same way, with .074 and .076 ISO. Both were excellent defensive players and accomplished baserunners, with about 250 SB and 90 CS. Both had about 1,200 BB and 600 strikeouts. Ashburn had about 30 points of batting average and slugging on Randolph, but a lot of that is when and where they played. Ashburn hit more triples and Randolph more home runs. Ashburn played center field, and Randolph was a second baseman. But Randolph is probably the most similar player to Richie Ashburn in the last 60 years. The one other player who might compare is Ichiro, but he has many more HR, many fewer walks, and twice as many steals.
I'm done with top 10 lists, but other players of interest who rank well in OBP-ISO:
17. Ty Cobb, .287
Terrific OBP, but you're not going to lead this list with a .512 SLG. Cobb was a power hitter in the Deadball Era, leading the AL in slugging eight times. Cobb's ISO was .146.
28. Tris Speaker, .272
Kind of the same story as Cobb. Speaker's ISO was even higher, .156.
34. Pete Rose, .269
Rose hit 3,215 singles, but he also had 1,041 XBH: 746 doubles, 135 triples, and 160 home runs. He wasn't just a singles hitter. He did walk a ton, though (1,566 BB).
37. Tony Gwynn, .268
40. Ichiro Suzuki, .265
Ichiro is a fascinating player. He led the American League in IBB three times, but never drew 40 unintentional walks in a season. His OBP isn't particularly high compared to the other players on this list, and while he's a singles hitter in today's game, compared to the standards of baseball's first 50 years or so, he hit a lot of home runs.
45. Rickey Henderson, .261
.401 OBP, .419 SLG.
And outside the top 50...
52. Omar Vizquel, .256
54. Tim Raines, .254
56. Frankie Frisch, .253
t58. Ed Delahanty, Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, .252
63. George Sisler, .251
69. Kenny Lofton, .248
72. Derek Jeter, .247
92. Rabbit Maranville, .237
95. Joe Morgan, .236
Henderson and Morgan rank the highest of anyone with at least 200 HR, Henderson the highest by far. Rogers Hornsby (.216) and Edgar Martinez (.214) lead the 300-HR Club, though it's worth noting they hit only a few more HR (301 and 309, respectively) than Rickey (297). Carl Yastrzemski is by far the highest of the 400-HR men (.202). I expected Stan Musial (.189) to rate higher, but he's 184th, behind 500-HR hitter Ted Williams (.193).
The bottom of the list presumably shows power hitters who don't walk:
1. Sammy Sosa, .083
2. Alfonso Soriano, .089
3. Joe Carter, .101
4. Ernie Banks, .105
5. Willie Stargell, .113
6. Ken Griffey Jr., .116
7. Carlos Delgado, .117
8. David Ortiz, .119
t9. Andre Dawson, .120
t9. Mike Schmidt, .120
Other players of interest, ranked by lowest OBP-ISO, the Sosa list:
t12. Hank Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Thome, .124
16. Alex Rodriguez, .125
17. Babe Ruth, .126
t18. Reggie Jackson and Willie Mays, .128
22. Albert Pujols, .132
The problem with this second list, as you can see, is that it's not honing in on a particular type of player: this is much more about slugging than anything else. Most of these guys walked plenty, but their ISO numbers are so huge they're near the bottom of the list. This method just finds power hitters, and we have better ways of doing that. The OBP-ISO formula, though, works really well for identifying Wade Boggs- and Tony Gwynn-style players: singles hitters who walk.
Final note: I wanted to make sure no one else had done a study like this, and it turns out that when you type "Singles Hitters Who Walk" into a search engine, you get suggestions like "singles hitters who walked on the moon" and "singles hitters who walked kim kardashian down the isle." Note that 'aisle' is misspelled.