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Jon Singleton and Javier Baez: are they doomed by strikeouts?

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Joseph Werner at Beyond the Boxscore presented some unsettling historical comps for Jon Singleton and Javier Baez this week. Will their issues with contact prevent successful careers?

Jon Singleton
Jon Singleton
Jim McIsaac

Earlier this week, Joseph Werner at Beyond the Boxscore examined the debut campaigns of Houston Astros first baseman Jonathan Singleton and Chicago Cubs infielder Javier Baez. If you haven't read the article, you should go do that now.

As you know, both Singleton and Baez had some "issues" with contact during the 2014 season. Although Singleton hit a credible 13 homers in his first 95 major league games at age 22/23, his overall line was just .168/.235/.335 with 134 strikeouts in 310 at-bats. Baez was similar at .169/.227/.324 with 95 strikeouts in 213 at-bats, although at age 21 he has a bit more time on the clock to work with.

Obviously these are not good numbers, but you may not realize exactly how bad they are. Quoting Werner:

To start, Singleton and Baez are in rarefied company – so rare, in fact, that both have accomplished a feat that hasn't happened since the start of the Live Ball Era in 1920. No rookie with a similar number of plate appearances – 300 or more in Singleton’s case, and 200 or more with respect to Baez – has struck out more frequently from 1920 through the end of 2013.

Werner runs down lists of rookies who have performed similarly to Singleton and Baez and the results are unsettling.

For Singleton, only three rookies in history posted a similar age/strikeout/plate appearance profile to Singleton: Reggie Jackson, Pete Incaviglia, and Oswaldo Arcia. We don't know what will happen with Arcia of course; Incaviglia had his moments and Jackson was outstanding, however Singleton's offensive production was "by far and away the worst, posting the only sub-100 total" in wRC+ terms. Jackson and Incaviglia struck out a lot, but they also produced above-average numbers while doing it. Singleton didn't come close with a wRC+ of 79.

Put another way, no player in history was given as much slack as Singleton was by the Astros this year: usually if a rookie performs that poorly, they'll get the plug pulled way before they get to 300 plate appearances.

Not satisfied with a sample of three, Werner expands the criteria, looking at a list of  22-year-old rookies with at least 300 plate appearances, wRC+ totals under 85, and walk rates of at least 10 percent. There were 12 who met those criteria and only three of them finished with a career wRC+ north of league average. The best one was Robin Ventura, but his strikeout rate was far lower than Singleton's. The closest one to Singleton in terms of strikeouts was one-time Astros prospect Eric Anthony. who finished with a career wRC+ of 90.

Comps for Baez were easier to find, but of 20 identified by Werner, only four finished with career wRC+ marks in positive territory, the best being Matt Williams.

So, what does all of this mean? Are Singleton and Baez absolutely doomed?

No, but it does mean they have a lot of work to do. Werner concludes that

it is not a very impressive group of comps for Baez and Singleton, both showing a ton of bust potential. In the end, though, the pair of rookies have dug themselves in tremendously deep holes to begin their respective big league careers. Whether they can dig themselves out or not remains to be seen.

What do you think? Will the Astros regret giving Singleton that five-year contract? Will Baez unlock his talent quickly enough to hold back the other top prospects the Cubs have coming up behind him? Will Singleton and Baez be major league regulars five years from now?