Phillies prospect Singleton discovers that patience pays off

Phillies prospect Jonathan Singleton watches as one of his home runs leaves the park.
Phillies prospect Jonathan Singleton watches as one of his home runs leaves the park.
Posted: June 21, 2010

LAKEWOOD, N.J. - These are the moments baseball prospects pray for, moments that grant them an EZPass to the next level.

Tie game. Bottom of the 10th. Bases loaded. Two outs. Full count.

For Lakewood BlueClaws first baseman Jonathan Singleton, the temptation to go yard against Lexington last week was extraordinary. Usually calm, he tensed up a degree. Seated six rows behind him was Dallas Green, the senior adviser to Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. Scattered throughout FirstEnergy Park were a constellation of scouts and Phillies brass. With Singleton on a rampage through the Class A South Atlantic League, this would be his exclamation point.

He cocked his bat back, followed through, and . . . a check swing. Ball four. The winning run trotted home. Lexington's pitcher hurled his mitt toward his dugout. Singleton was the hero.

"Anybody else would swing at that ball," said teammate Anthony Hewitt. "That was clutch."

Singleton, 18, has quickly emerged as one of the Phillies' most prized prospects. Through 37 games, the 2009 eighth-round pick is hitting .373 with nine home runs and 41 RBI. He hit two home runs yesterday in the BlueClaws' 6-3 win over Kannapolis that clinched the league's first-half title and a playoff berth.

At first glance, the Lakewood, Calif., native doesn't look 18. He's a solid 215 pounds, with linebacker-thighs. His swing is fluid, a no-frills motion made for a Tom Emanski commercial. But more than anything, the quality that differentiates Singleton from other low-A power hitters is his patience.

For example, current Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, who hit 19 home runs in 570 plate appearances as a 22-year-old at Lakewood in 2002, struck out 145 times while drawing 66 walks. Singleton would be on pace to hit roughly 27 home runs with 94 strikeouts and 83 walks in a season with 570 plate appearances.

He is more poker player than lumberjack, quietly maximizing each hand he is dealt rather than hacking his way to a few extra home runs against fresh-out-of-school pitchers.

With his man-amongst-boys power, Singleton could go down swinging and no one would blame him. Instead, Singleton picks his spots. Up until last week, Singleton had more walks than strikeouts.

That night against Lexington, Singleton refused to whiff at an assortment of changeups. He waited, finally got a delicious fastball, and - even then - knew better than to swing.

"It was a fastball in," Singleton said. "I wanted it, but it was too much off the plate to do anything with it, so I said, 'OK, that's a ball.' "

In 13 years as a major league catcher during the 1980s and '90s, Mark Parent played with and against all types of sluggers. Now, he is the first-year manager in Lakewood, where last week he sat in his office stirring a bowl of baked beans and pointing out the subtleties that make Singleton stand out from other raw hitters. Singleton's ability to drop his head and react to a pitch at the last possible moment is rare.

"He can wait," Parent said. "He doesn't commit on balls. He does at times, with a pitch here or a pitch there, but I have yet to see him do that for a whole game."

Patience got Singleton to this point. His season began as a waiting game. Singleton didn't join the BlueClaws right away, staying in Clearwater, Fla., for extended spring training. The BlueClaws were stocked at first base and Singleton needed seasoning. One NL scout said Singleton underachieved in high school. Long, humble days of hitting down south would help.

"Every day, we did extra groundballs, extra hitting," Singleton said. "It was really a routine on a schedule. It was very beneficial."

Eventually, the Phillies couldn't ignore the reports from Florida. Singleton was breaking out faster than anyone expected. He headed north and played his first game May 12. And on his second at-bat in Class A, Singleton belted a homer.

"It was a tremendous ball," Parent said. "You could see his confidence level. He changed. When you prepare so much, you have a lot of confidence."

At this level, every day is a job interview. Parent sees it all the time. The always-closing window of opportunity feeds anxiety. But Singleton is in no hurry. It's his nature. The only daily activity he isn't overtly patient with is driving. Otherwise, he never seems rushed or stressed.

Singleton, whose father Rocky played quarterback at the University of Oregon, is a product of growing up on the West Coast. Go to the beach, relax, have fun. That's the lifestyle, he said.

Whenever Parent's office door is closed - a sign to players that he's deep in thought - Singleton likes to sneak up to the door window. He peers in, gets Parent's attention and dances.

"He's a laidback guy," said Hewitt, the Phillies' first-round pick in 2008. "Off the field, you wouldn't even know he played baseball."

This low-stress approach pays off. Because, as Hewitt says, Singleton "is a beast." The longest ball he ever hit? During a high school game at the Metrodome - 485 feet. As Singleton remembers, the ball sailed deep into the upper deck, disappearing into an abandoned tunnel somewhere. Leaning onto his locker with his right arm, Singleton smiled.

The Phillies have to be aware of this power, right?

"I hope so," he said. "I'm just going to try to go out there and play hard every day and give it all I got."

Amongst the Phillies brass in attendance for the Lexington series was Benny Looper, the team's assistant general manager of player personnel. Flanked far left in the bleachers, Looper studied Singleton during batting practice. To him, Singleton has improved drastically this season. After hitting .290 with two homers and 12 RBI in 31 games in the Gulf Coast Rookie League, Singleton has matured in a hurry, Looper said.

The game-winning check swing might as well have been a grand slam.

"For a young kid, that's outstanding," Looper said, "particularly in a situation like that. The game's on the line and you want to be the hero. I thought that it was outstanding on his part to be that patient."

Don't expect a quantum leap to the Phillies any time soon. The next step to high Class A Clearwater might have to wait. Again, he's 18. There's no need to force-feed him into action. An NL scout predicted Singleton would be ready for the Phillies in 3 or 4 years.

"The guy has a real good swing," the scout said. "It's real simple and he repeats it well. He has good bat speed and can drive the ball to all fields . . . With a guy like him having so much success at a young age, you'd like to challenge him, but you also don't want to hurt his confidence."

Also potentially standing in his way down the road is the $125 million man Howard, fresh off a contract extension that could keep him in Philadelphia until 2017. As long as Howard's around, Singleton won't be playing first base for the Phillies any time soon. Singleton is willing to play in the outfield if need be, "any way to get there," he said.

In so many ways, Singleton is Howard Lite.

Both are lefties. Both hit for power, hoisting their bats high at the plate. Howard is a former BlueClaw himself. Not surprisingly, Singleton paid close attention to Howard during spring training. With a mix of young and old players in the Phillies organization, Singleton and Howard went bowling during the spring. Howard crushed him.

For now, the 18-year-old and 30-year-old will reside in their separate worlds. Here in Lakewood, Singleton plays in front of 5,000 one night, 1,000 another night. More scouts are making the trip to the Jersey Shore. At the BlueClaws' loss Wednesday night, at least four teams were in attendance. Some in the press box, some in the stands. Singleton's name came up more than any other.

For now, he isn't mapping out a trip to the majors. The farther his career advances, the more complex the pitches have become. Singleton will simply keep picking his spots carefully.

"It doesn't change what I do," he said. "I still have the same approach and hit the pitches that I want to hit."

From here on, more patience might be all it takes for Singleton to get to the Big Show.

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