Monday, May 10, 2010

Chone O Chone,
Where have you gone?

By Dale Vaughn - Contributor

I’m not a Mariners fan… being an avid fan of another AL West team. But I have always been a fan of the athlete who (until now) has played the most electrifying small ball in the game for the better part of a decade. I am talking about Chone Figgins, now a Seattle Mariner; formerly a longtime Los Angeles Angel. I’m a fan of Chone Figgins, regardless of his team. His brand of baseball flies under the radar in the headlines of no-hitters and big-hitters; but it’s been a shaky start for Figgins since his move up the west coast. In fact, it’s been a miserable start.

The last time the indelible Chone Figgins’s line looked this bad was... wait... this is the worst he’s ever played. For such a stalwart run-scoring, base-stealing, top-of-the-order tough out, it’s been hard to get on base in 2010.

Let's review.

His current .331 OBP is the lowest it has been in his career, the next lowest would be 2006, when he somehow swiped 52 bases, scored 93 runs, hit .263, and held a .336 OBP. For a bad year, that’s not a bad year. Any head coach or fantasy owner would take that bad year... but this?

Seattle went out to get Figgins and had to feel great about stealing the competition’s leadoff man from within the division… plus he was going to bat 2nd because they’ve got a pretty good leadoff man already. Here’s a guy who’s going to score 100 runs in a bad year, with plus defense and veteran leadership; but the payoff hasn’t happened just yet.

So what is the problem? Let’s dig into some stats and see if we can isolate it.

Average is down, OBP is down, BB% is up, steals are looking good (8 so far); but steals are only important when they equal runs, and those aren’t there yet.

Wait, here’s something: his BABIP (BA on balls in play) has dropped more than 80 points from his career average of .339. I'm guessing, based on some correlating fluctuation, that's because he has hit 10% less line drives and 10% more fly balls. But he’s still been legging out 5% more infield hits, so that should help right? Nope, because he’s striking out profusely (28%) when he’s not putting the ball in play. Yes, he’s struck out more than he’s hit 29/20.

Apparently Figgins’s contact ratio has dipped 10% from last year, mostly because he’s not making contact with pitches outside of the zone (15% less than his career average). That would explain his K increase, but still not directly explain his BABIP and Line Drive % dips.

Is it playing at home in Seattle?

Well, maybe. His BABIP splits would tell us that yes, he is definitely getting more leeway when away from Starbucks City... but then again, that fly ball ratio is up near 50% at home... so can you blame the ballpark when you're not putting the ball on the ground? No. I mean, his BB/K ratio is better at home, so all of his other disappointing production can be derived from line drives turning into fly balls before they hit the ground at home.

I’m reminded of the baseball film “Major League,” when Willie Mays Hayes is ordered to start doing pushups for every ball he hit in the air. I feel every team claiming to be this season’s comeback and win team, should be forced to watch that movie and make players decide which character they represent. Are you Dorn? Time to stop decorating that conservatory. Are you Cerrano? Forget Jobu, just do it yourself. Figgins is clearly used to being Willie… but so is the guy hitting in front of him. Maybe Ichiro is the problem.

Is Ichiro throwing off Figgy’s groove?
His fly ball ratio would increase if he was hitting any sacrifice flies… but his bunt ratio would surely increase more if he was frequently moving Ichiro over… and neither his SacFly ratio nor his bunt attempts are showing any major upticks so far. His ground balls are still getting him hits, so the infield playing to protect from Ichiro’s stealing bases can’t be a statistical factor, either.

Is it the hitting coach in Seattle? As of today, he's out, so maybe there’s hope for a re-invigoration of Figgins’s hitting (along with the rest of the Mariners).

Figgins is a switch hitter, and apparently there’s a problem with his hitting from the left side. He’s hitting a paltry .119 from the left, and a smoking .324 from the right. Maybe a new hitting coach can help him forget he’s ambidextrous. Problem solved.

To compare to another small ball guy… Kenny Lofton hit .300 and got on base 40% of his 9th season (32 years old - exactly the same as Figgins). He may have only stolen 25 bases that year, but he scored 110 runs and only struck out 89 times... Figgins is on pace for 70 runs 145 Ks right now. Until he reverses that trend, Seattle is going to have a hard time producing runs… and they’re going to need small ball runs to win in a division that suddenly has pitching depth (a subject for another time).

It’s early… well, it’s not that early.

Go Figgins… except when playing the Rangers… and especially when playing the Angels. You assumed I was an Angels fan, didn’t you? I’m a small ball fan, a Chone Figgins fan, and a Rangers fan; but mostly, I’m a baseball fan… surely we can meet somewhere in the middle?

(Stats from

Love to hear what you think!


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