- FanGraphs Fantasy Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy -

Chone Figgins and the Battle for Relevancy

Elsewhere, I’ve decried both the unfairness and the uselessness of the Mendoza Line. The TL;DR version is this: Mendoza was a bit player for the vast majority of his career, so naming the failure line after him for his one season as a regular –1979 with the Seattle Mariners — isn’t the most sporting of choices. As for its uselessness, it didn’t come up last season, but in 2010, Carlos Pena actually finished below the Mendoza Line with a .196 average. In doing so, however, he still managed a .732 OPS; hitting some 40 points better, but finishing with an OPS of .609 was Jose Lopez. Positional considerations aside, who would you rather have?

Sometimes, however, the Mendoza Line really does tell you all you need to know about a player. Chone Figgins hit .188 last year. There are other numbers that will tell you just how bad his year was: His career low 6.7 percent walk rate, his wRC+ of 34, or his -1.2 WAR for example, but it would just be beating a dead horse. Even at his most patient, Figgins needs a decent batting average to drive his value, his .188 mark gave him almost no chance to be driven in, steal bases, or do anything else to get some of his lost value back. 2011 was, in almost every way, a lost year for Figgins.

The good news is that I don’t see any way Figgins isn’t better in 2012 than he was in 2011. His BABIP was an almost unbelievably low .215 compared to his career .329 mark. He popped balls up at a nearly 16 percent rate, just barely under his 18 percent line drive rate, a combination that is to batting average as a large dose of cyanide is to human life, which is to say contraindicated. He battled a knee and hip injury, which didn’t do his speed any favors, but neither of those should show up again this season. Further good news is that Figgins will be leading off a Mariners lineup that should be better almost from top to bottom. Assuming that Figgins hits at least .250 and gets his walk rate back up, he should be driven in at a decent rate by Dustin Ackley, Ichiro, and Jesus Montero.

Here’s the problem: That assumption may not seem like that difficult a proposition, but Figgins may realistically struggle to get there.

His 2011 was a mess, there’s no way to slice his numbers and not come to that conclusion, but I’m less concerned with the actual depth to which he sunk and more with the fact that this wasn’t unprecedented. 2011 was the second consecutive year of declining production from Figgins and he isn’t falling at a mean rate. His wRC+ has fallen from good (117 in 2009) to workable (88 in 2010) to execrable (34 in 2011). As bad as his 2010 was, it was mostly disguised by the fact that he was still able to steal 42 bases, which made him playable as long as the rest of the team made up for the loss in batting average. He’s now headed into his age-34 season; whatever speed he has is going to start declining very soon if it hasn’t already, and that’s going to limit his ability to cope with decreased production by helping in at least one category.

I’m still confident that 2011 will be the worst season of his career, but that doesn’t mean he’s a worthwhile fantasy option. Let’s say he recovers completely from his swoon and hits at his 2010 levels again — .259/.340/.306 with a home run, for those keeping score at home — but instead of stealing 42 bases, he stole 27 bases, which is the average of his last two seasons. With that line, he’d be virtually identical to Eduardo Nunez, though Nunez hit four extra home runs and stole five fewer stolen bases in 2011. The trouble is, whereas Nunez is on the rise and could well exceed that 2011 production this season, that line is probably the best we can plausibly assume Figgins will do without making himself the prohibitive favorite for the Comeback Player of the Year. ZiPS has Figgins at .242/.323/.305 with 23 SB and that’s right where I’d expect him to be, if a little on the high side, which would tie him for 79th most stolen bases in baseball.

It’s a shame for the Mariners that Figgins hasn’t worked out the way they might have hoped, but I can’t believe they’ll spend the whole season hoping that Figgins will unexpectedly revert to his 2009 form. There’s a huge incentive for the M’s to see what Alex Liddi can offer at third and to continue the rebuilding process they are currently undergoing. Because power isn’t part of his profile, a move won’t help Figgins much, which means a trade isn’t going to help his value. If he’s traded to a team that needs a utility man more than a starter, his playing time — and his value — could be severely cribbed.

Figgins’ upside is pretty limited at this point. He’s not draftable for me in mixed or most AL-only leagues. If because of how a draft has gone, you desperately need 25 steals out of your third baseman in a really deep AL-only league, he fits that description, but beyond that rather specific scenario, Figgins’ days as a draftable fantasy option are over.