Bringing up the rear in baseball’s short stack division, the Seattle Mariners haven’t put many crooked numbers on the score board. The M’s have plated an AL-low 109 runs and, even accounting for the pitcher-friendly nature of Safeco Field, the offense has been awful. With -31.9 park-adjusted Batting Runs, Seattle can only take solace in knowing the Houston Astros are making more outs (-55.1 park-adjusted Batting Runs).
Over the winter, the Mariners brought in a switch-hitter with a keen eye in an attempt to boost the club’s run scoring. Chone Figgins, fresh off a .298/.395/.393 season with the Angels in which he swiped 42 bases, inked a four-year, $36 million deal. Seattle decided to shift Chone to second base, giving him multi-position eligibility in fantasy leagues. The projection systems figured Figgins wouldn’t replicate his ’09 season, but they still envisioned a useful year at the plate for the 32-year-old:
CHONE: .272/.370/.358, .334 wOBA
ZiPS: .280/.373/.362, .339 wOBA
FANS: .291/.380/.374, .347 wOBA
But, instead of giving Seattle a high-OBP bat in addition to plus defense, Chone has slogged to a .190/.326/.241 triple-slash in 146 plate appearances. His wOBA is a ghastly .279. Why is Figgins falling so short of expectations?
Figgins is still drawing a ton of walks, with a 17.2 BB%, and he’s not swinging at many junk pitches off the plate (16.2 outside swing percentage; 25-27% MLB average in recent years). However, he has whiffed at a much higher rate than usual: Chone has K’d 26.7 percent of the time, compared to a 17.4% career rate. Figgins’ contact rate on pitches within the zone, 90.9% for his career, is 88.8% in 2010 (87-88% MLB average). His overall contact rate is 79.8%, well below his 86% career rate and close to the 80-81% MLB average.
In addition to swinging and missing more than usual, Figgins has let a lot of strikes go by this year. When opposing hurlers throw him a pitch within the strike zone, Chone is swinging just 48.6 percent of the time. For comparison, his career in-zone swing rate is 62 percent and the MLB average this season is 63.3 percent. Figgins’ taking more strikes has helped put his back against the wall more often and has likely contributed to the elevated K rate. In 2009, 50.5 percent of his plate appearances reached a two strike count (48 percent MLB average). This year, 55.5 percent of his PA have gone to two strikes (thanks, Baseball-Reference).
In terms of his batted ball profile, Figgins is hitting about the same number of ground balls. But more of his balls put in play are being classified as fly balls, at the expense of line drives. Figgins is hitting fly balls at a career-high 43.5% (34.3% career average), and hitting line drives a career-low 15.3% (23.4% career average).
Line drives fall for hits well over 70 percent of the time, so a steep drop in liners is certainly a negative for a hitter. A declining line drive rate and an increasing fly ball rate is even worse for a guy like Figgins, who has precious little power (.052 ISO this year, .095 ISO career). Fly balls hit in the AL have had a slugging percentage in the high .500’s in recent seasons, but Figgins’ career slugging percentage when he lofts the ball is .386. When Chone hits a fly ball, nothing much happens.
However, the distinction between line drives and fly balls can be hazy. Liners don’t show a high year-to-year correlation. It’s hard to say if Figgins really is struggling to rope the ball, or if perhaps the official scorer has binned some balls in play as fly balls that others might call a liner.
Even if we assume that Chone’s drop in line drive rate is legitimate, and that he’ll continue to punch out at a high rate, he has been hampered by a .250 batting average on balls put in play. His expected BABIP, based on his 2010 rate of homers, K’s, stolen bases, line drives, fly balls and pop ups, is .320.
Odds are, Figgins hasn’t suddenly fallen off of a cliff: his rest-of-season ZiPS forecast is .268/.368/.357 (.333 wOBA), with a .328 BABIP. Chone’s contact numbers and rate of liners/fly balls hit bear watching. But a league average batter, with stolen base chops and eligibility at the key stone and the hot corner, is a worthy fantasy option in most leagues.
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