When the Seattle Mariners signed Chone Figgins they expected that he’d be an offensive upgrade over Adrian Beltre. Little did the fans know that he’d play second base instead of third base, where he’d made a home in the past two seasons with the Angels.
Figgins' fielding aside, he’s had a significant drop off in production since becoming a Mariner. And while expectations have been of high-level production have made Figgins a frequent scapegoat, he seems to have taken on some of the fan disappointment that should be aimed at Jose Lopez, who has taken Beltre’s place at the hot corner. The truth is that Figgins has been about equal to the 2009 version of Beltre with the bat, though his transition to second base hasn’t been one to be characterized as successful.
Figgins is a player that relies pretty heavily on balls in play turning into hits. He doesn’t frequently hit the ball with much authority, with only 32 home runs in almost 4,700 plate appearances, and only 220 doubles and triples, several of which were assuredly helped by his foot speed rather than his bat speed. While Figgins .305 BABIP comes in at an above-league-average mark in 2010, he’s actually taken a pretty significant hit on what may be considered his true talent, a career BABIP of .337.
What is Figgins doing wrong?
Analyzing Figgins BABIP goes beyond just the number. 2006 was the only other season in which Figgins posted a BABIP under .333, and unsurprisingly, that was also the only other year where he hit less than 22 percent line drives. Line drives rate is kind of a convoluted stat, as scorer bias could play a role in the rate, and it’s not always steady from year to year. However, a generally accepted truth is that while line drives may be subjective, what is considered a line drive by most score keepers is also very likely to be a hit.
Figgins career BABIP on line drives, which he hits at a 23.2 percent rate for his career, is .725. In 2010, Figgins has doubled down on decreased rate, reaching base on less line drives, while hitting them at a lower rate, with a BABIP on line drives of .695.
Figgins has hit 82 line drives this year. If he’d hit 23.2 percent line drives instead of 20, he’d have 95 line drives. If he’d performed up to his career BABIP average on line drives he’d have accrued 12 more hits this season. That’d equate to a .271 batting average, rather than the .249 he’s presently sporting.
As a guy without a lot of power and a propensity for contact, one may assume that Figgins reaches base on a lot of infield hits. The reality is that Figgins’ 18 infield hits this season mark his highest output since 2004. That said, his BABIP is only three points lower than his career average on ground balls. On fly balls however, his BABIP is about 20 points lower.
Teams could be playing Figgins differently in Safeco, where his already low-level threat of clearing the outfielders may be reduced by unfriendly hitting conditions, but more likely is that he’s simply been unlucky on fly balls this year.
So if we believe that Figgins is simply unlucky in 2010, something around a .270/.350/.330 line seem more realistic in 2011.
The most interesting part of Figgins' offseason however, is whether or not he’ll ultimately make the switch back to third base. Jose Lopez appears likely to be non-tendered, and the Mariners have Dustin Ackley waiting to take over at second base. Ackley is a walk machine with great speed and developing power. His strikeout rates are incredible in the minors considering that he walks so frequently, and his .165 ISO in AAA is a promising power rate.
Figgins posted two straight 17+ UZR/150 seasons at third base. According to UZR, he was MLB’s second-best fielding third baseman, behind only Evan Longoria (and ahead of Beltre) from 2008-09. Presuming that he hasn’t forgotten how to play the position, a shift back to third may prove highly beneficial for the Mariners, where even half that defensive production would basically give Figgins an extra 2 WAR without including his batting numbers. If he regresses to the mean at the plate the team could easily be looking at a four win player where they’re presently boasting a replacement level player in Jose Lopez. If Ackley is worth a win (which is a modest, realistic expectation), it would be a total 5 WAR gain.
Figgins is set to make $26 million in the next three seasons, and could vest his $9 million option with 600 plate appearances in 2013. The Mariners may have had the opportunity to trade him at the deadline, but declined to. That opportunity likely won’t exist this offseason.
Lopez seems likely to be non-tendered in the offseason. While his transition to third base went very well defensively (6.4 UZR/150), his year at the plate has gone equally poorly. Lopez has been criticized for being a dead-pull hitter, impatient at the plate, and lacking the power that his weight gain should have fostered. His ISO is at an all-time low (.087), while his walk rate remains below four percent, and he’s seen less pitches per plate appearance than ever before (3.41). He’s shown little willingness to work on his game, and it’s possible that the book is finally out on Lopez. The pull hitter has seen more curveballs and changeups this season than any other, and is performing at the worst rate of his career on each pitch. He’s seeing more pitches outside the zone this season than ever before, but also swinging at the highest percentage of pitches outside the zone he ever has.
And it is very likely that if Chone Figgins were to hit the free agent market this season as a third baseman, he’d be the best third baseman on the market apart from the productive reincarnation of Adrian Beltre.
The Mariners may have bought high on a volatile asset in the soft-hitting Figgins, but if his luck returns in 2011, and he returns to third base, the Mariners should see a positive shift in total production.
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