Fixing Figgins

Chone Figgins
As I sat down to write this post, my mind was made up. It was time to finally write a post about why Chone Figgins needs to go away. He looks terrible at the plate. His offensive numbers are anemic. It already feels like there isn't a good spot for him in the batting order, and there really won't be a good place once Dustin Ackley is called up and establishes himself.

Quick aside: Ackley is struggling a bit in AAA right now, so he might be a bit farther off than I especially am willing to admit. Perhaps Ackley is a non-factor when it comes to Figgins this year.

Regardless of Dustin, it's painful to watch Chone. As a fan, watching him the past year and a month, I have the sense that this simply isn't working.

Maybe Figgins needs a change of scenery to be good again. The Mariners could hand over the hot corner to Matt Mangini or Matt Tuiasosopo and see what happens. This is a season about developing in-house talent anyway. Finding a trade partner might be difficult, but I still think someone would take a chance on Chone for a bargain bin price.

I thought the numbers would back up my view. After looking them up, I don't know what to think.

The basic numbers are as awful as I imagined. Figgins has a .167 batting average with limited power and patience - quite literally the worst combination of hitting "skills" possible.

To be fair to Figgins though, he has never hit for power. It is also early in the season, so the walk rate might naturally go up. This is a small sample size, so there could be fluky things going on.

The stunner is Chone's BABIP. It is at an insanely low .174, compared to his career .334 average (and as a rule of thumb, most hitters are around .300). If Chone's BABIP was at his career rate, he would be hitting .295 right now, with a .333 OBP (the low walk rate still hurts him). Still, nobody would be talking about any kind of struggle.

So it's all just bad luck with Chone Figgins?

I refused to accept this answer. It did not meet the eye test. I know sabermetrics aim to take away the eye's bias, but I had a hard time believing my eyes were that biased.

I was shocked to see how low Figgins's BABIP was, but not surprised that it was well below his career average. Watching Figgins, it seems like he makes a bunch of weak contact. Moreover, a lack of hard hit balls would explain everything, particularly a low batting average and low BABIP. Scouts would also likely tell pitchers to attack Chone and dare him to make solid contact, which would explain a lower walk rate.

I dug deeper, and figured his batted ball profile would provide answers. A drop in line drives and/or elevated fly ball rates could help explain Chone's poor performance, and point to more than bad luck.

So far, Chone's line drive rate is at 21.2%, which is a bit below his career numbers, but also just a tad above the 20.8% he posted last year, which was good enough for a .259 batting average. Moreover, Figgins is yet to hit any pop-ups this year, and his infield hit percentage is right in line with his career averages, despite a small sample size. If anything, Chone's batted ball profile suggests that he is hitting the ball a bit harder this year than last, and overall, there isn't anything drastically different from anything he has done in his career.

I guess I should mention more about sample size before I go on. Of course it is too small this early to say definitively this is what to expect out of Figgins going forward. However, when it comes to deciding if Figgins is playing badly or getting unlucky, sample size does not matter. It never does with the past, only when projecting the future and/or true talent levels.

Back to the sabermetric adventure. I had a miniature internal crisis on my hands. Could my eyes be deceiving me that badly? Really, was Chone completely unlucky? None of this had to do with poor play?

I had one last place to look - plate discipline. With the lower walk rate, Figgins could be swinging at more pitches, and maybe even pitcher's pitches.

Figgins continues to be more aggressive as a Mariner, swinging at 22.7% of pitches outside the strike zone this year (compared to 20.8% last year, and 16.9% for his career). I don't know why Chone feels such an urge to swing more at balls, but he does. My best guess is that it has to do with hitting second, a position that traditionally is expected to put the game in motion. However, if that were the case, Chone should swing at strikes more too in the second hole, but there is no evidence of that.

Digging deeper into pitches outside the strike zone that Figgins sees, something finally jumped off the page. To date, Chone has put into play 83.8% of pitches outside the strike zone that he swings at. If that were to hold, it would easily be the highest rate of his career, and well above his career 67.8% mark.

Not only is Figgins swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone than ever before, he is making contact with them at a prodigious rate. Pitches that are balls are rarely good pitches to hit, meaning those pitches put in play by Figgins are likely a large collection of weak grounders and lazy fly balls.

To make matters worse, Figgy's in-zone contact rate is 90.5% so far, which would be the lowest rate for him since 2005 if it holds. He is making less contact with strikes, on top of hitting more non-strikes.

Even though Figgins has hit as many liners, grounders, and fly balls as usual, it would make sense that many of these hits are not as good as ones in the past. A much larger percentage of them are coming from garbage pitches.

Chone is definitely the victim of some bad luck, but I wonder how much. The BABIP is certainly low, but he is chasing a bunch of bad pitches, and hitting them. It almost looks like he is evolving in such a way to make contact with pitches he shouldn't swing at. It is fair to assume that the league will notice and adjust to his free-swing tendencies, exploiting them even more.

What do you think? Are Figgy's struggles mostly bad luck, or mostly due to a bad approach? What kind of candidate is he for a rebound?