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August 3, 2010 at 10:44 AM

Did switching to the No. 2 spot in the order with Mariners mess up Chone Figgins? Looking like it

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The Mariners just made the Adam Moore call-up official. Rob Johnson goes to Class AAA.
For now, I want to talk about another guy just as important to this team’s future success. He’s in the first year of a $36-million deal that runs through 2013, so he will be taking up a good chunk of payroll as well as playing a key run-scoring role for years to come as long as the M’s hold on to him. I’m talking, of course, about Chone Figgins.
Lots of fiery opinions when it comes to Figgins these days, obviously. He is becoming a symbol for all that is wrong with the team in the eyes of some fans. Reading the comments section for the feature I had published in this morning’s paper tells me that. There is a limit to the amount of stuff we can publish in any newspaper story and I wanted to expand a bit more on the topic of Figgins batting second in the order as opposed to his No. 1 job last year, when he posted a league best .395 on-base percentage among leadoff men.
“It’s not an adjustment,” he said. “I think I wasn’t attacking the game the first two months of the season. And my type of game is attacking the game and making things happen. And I wasn’t doing that. I was a little too patient at the plate and when I did get a pitch to hit I was ppping balls up instead of getting on top of them and hitting hard grounders and hitting hard line drives. Over the last couple of months it’s been getting better.”
In other words, it’s not the stats he’s looking at or trying to boost. Indirectly, yes, but he feels the stats will be there eventually if he makes this fundamental adjustment to hitting more over top of the ball.
“I feel like I’m closer to myself because I am hitting more ground balls,” he said. “If I keep the ball out of the air the stats ae going to be there. I’m still getting my walks, still having good at-bats. But for me to keep hitting fly balls is still good for me.”
Hitting coach Alonzo Powell feels the switch to No. 2 did impact Figgins.
“There’s a big difference between hitting first and second,” Powell said. “A lot of times, when Ichiro gets on base, you’re trying to give him an opportunity to steal a bag. Certain pitches, you’re not going to swing at. And it takes away some of your aggressiveness.”
Powell feels Figgins has made definite improvement the past two months in getting the balls he hits to spend less time in the air.
Let’s look and see whether Figgins actually is improving in this regard.
Here are his ground ball, line drive and fly ball rates for each month of the season.
APRIL — (GB) 37.5%; (LD) 16.1%; (FB) 46.4%
MAY — (GB) 46.1 %; (LD) 19.7%; (FB) 34.2%
JUNE — (GB) 44.3 %; (LD) 19.0%; (FB) 36.7%
JULY — (GB) 48.8 %; (LD) 22.6%; (FB) 28.6%
So, very clearly, he raised his ground ball and line drive rate to season highs in July. In April, when he got off to that horrible start, hitting .200, he hit his highest number of flyballs and fewest grounders and line drives.
Let’s see how that translates to stats like batting average and on-base percentage.
APRIL — (OBP) .330; (AVG) .200
MAY — (OBP) .319; (AVG) .220
JUNE — (OBP) .355; (AVG) .271
JULY — (OBP) .333; (AVG) .255
Well, as we can see, his last two months were much better than his first two. But still, there is not a direct correlation in the numbers. After all, he had better line drive and ground ball rates in May than in June. But his June stats were superior. Why is that?

My first guess would be that more of his grounders were getting through holes and fewer line drives were being caught in June than in May. Let’s look at his batting average on balls put in play.
APRIL — .271
MAY — .282
JUNE — .317
JULY — .292
Kind of what I thought. Figgins hit more grounders and line drives in May than in June, but fewer were getting through for hits. In June, more were dropping in or getting through the infield at an above average rate. Remember, .290 is about “normal” for batting average on balls put in play.
So, in July, his liners and grounders were going for hits at a more “normal” rate. That’s why his numbers were slightly down in average and OBP compared to June, when everything was getting through at numbers well above average.
But those numbers will always tend to fluctuate. The key here is that it appears Figgins does do a lot better when he keeps balls out of the air.
In fact, for the season, he is hitting just .129 on flyballs, compared to .250 on grounders and .707 on line drives. I’d still expect Figgins to do better on fly balls and liners than he has.
For his career, he’s a .173 hitter on fly balls, so he’s been making more outs through the air this season than usual. His ground ball and line drive rates are pretty close career-wise to what he’s done this year.
Let’s look at last year versus this season.
2009 — .256 (GB); .188 (FB); .786 (LD)
2010 — .250 (GB); .129 (FB); .707 (LD)
So, yeah, Figgins is still way down across the board in all three categories compared to last season.
Some of it may be bad luck. But I’m also wondering how Safeco Field plays into it and how hitting second plays into it.
Figgins is hitting just .212 as a lefty-hitter versus righties this season. Normally, he’s a .294 hitter for his career in such situations, which are the ones that come up most for switch-hitters.
At home, he’s hitting .218 compared to .256 on the road.
Makes me wonder how many of those fly balls and line drives that would normally fall in for hits for him in Anaheim are now being caught at Safeco Field. At home this year, he’s at a very average .287 batting average on balls in play, compared to .347 at home for his career. Remember, some of that career total is being taken down by this year’s numbers, so it’s looking as if Figgins is having a much tougher time getting balls to fall in for hits in Seattle than he did in Anaheim.
On the road, his batting average on balls in play is.301 this year, compared to .327 for his career. So, below average, but he is, after all, having a below average year. Still, he’s a lot closer to his norms on the road than at home. The spread gap between his 2010 and career numbers is twice as great at home as it is on the road.
And for his career, Figgins has always been a .337 hitter when it comes to batting average on balls in play — well above average and likely due to his speed component and the types of line drives he hits. This year, he’s only .294. The closest he’s come to his “norm” was .317 in June, when he posted a .355 OBP. So, he’s got to have more months like that.
This will be interesting to watch going forward because if those balls are staying in the air more for him at home — just as we’ve seen home runs get knocked down into flyouts on a regular basis at Safeco Field — then Figgins may never duplicate the lofty totals he produced in Anaheim.
Still, he can be productive. But first, he’s got to start hitting more line drives. Maybe more than he typically hits.
Because 23.9 percent of the balls he hit last year were line drives, right around his career mark of 23.3 percent.
This year, he’s only at 19.9 percent.
In the other categories, his flyball rate is exactly the same as last year and his ground ball rate is a bit higher. Both are very close to career norms.
So, he’s not getting as many hits on flyballs or grounders. Some of that, I’d suspect, is due to hitting second. An infield single as a leadoff man with no one on first base easily becomes a fielder’s choice with a guy at first who can get thrown out at second.
So, if the No. 2 spot really was impacting his abiltiy to “attack the game” he’ll have to get over it fast. And keeping the ball out of the air — unless it’s a line drive — will be critical to his success.
Because with three years remaining on his contract after this season, Figgins is every bit as important to the future success of this team as are so many players much younger than him.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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