Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dodgers could benefit from Chone Figgins' intent to give more effort

Chone Figgins apparently impressed the Dodgers enough in his workout/speech that they invited him to camp, and given the competition (Dee Gordon, Justin Sellers, Brendan Harris, Michael Young?), he has a good chance of making the team.

We all know Figgins was terrible with Seattle, but why exactly? And is there hope for a turnaround?

Figgins was a good, even borderline great, player in his 20s. You could count on him for about a .365 OBP, 45 stolen bases, good defense at third base and the ability to fill in around the diamond. That skillset was worth more than 20 WAR over his six years as a starter with the Angels (ages 25-31).

After surging to 7 WAR, and getting real MVP support in his walk year (2009), he signed a big contract with the Mariners ... and produced a -1 WAR over three miserable years there. Looking back at stories written back then, and the peripherals under his stats, it looks to me like:
  • They switched him to a full-time second base, moving him out of his comfort zone, changing his defense from a plus to a minus. Amazingly, this was to accommodate switching Jose Lopez from 2B to 3B, although he was better at 2B.
  • He got off to a bit of a slow start (.210 batting average his first two months, mostly bad luck)
  • His "power" played poorly in Safeco (0 triples and three home runs in 800 PA there lifetime)
  • The team was TERRIBLE (even bad as he was, the team still needed him to carry them)
  • The fans got on him
  • He started pressing, swinging at more bad pitches and making weak contact
  • He started doing even worse
  • Did I mention the team was terrible (101 then 95 then 87 losses)
  • He got frustrated
  • There was a visible lack of effort on the field
  • He got benched
  • He got in an actual fight was his manager
All this happened by July of his first year in Seattle. He's a professional; that's not supposed to happen, and I'm not trying to excuse him. He never got it going in Seattle, and his performance actually got worse in the second- and third year, before he was finally cut.

In 2011, he tore a hip labrum, played through it, and we saw what Figgins can offer a baseball team when you take his speed away (nothing).

In his last year (2012) they tried him in the outfield (despite being fast, he has unfathomably horrible range in the OF), his strikeout percentage had spiked to 25 percent, compared to his normal 15 percent. Pitchers saw he was out of sorts and not a threat. They were throwing him way more fastballs, way more strikes, and he was doing nothing.

Final line as a Mariner: .227/.302/.283

Without having been at his workout, we do get one tangible piece of information -- he can run a 6.5 60-yard dash. That's still very fast. If he were a prospect, that'd get him a 70 grade on the 20-80 scale. He probably used to be even faster, but that is still plus-plus speed. Of course, he is 36 now.

Fast switch-hitting, good-glove, slap hitters with a good eye don't have a lot of ways to get better as they age. He needs to maintain a complicated set of skills to be valuable and it's pretty reasonable to say age just got the best of him. Maybe that really is the case. But optimistically, I'll say this is a case where a fresh start in a familiar environment could be just what he needs, now that he has been humbled as much as a ballplayer can (cut by the Marlins!) and had a year to think about it.

The key things Figgins has to do to be successful at the plate are to maintain discipline and drive the ball (OK, that's kind of what everyone has to do). We already looked at his struggles in making solid contact, but what happens when he did hit a flyball? He has one of the shortest average flyball distances in the league -- around 250 feet -- but we do see a distinct dip in 2010 before getting more or less back to his normal.

(graph from baseballheatmaps.com)

I'll go out on a limb and say he will be able to drive the ball enough, based on reports of his workout. So, let's just look at his stats and try to forecast what he might be able to offer in 2014.

Let's say his K-rate regresses back to 18 percent and he maintains his walk rate of 10 percent. The other 72 percent of the time, he'll hit a fair ball. Thanks to his speed and swing plane, he used to be a .340 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) kind of player with the Angels. The league hits about .300 on balls in play. His last two years with the Mariners he somehow managed to pull off a .220.
(graph from Fangraphs.com)

He's still fast, so if his attitude is not getting in his way any more, I expect him to get back to BABIP better than .300. I see him providing a .255/.330/.325 triple slash in 2014. From a backup 3B/2B with speed and a good glove, that is worth a spot on this team.

Unless coaches spend significant time with him in the outfield, he should almost never play there, given the fact the Dodgers have five or six guys more likely to catch flyballs. It's arguable if he's more valuable than Gordon. We'll have to see what kind of defense Gordon can offer at 2B and CF.

Gordon is probably faster, but with less pop than Figgins -- not too many people could say both of those things. Sellers offers a better all-around glove, but a real gift for making outs at the plate. Harris hasn't been a competent hitter since President George H. W. Bush was in office, and for the sake of my blood pressure, I'm telling myself Young will retire.

So, we probably will see some Figgins this year. Everyone loves a good back-from-the-dead story. If Juan Uribe could do it last year, why not Figgins this year? He'll be getting a small paycheck, and his disappointments all happened somewhere else, so there's no resentment to battle and we can just hope to enjoy us some Figgy.

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