Sunday, July 29, 2007
Hottest hitter in baseball: 2B/3B/OF Chone Figgins
During a spring training game late in March against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Angel 3rd baseman Chone Figgins went down to field a grounder off the bat of Diamondback 1st base prospect Conor Jackson. When he came up he booted the ball, and to make things worse the grounder had broken the index and middle fingers on his throwing hand. The injury knocked him out of action for more than a month, and he made his season debut on April 30th by going 1-4 with a double.
Fantasy owners drafting before the injury invested somewhere in the neighborhood of a 4th or 5th round pick on Figgins, and they had to be thrilled to have the little speedster back in their lineups at the end of April. Smart owners should have known anticipated a slow beginning for Figgins, as he was essentially restarting his spring training at the big league level in May. Those that hoped they could count on his 40-50 steals with a decent average and lots of runs scored right away were greatly disappointed.
From his return on the 30th of April until May 28th, he hit .133 with a measly 3 steals, very little power (only 5 extra base hits), 6 RBI, and only 11 runs scored. Some impatient owners cut him outright or traded him for pennies on the dollar, as he was showing no signs of recovering his timing and confidence at the plate. Or so they thought. A deeper look at the numbers would reveal that Figgins was walking at a rate similar to his career numbers, he was not striking much, and he was a prime candidate to be suffering from some rust and hitting into some bad luck.
On May 31st, Figgins went 3-4 with 2 steals against the Orioles, and he began one of the most remarkable runs at the plate in recent memory. In June, he hit an amazing .461 with 53 hits in 26 games, along with 17 RBIs, 23 runs scored, 14 steals, and only 13 strikeouts. He exhibited excellent plate discipline, and as a result, he swung at good pitches and not surprisingly he regained the power stroke with 10 extra-base hits. His 1.070 OPS for the month was a career high and indicative of just how complete his game was that month.
He's been excellent in July as well, hitting .363 with more walks than in June. All of this begs the question...which is the real Chone Figgins? The April-May version or the June-July Figgins?
Not surprisingly, the answer is somewhere in between. All the stats put together give Figgins a season line of .337, 1 HR, 37 RBI, 53 runs, 26 SB. With the exception of batting average, the hot months have put Figgins' counting stats in line with or a little ahead of pre-season expectations. The PECOTA projection system pegged Figgins to go .259, 87 runs, 8 HR, 45 RBIs, and 40 steals.
With regards to him topping his projections, I won't put much stock in the RBIs (which Figgins seems destined to surpass by a decent amount), since that depends on runners on and things mostly outside of Figgins' control. He can control his HR rate, which is way down this year. He is not a home run hitter, but even for him his one home run in 297 at-bats is very poor, considering he hit 9 last season and 8 in 2005. He is not likely to make it to 8 home runs this season, as he is simply hitting the ball on the ground way too much (50.8% groundballs) and not hitting it in the air enough (21.3% flyballs).
His runs scored total is lineup dependent, like RBIs, but he should hit 85 or more if he continues to get on-base at a decent clip.
Now that we've discussed his expected home run totals, and we know he should get to 40 steals, 87 runs, and surpass his RBI projection, that leaves us with the biggest question for fantasy owners... how will his average hold the rest of the season?
He was far better than the .133 he hit early on, as his BABIP in May (proportion of balls in play that result in hits...the average BABIP is usually around .300 at the major league level) was an extremely unlucky.171 for the month. In June, his BABIP for the month shot up to an insane .520, well above what could reasonably be expected no matter how well anyone's hitting. His BABIP for July is still a ridiculously high .414.
Due to these inconsistent numbers, there should skepticism as to whether he will continue hitting at a .337 clip the rest of the season. His high groundball % could work for him or against him. In theory, he can use his speed to beat out infield singles. However, he has been making a lot of hard contact, so while he may see some go through for singles, he could also see a lot of hard groundball outs. That is really up to luck, and he has been extremely lucky since early June so some regression should be expected here. In fact, his BABIP for 2007 stands at .387, well above his 2006 total (.307), and still above his 2005 total (.334).
He has an excellent line-drive percentage (24.8%), which bodes well since line drives are tougher to defend than ground balls or flyballs. His line-drive percentage actually compares favorably to 3B superstars Aramis Ramirez (21.8%), David Wright (22.2%), Alex Rodriguez (17.9%), and Miguel Cabrera (24.3%).
The final aspect to look at it his strikeout rate. On a monthly basis, Figgins' strikeout rate has fluctuated between 10.6% and 13.5%. These numbers are not bad by any means (AL average is 16.36%), but if he is to keep up this lofty batting average he would need to keep that strikeout rate at a minimum (10% or less).
Final verdict: Figgins' will see his wild batting average ride stabilize in the high .290s to the low .300s, all things holding equal. His high line-drive % and hard contact are good signs, but he really hasn't improved enough to suggest these incredible gains in average are for real. His walk rate is not improved over past seasons and remains league average(8.4% in 2007, 9.5% in 2006, 8.9% in 2005), meaning he will continue to hit the ball in play a lot and continue to be subject to a lot of luck.
His unreal BABIP for June and July suggest that some correction is coming, and since he is striking out more than typical high average hitters (Ichiro 9.5%, Pujols 9.7%, Polanco 4.3%), there is even more reason to think his average will come down a good amount. That does not mean I'm predicting a complete collapse for Figgins, but I can't expect him to blow past his career highs without seeing a sizable improvement in his skills.
Since he has not cut down his strikeout rate, improved his walk rate, or started hitting the ball into the gaps and over the fence at a much greater clip than before, I recommend shopping Figgins to other fantasy owners who think his combination of batting average and speed make him a poor man's Ichiro. Make sure you remind that owner about his position flexibility too.
He will continue to have value all season if for no other reason that his high steals totals, but his batting average is due to come down some 30 to 40 points. He could conceivably keep the .330 average up, but it will take a lot of luck that I cannot recommend counting on. If you can afford the steals, try to turn Figgins into an undervalued slugger (Travis Hafner, Jason Bay), or high ceiling arm that has seem some bumps (Jeremy Bonderman comes to mind).