Early returns on Chone Figgins leading off may be deceiving
Figgins' statistics are better, but not outstanding, but by taking more pitches he's helping teammates and hurting opposing pitches.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Cleveland Indians @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
Nine pitches into the opening at-bat of the game, Chone Figgins flied out to left field.
Another goose egg in the daily hit count of the new Mariners leadoff hitter and a continued dip of an early season on-base percentage now below .300.
But what his personal statistics don't show is how the next two batters both got hits off Oakland Athletics starter Graham Godfrey, or that the pitcher would be forced to leave after five innings because of his escalating pitch count.
Figgins and those who believe in him as a leadoff hitter are hoping his approach will eventually lead to desired results. And with Figgins, the patient, pitch-taking style that made him so dangerous with the Angels has been redeployed this season.
"I think that's the thing," he said. "I look at leading off the game as, 'Let me see what he's got for the day,' " Figgins said of opposing pitchers. "And as the game goes on, depending on the situation, I'll be aggressive versus not being as aggressive. But at first, I'll try to set the tone for the team."
Figgins leads the team in pitches taken per plate appearance at 4.20, and a whopping 5.36 pitches per plate appearance when he leads off a game. That 4.20 number puts him 36th out of 188 major-league hitters entering play Monday. It's almost the same as his great contract year with the Angels in 2009, when he averaged 4.22.
Last season, Figgins dropped to 4.10 after registering 4.14 in 2010 during his first year with Seattle. The difference between 4.20 and 4.10 might not seem like much, but it actually amounts to Figgins seeing about 60 additional pitches over the course of a typical 600 plate-appearance season. His 5.36 pitches per plate appearance leading off a game will result in about 220 more pitches in that situation per season than his 4.10 number would.
Ichiro last year saw only 3.51 pitches per plate appearance from the leadoff spot, meaning about 420 fewer pitches over a full season than Figgins is on pace to see. And seeing more pitches — especially to start a game — gives hitters coming up next the chance to look at an opposing pitcher's arsenal.
For Figgins, the added pitches he sees should — in theory — help him earn more walks, or get better pitches to hit in later at-bats.
He says his chances actually get better the deeper into a count he gets — even with two strikes — because a pitcher will eventually throw him something over the heart of the plate.
But the whole package still isn't working out as well lately as he'd like it to, with his numbers starting to slip.
"I've been swinging the bat well, but there are still some things that are off," he said. "I'm chasing a couple of pitches I don't normally chase. I missed most of the season last year ... so I'm still a hair off. ... My zone's a little big right now."
Figgins will enter the game Tuesday night against the Cleveland Indians at Safeco Field with just a .250 batting average, a .298 on-base percentage (OBP) and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) of .639. That's an improvement over his .188 average, .241 OBP and .484 OPS last year, but still not enough to truly justify moving him into the leadoff spot instead of Ichiro.
Last year, Ichiro hit .272 with a .310 OBP and a .645 OPS in the leadoff position.
Not only is Figgins seeing more pitches, he's also driving the ball better now that the hip labrum that sidelined him much of last year is a thing of the past.
His line-drive rate is 29 percent compared to just 18 percent last season.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said these are good signs, as is how comfortable Figgins seems in his familiar leadoff role.
Wedge dismisses those who suggest a player's spot in the lineup should have minimal impact on performance.
"They don't know what the hell they're talking about," Wedge said. "So, whoever they are, you can tell them that I said that."
Of course, it's still early. And that's why Figgins — and the Mariners — keep trusting the process.
"The main thing is that I'm healthy and now I can perform," Figgins said. "I'm driving some balls, and that's what I want to get back to. If I keep doing that, I should be fine."
|Better start for Figgins|
|Chone Figgins is off to a better start this year with the Mariners through the team's first 11 games:|
Information in this article, originally published April 16, 2012, was corrected April 17, 2012. A previous version of the chart of Chone Figgins' statistics said the numbers were through the Mariners' first 12 games in 2011 and 2012. The numbers are through the first 11 games.