Saturday, May 21, 2011
Chone Figgins, OBP and BABIP
By Christina Kahrl
A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine was deriding the virtues of Chone Figgins as a leadoff hitter. This was right after his rough 2006 season which, before his stint with the Mariners, was something of a low point for Figgins as a hitter. He posted a .336 OBP that year, a big drop from his career .349 clip through 2005, and he posted an even worse .321 OBP when Mike Scioscia slotted him atop the batting order. All in all, Figgins made for a fairly easy target to criticize as a crummy leadoff option.
If you dug a little deeper, you found that Figgins was doing some of the things that prepared him for his three-year reign of terror as the AL's premiere leadoff hitter. For whatever else went wrong he achieved a career-best walk rate in 2006, drawing a free pass 9.5 percent of the time. So how did his OBP drop from .349 to .336? When his average on balls in play dropped to a career-low .303, it sapped his OBP because he wasn't getting on base as often via plain old base hits. Figgins' .303 BABIP in 2006 was a career low after more than 1,600 big-league plate appearances, almost 30 points lower than his next-worst season. It was also down around the MLB average, which was .301 that year.
So, he was where he was supposed to be all along, right? Of course not. He didn't stay "regressed" toward the major league average and instead went back to his ability level. He resumed getting on base more than a third of the time when he got the ball in play and he kept the walks he'd picked up in 2006. He became a terror atop an Angels batting order that played merry hell with opposing defenses. After delivering a BABIP of .330 or better in seven of his eight seasons up to that point, what was average for the league wasn't the standard people should have been employing in the first place.
This led me to one important, very simple, and perhaps obvious reminder: "Regression" doesn't mean the same thing for everyone, because people don't regress to the major league average that drifts around .300. Instead, they regress toward what's average for them and for players like them. Take Jack Cust, one of the game's greatest Three True Outcomes mashers, delivering either a homer, walk or strikeout in more than half of his career plate appearances. He's another fairly unusual hitter, but Cust has a career .339 BABIP, and he's not likely to ever "regress" to major league average on his career.
Remember what goes into an "average" MLB BABIP: It includes types of hitters who do very different things at the plate and Cust and Figgins represent extremes. It involves two very different groups: the guys who stick, and the guys who won't. Bad hitters who don't stick around for long to post lower than league-average marks on balls in play -- that isn't because they're unlucky on ball-in-play outcomes, it's because they're not good enough to hit major league pitching.
Also, keep in mind that about five percent of what goes into the "average" MLB BABIP comes from pitchers flailing or bunting when they're not simply striking out. Pitchers delivered a .227 BABIP last year. Even that is a generous estimation of their contributions, considering that BABIP doesn't count successful sacrifices as plate appearances unless the hurler manages to somehow leg it out for a single. There are perhaps few things in baseball less informative than data that counts pitchers among the people who actually have to swing bats for a living. We can't use that data to then tell us what the hitters are supposed to do, because it doesn't tell us anything about what major league hitters actually do.
Anyway, I'm mulling all of this now that Figgins seems to have screwed up his career for good by going to Safeco, one of the worst places to go if you're a hitter with no power. At least he kept walking more than 10 percent of the time last year. This year, he's doing even worse, but I can't help wonder how playing in a not just a bad lineup, but a very bad lineup, is affecting his performance. There's a big difference between hitting within an active lineup coached to exploit ball-in-play opportunities, and being a big-league batter marooned amongst the Mariners and their little shop of self-inflicted horrors like Jack Wilson, Brendan Ryan, Miguel Olivo and Michael Saunders.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.