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Reviving Chone Figgins

Earlier Thursday, Ken Rosenthal published a column about how the Mariners ought to move Chone Figgins back to leadoff. This post is not intended as a direct response to what Rosenthal wrote, since I've heard the idea from a number of people, but there will necessarily be some overlap.

Chone Figgins has a bad contract. At first, it was not a bad contract. Or maybe it has always been a bad contract, but at first, we didn't believe that it was a bad contract. Figgins looked like a useful and valuable player to have. Then he became Chone Figgins as we understand him today. The Chone Figgins with a bad contract.

The Mariners are not alone in having a bad contract. Without checking, I'm going to assume that every team in baseball has at least one bad contract. Not all bad contracts are created the same, and Figgins' contract is worse than some other bad contracts. But it's also better than some other bad contracts. Hey there, Vernon Wells, won't you please stay a while? I would like to discuss your bad contract. Or as you call it, your super awesome unbelievably amazing contract.

Figgins, needless to say, has not turned out. When you have a player in Figgins' position, there are people who think the team should just cut its losses and eat the rest of the contract. There are other people who are okay with keeping the player around, but know that his best days are behind him. And there are still other people who insist on the possibility of a revival.

A player with a bad contract was given a big contract for a reason, right? Who's to say players can't rebound?

You and I probably figure that Chone Figgins is a lost cause, and that his greatest hope now is becoming a utility guy of moderate use. But something I've heard from several people, most recently Rosenthal, is that Figgins might bounce back if he's returned to the leadoff slot, where he hit with the Angels. Chone Figgins is a leadoff guy. The Mariners didn't let him hit leadoff. No wonder he's fallen flat!

It's an appealing concept, because the idea of Figgins being good again would change so many things. I guess it wouldn't change that many things, but it would change at least one thing, and presumably a handful of others. Chone Figgins coming back from the dead would be a miracle, just as anybody coming back from the dead would be a miracle.

But pardon me if I think that sounds a little too simplistic. A little too easy. To assert that Figgins could rebound as the leadoff guy is to assert that this has been a matter of psychology, not tools, and to assert that the difference between batting first and batting second is so great that it made Figgins sufficiently uncomfortable that he became a bad player.

There's no doubt in my mind that Figgins believes he could be better as leadoff. Figgins kind of has to believe that. He has to believe he can be fixed. And the last time he was good, he was leadoff. The two are connected in his mind. To Figgins, the thing that changed between Anaheim and Seattle is his spot in the batting order, so that must have a lot to do with his struggles.

But there are times when I believe in a player's explanation, and there are times when I don't. I want Figgins to be good. I want him to succeed as a Mariner, because of course I do. But I can't bring myself to buy this one.

Look at some of the lines in Rosenthal's article. It's said that batting second presents a different kind of challenge. It's said that batting second behind Ichiro presents a uniquely different kind of challenge. Perhaps Figgins has struggled because he's tried to adapt to that. But:

"It would be great to go back to leadoff and do that again," Figgins said. "If not, I have to change my mindset as a '2' hitter. I haven't really changed my mindset to be a '2' hitter. I've stuck with being a patient hitter."

Figgins hasn't changed his mindset after two years. He's "stuck with" being the hitter that he was. Except in terms of results. The results have been way worse.

So maybe it's sticking with that old approach that's gotten him in trouble? That seems to be the sentiment.

"Being in that spot and understanding that Ichiro is an aggressive player - that's what makes him great - I need to understand that when he is aggressive, I need to be aggressive, too," Figgins said. "A lot of times I get behind in the count too much."

First-pitch Strikes:

2009: 57%
2010: 58%
2011: 57%

Behind 0-1:

2009: 49%
2010: 50%
2011: 50%

Two-strike counts:

2009: 53%
2010: 51%
2011: 51%

In 2009, after getting ahead 1-0, Figgins batted .333. After falling behind 0-1, he batted .259. The last two years, after getting ahead 1-0, Figgins has batted .251. After falling behind 0-1, he's batted .212. This is about more than getting ahead and falling behind. This is about quality of contact.

Something else we can look at - what about when Figgins hasn't been hitting directly behind Ichiro? When leading off an inning in 2009, Figgins batted .275. When leading off an inning over the last two years, Figgins has batted .213. When leading off an inning, Figgins hasn't had to be in the mindset of a No. 2 hitter. It hasn't mattered. He's been bad.

I get uneasy about these things. On this matter, I have one opinion. Baseball people involved, and baseball people not involved, probably have another opinion. A lot of them probably do, at least. And I'm not so confident in myself that I think I know more about how baseball works than they do. If baseball people think that Chone Figgins could bounce back by being returned to the leadoff slot, we can't just ignore that outright.

But color me skeptical. I won't be mad if they try. There's probably not a lot of harm in trying, when Figgins plays. Again, one figures the Mariners aren't even getting within sniffing distance of the playoffs, making this a development and experiment season. Batting Figgins leadoff would be an experiment. But I've done a lot of experiments. Even the ones where I know how they're supposed to work out, they haven't always worked out. If Figgins' problem this whole time has been batting order position, we can learn from that, but chances are it's not that simple. It so infrequently is.