Figgins to the Lead Off Spot?
The big story out of spring training today was the rumor that manager Eric Wedge would name Chone Figgins as the M’s lead-off man. As everyone’s sick of hearing, Figgins signed a four-year, $36 million contract in late 2009 and has produced at a replacement level rate (or below) for the past two seasons. Over 1,000 plate appearances in an M’s uniform, Figgins has produced a .236/.309/.285 batting line – that’s good for -33 batting runs by baseball-reference or -31 by Fangraphs. This isn’t a resume that cries out for more plate appearance, but the M’s may believe that he can recapture the success he had in an Angels uniform by batting in the lead-off spot.
Last year of course the idea was that Chone’s 2010 struggles were caused by the mental angst of moving from 3B to 2B, and moving back to his 2009 position would help him recover his 2009 hitting stroke. Instead, Figgins slumped to a .188/.241/.243 line in 81 games before the team called the mercy rule on his season. Will a shift in line-up position help where a shift in defensive position wouldn’t? Jeff Sullivan’s got some data to suggest that it won’t. So why WOULD the M’s not only tab Figgins as a starter (as opposed to a super-sub, which would utilize his defensive flexibility more than his now-questionable bat) but as a possible lead-off man? Is it a backdoor attempt to motivate Ichiro by replacing him in the #1 spot with someone who was, by almost any measure, the worst hitter in the league last year? Does Wedge honestly believe that this assignment would spur Figgins to improve – and if so, is Anthony Vasquez a possibility for a spot in the opening day rotation?
Whatever the reason, long-time M’s fans know that these sorts of counter-intuitive line-up moves come with the territory. The names of the players change, as do the names of those making the decisions, but it seems like there’s a perplexing you’re-so-bad-we-have-to-promote-you shake-up every few years. If you’re new to the team, here are a few of the biggest head-scratchers in Martiner history.
1: In late 2004, the M’s suddenly moved sullen and underperforming 3B Scott Spiezio to the 2nd position, a spot he began the year in but relinquished by hitting .209/.283/.350 through August. He played once in early September, then missed several games, then started again in his old line-up spot. New manager Bob Melvin never discussed his reasoning with reporters at the time, but years later he came clean in an informal chat session with reporters during spring training (while managing Arizona): “Guy just wouldn’t stop. He wouldn’t say anything, but you could tell he was pissed off. He’d call me at night and play it, he’d play the CD in my office, finally came to my house with an ’80s-style boombox. Loud as hell. Like a butt-rock John Cusack, just standing outside my house, speakers blaring that.. what was it? Sandfrog? We were out of it, and by this point I swear as long as you wrote down Ichiro’s name first and Bucky Jacobsen’s name fourth, you could’ve put your mother 2nd and no one would bat an eye.”
2: In the waning days of a lost 1988 season, M’s manager Jim Snyder (who took over from Dick Williams half-way through the year) moved SS Rey Quinones from 9th to leadoff despite erratic play and an OBP in the .280s. “Talent has never been the issue with Rey. It’s more a matter of focus. If we can get Rey to watch the opposing pitcher and not all the distractions of a big-league park, then we feel we’ve got a guy who can spark some rallies,” said Snyder in September. “He got thrown out in Comiskey park last month because the ump thought he was arguing balls and strikes. Turns out, he was screaming at the jumbo-tron about the ‘Guess Today’s Attendance’ game. That’s what we’re dealing with here. But he can’t get distracted if there’s no time for distractions, so we want a bat in his hand before they show any highlights, bloopers or any of that.” It should be mentioned that the incumbent lead-off hitter was Harold Reynolds, who wasn’t an ideal lead-off hitter himself.
3: In one of the most celebrated personnel decisions in M’s franchise history, Jim Lefebvre stuck with 3B Jim Presley over minor-league sensation Edgar Martinez for the 1989 season, and even kept Presley in the clean-up spot despite a .635 OPS (and a .280 OBP) in 1987 and a .660 OPS (.275 OBP) in 1989. Presley’s production had fallen each year since 1985 and he got the plurality of his 1988 PAs from the 8 hole, but the M’s decided that hitting clean-up would prevent him from changing his swing (or from worrying about the heralded 3B tearing up Calgary). His manager gave Presley a vote of confidence in spring training: “Jimmy hits the ball a country mile. We’re gonna let him focus on driving pitches and not let him wonder where he’s going to be. In ’86 he hit 3rd/4th and he went to the All-Star game. If he can get back to that, this team’s going to be exciting.”
4: Shockingly, the Presley-to-Clean-Up move wasn’t the biggest surprise of the 1989 spring. Instead, it was Lefebvre’s tinkering with the starting rotation. Mark Langston was clearly the team’s ace, and they had decent youngsters behind him in Scott Bankhead (recently acquired from Kansas City) and Erik Hanson. But while Langston was quite good, Levebvre wondered if he couldn’t squeeze a win or two by moving his 5th starter to #1 and moving the rest of the starters back a day – the idea being that moving from a 40-45% chance of a win on opening day to a 15% chance was worth it if it meant increasing the odds for the next 3-4 days by 10% each. That meant Steve Trout, who’d the team picked up half-way through 1988 and who put up -2 WAR in one of the worst statistical seasons by an M’s starter, would get the opening day nod against Dave Stewart in Oakland. The M’s pitching coach, Mike Paul, wasn’t sold on the idea, and the team itself hated “punting” the first game of the year, so it ultimately didn’t happen. There were rumors that this perceived slight was the last straw for Langston, who informed the team that he’d never re-sign with them. By late May, Langston was traded to Montreal, though Trout (somehow) lasted until June 12th.
5: In strike-shortened 1981, the M’s were off to a horrible 6-17 start and Maury Wills decided to shake things up by naming himself the lead-off hitter. In a rambling, often profane, press conference, Wills listed the team’s ills and singled out Julio Cruz (hitting under .180 at the time) for abuse. Pacing the room, rubbing his nose and occasionally breaking into a mocking impression of M’s CF Joe Simpson, Wills decided that, “Since none of these $#@%ers can get on base, I’ll do it myself.” Wills was only 48, so it wasn’t as outlandish as it sounds, and he attempted to prove he still had his famous speed by sprinting through the assembled reporters. He gave Cruz one more chance on May 5th and the M’s fired him that evening – before he could put his bizarre plan into action.
What do these line-up moves/purported moves tell us? First, that the M’s have fielded some bad teams over the years. Second, that moving a player around rarely accomplishes much; hitting clean-up didn’t save Jim Presley, and Scott Spiezio/Rey Quinones were so far beyond help that moving the batting order around seems, at least in retrospect, to miss the point completely. Does this necessarily mean that moving Figgins to lead-off is a bad idea? No, the plural of anecdote isn’t “data” and if Figgins truly believes that he can’t get comfortable batting second, he may actually hit better somewhere else. From a statistical point of view, it seems crazy to give more plate appearances to a man with a PECOTA-projected .645 OPS (below Ichiro, Ackley, Seager, etc.). Clearly, that’s not the only perspective available to the team, and if Wedge and the M’s want to use psychology to build the line-up, that’s their right. I could imagine that any benefit this move would have in restoring Figgins’ confidence might be counterbalanced by the sense that the team is handing out benefits to players who haven’t yet earned them. We’ll see.