Chone Figgins of the Seattle Mariners bunts against the Toronto Blue Jays during MLB action at The Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Not all players who fail to produce lose their jobs. Some of them get to lead off the next year.
Being terrible at baseball doesn't automatically cost a player his job. It can drive fans crazy, and it can ruin that team's chances to succeed, but sometimes being terrible is temporary. Or the player and team in question hope the bout of awful isn't permanent, anyway.
There are plenty of players in the game who were nothing short of horrific at their jobs in 2011, but they are still getting a chance to prove they aren't all bad in the upcoming season. I'm not talking about players like Carl Crawford, who were below-average and disappointing. To be as offensively bad as we mean, you need to be far worse than Crawford was in 2011. Worse than replacement level is what we're shooting for.
For some, there's hope of a rebound. For others, well, at least you already signed that long-term contract, right?
Aaron Hill: Hill's 2011 was an extension of his disappointing 2010, but it got far worse. Back in 2009, Hill broke out with a .286/.330/.499 season on the strength of 36 homers. He followed that up with a season in which he still had some pop -- his .189 Isolated Power was about his only positive feature -- but overall hit just .205/.271/.394.
Claiming his .196 BABIP was the culprit was the easy route, but he finished 100 points under the average by design. Hill got homer-happy with his swing, and the result was that over 54 percent of his batted-balls were flyballs. Flyballs have the lowest BABIP of all the batted-ball types, and while 26 of those flyballs went yard, it wasn't enough to save his batting average. Line drive percentage isn't the most accurate stat for a variety of reasons, but Hill's liner rates are so off-kilter they tell the story of his swing: his 10 percent line drive percentage from 2010 is nearly half the league average. He was getting under everything.
His flyball rate normalized a bit in 2011, but it took some time. While with the Blue Jays, Hill scraped together a .225/.270/.313 line. He was dealt to the Diamondbacks -- easier league, easier division, and better park for hitters -- and a switch was flipped. In his final 142 plate appearances, Hill hit .316/.386/.492.
This doesn't guarantee he's going to be that good from now on, but the massive context overhaul should keep him from being as unproductive as he's been of late. He might never be the star that he seemed to be in 2009, but any improvement over his sub-replacement level stint with Toronto last year is welcome.
Alex Rios: Rios is fascinating, as he's never mediocre. He lives on the extremes, pumping out quality or dreck each year. From 2006 through 2008, Rios hit .296/.347/.489 (118 OPS+) for the Blue Jays. Since then, he's at just .253/.299/.401, but it wasn't a straight drop down. His 2009 with the Jays didn't go great (94 OPS+) but it seemed odd that Toronto would allow the White Sox to take Rios and his contract from them for nothing through August waivers.
Then Rios hit .199/.229/.301 to close out the year, and solidified 2009 as a poor campaign. There's your real disappointment.
He came back strong and slugged .457 with 53 extra-base hits in 2010, but success was short-lived: Rios had the sixth-worst True Average in baseball in 2011, minimum 300 plate appearances. He was decimal points better than the likes or Brandon Inge, Paul Janish, and Orlando Cabrera, just one year removed from being above-average at the plate.
Rios's groundball rates have been creeping back up the last few seasons, and it's showing in his lack of power. Back before the 2006 season, Rios overhauled his swing to shorten it, in order to tap into the power he had always been projected to hit for, and also allow him to pull the ball more effectively. His groundball rates dropped significantly at that point -- down from 57 percent in 2004 and 49 percent in 2005 to just 37 percent in 2006; a level he maintained for, not surprisingly, his two most productive seasons.
He's back up to 42 percent now, though, and the power that made him so valuable in the past has vanished once more. It's likely his swing is too long again, and it'll take another overhaul to get him back where he needs to be.
Chone Figgins: Figgins was the only player in the majors to get at least 300 plate appearances in 2011 and post a True Average under .199. What's even sadder? That's not Safeco's fault, as TAv is park-adjusted. He was legitimately that bad.
While it seems like it's just a continuation of his 2010 struggles, it's actually far worse. Figgins had a .245 TAv in 2010 -- that's below-average, but that just meant he was overpaid. His 2011 slots in under the harsher realm of useless, as he hit just .188/.241/.243 with a 39 OPS+, compared to 2010's 84.
What happened? A .215 BABIP is a starting point. It's possibly the product of a career-high groundball rate: Figgins was on the ground over 50 percent of the time in 2011, and it's clear from that BABIP that not enough of those grounders had eyes. His BABIP on grounders was .189, whereas the league average was .237. It doesn't stop there, though, as Figgins posted a .558 BABIP on liners -- the league BABIP was .713.
There's clearly some bad luck here -- and a hip injury, too -- and Figgins is likely to bounce back from that. But by how much? His 2010 wasn't much different from his 2008, and that year isn't that dissimilar from his 2006 -- see a pattern here? Figgins relies heavily on his batting average to keep him above-average and productive, and that fluctuates wildly from year-to-year. The Mariners are paying him to reproduce his 2009 season four times over, but he's never been that player four years in a row. Given that he'll be 34 in 2012, he might never be that player again, either.