Following is a very basic list of things we know to be true about Chone Figgins:
He used to be very successful at baseball
Lately he has been far less successful at baseball
Tuesday night he was finally dropped by the Mariners
Relative to other players, he is little
There’s a lot more to Chone Figgins than that — there’s a lot more to everybody than that — but that’s the skeleton. If you were putting your son to sleep, and you were telling him about various baseball players, and the first one you told him about was Chone Figgins, you’d go into more detail. If you were putting your son to sleep, and you were telling him about various baseball players, and the ninetieth one you told him about was Chone Figgins, you’d skip a lot of the details out of exasperation. Those are the most fundamental details.
This is not a post wherein we reflect on the Chone Figgins era in Seattle. For one thing, nobody should want to do that, and for another, is it necessary? Other people have already done that elsewhere, and we know what happened. Figgins was good, and then he signed with Seattle, and then he was bad, and then he was benched, and then he was designated for assignment. By WAR, 2009 Chone Figgins was more valuable than Adrian Gonzalez. By WAR, 2010 Chone Figgins was less valuable than James Loney. By WAR, 2011-2012 Chone Figgins was less valuable than Wilson Valdez and Hideki Matsui combined.
Chone Figgins will presumably get another job, and perhaps he isn’t completely finished. Perhaps he just needs a change of scenery, the way Jeff Cirillo apparently did, and Figgins certainly wouldn’t have taken the DFA as horrible news. The numbers, though, suggest Figgins is near the end, if not beyond it. And it makes you wonder about shorter baseball players. Or at least, it made Dave Cameron and I wonder about them.
Officially, Chone Figgins is listed at five-foot-eight, or 68 inches. In reality, he’s littler than that, but all we can go on are the oft-inflated official measurements. This is a relatively rare player type. Since 1969, 1,737 players have batted at least 1,000 times in the major leagues. Of those, just 35 were officially less than or equal to 68 inches in height. If you like percentages, that’s two percent that we’re talking about.
So a natural follow-up question: how do shorter players age, relative to other players? Figgins’ decline has been treated as a mystery, something nobody saw coming. Should we have seen this coming, given his body? Do shorter players just break down or eventually get exposed? At this time, I am not capable of generating a solid, awesome aging curve. But with the help of the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I did come up with a workaround. Let’s call it an approximation.
A good proxy for productivity is playing time. Generally, if you’re good, you’ll play, and if you’re bad, you won’t play. That last sentence was analysis. I decided to go in and collect a bunch of numbers spanning from 1961-2012, which B-R refers to as the Expansion Era. Setting an arbitrary minimum of 250 plate appearances, I looked at how many matching player seasons there were for each age between 28 to 39 (also arbitrary). Then I looked at how many matching player seasons there were for each age for players no taller than 70 inches, officially (arbitrary once again). There’s a lot of arbitrariness in here, and official heights are frequently inflated, but let’s just go with this. Let us please just go with this.
Here’s a graph of the results, as expressed by percent of player seasons by shorter players:
We begin, at age 28, with sample sizes of 1,277 and 202. That is, out of 1,277 player seasons with at least 250 plate appearances, 202 were by players no taller than 70 inches. That comes out to 16 percent. The sample sizes dwindle to 77 and 12, respectively, before I quit. By age 34, the sample sizes had been more than cut in half. The line becomes less meaningful as you follow it to the right.
But still, look what we see. At age 28, we’re talking about 16 percent. Come age 35, we’re talking about 18 percent. There’s very little fluctuation, implying that those little guys were sticking around just as often as the bigger guys. Figgins, if you’re curious, is 34. He turns 35 in January. He was absolutely terrible at 33.
We can’t say anything conclusively, of course. This is, first of all, not a direct measure of productivity. Numbers were chosen somewhat arbitrarily, the sample sizes are all somewhat limited, and shorter players are often middle infielders and teams always need middle infielders. But this suggests that we shouldn’t have predicted doom and gloom for Figgins on account of his stature. Which we didn’t. Hell, just take David Eckstein. There haven’t been many littler players than David Eckstein. From 27-29, Eckstein posted a 90 wRC+. From 30-32, Eckstein posted a 97 wRC+. From 33-35, Eckstein posted an 85 wRC+, and in his final season he batted .299 away from Petco Park. There’s evidence of a decline there, but not a dramatic decline, and you always expect a decline in the mid-30s anyway.
What’s true generally isn’t always true specifically. Maybe Chone Figgins, specifically, did decline because he’s pretty short, somehow. We don’t know, and we don’t have reason to think that’s something we should’ve projected when he signed with the Mariners. Figgins seemed safe, and in order to be worth the contract he’d only have to be something in the neighborhood of league-average. Through the first three years of the deal, Figgins has been slightly below replacement-level. Maybe, with a big 2013 somewhere else, he could pull himself back into the black. As it stands, he’s been paid nearly $30 million in exchange for a negative WAR.
Why Chone Figgins got so bad so fast remains something of a mystery. It doesn’t look like this is something we should’ve seen coming. The lesson isn’t that short players age faster or more suddenly than average or tall players. The lesson is you never know when a good player might turn into a bad player. It can happen without any warning. Appreciate your good players. Appreciate them more. They might not be that way for long.