Batting first, Figgins aims for the top
Angels leadoff man works to be better and better, even the best
PHOENIX -- Most players with a season like Chone Figgins had in 2007 would be beyond happy, and certainly satisfied.
The Angels leadoff man bumped his batting average 63 points since '06 to .330, sixth best in the American League. Perhaps even more importantly, his on-base percentage soared 56 points to .393, and his .418 OBP from the leadoff slot was the highest in the Major Leagues.
According to Figgins, however, the elevated status he seeks at the top of the order is not yet his.
"You still always want to improve," the third baseman said Sunday, after a typical spring session of extra work in the Angels' training camp. "Part of trying to become a better player is improving. Whether it's strike-zone discipline or defensively, cutting back on errors. To make me an elite player, I have to get better every year. I want to be one of the top leadoff guys in the game. That's just a pride thing right there."
By any standards, Figgins is not far from reaching that elite echelon. Despite a slow start that saw him miss the first month of last season with fractured index and middle fingers on his right hand then hit .156 in the month of May, he rebounded to hit .461 in June and was the Majors' top hitter from May 31 through the end of the season, hitting at a .381 clip.
"It's not so much about stealing bases, it's about helping the team," Figgins said, emphasizing his multifaceted attack. "Guys picking over, OK. He throws a hittable pitch to my guy. He hits a double in the gap, we got a runner scoring with a runner on second. Next time we come over, he might be worried about him and I get to steal, so now we get a runner in scoring position and he gets to hit. It's about the whole aspect of the game. The leadoff hitter gets on, he can steal, and it's a threat."
From a pure basestealing perspective, Figgins is always dangerous, averaging 47 steals a year through his first four full seasons with the Angels, including 41 steals in 115 games in '07.
"He has the potential to be the top leadoff hitter in the game," said his manager, Mike Scioscia. "His plate discipline has increased over his career from when we saw him three or four years ago when he was a young player. From a guy we got out of A-ball from the Colorado organization to where he is now, you've seen all those little pieces come together. He's already a terrific leadoff hitter, but he has the ability to be the best leadoff hitter in the game."
The extra hours on the Tempe, Ariz., practice fields are only part of the preparation Figgins puts in as he strives to improve. He's a student of the game, and he recognizes the characteristics of being successful at the top of the Angels order, looking to everyone from former players Rickey Henderson to Willie McGee and Vince Coleman to pick up an edge.
"It's always that clutch situation that you get on to start an inning," Figgins said, identifying the common trait in the greats from the one-hole. "Derek Jeter's not a leadoff hitter, but he's always in the mix when something happens with the Yankees. Ichiro [Suzuki], Juan Pierre, those guys are always in the mix when something happens. I've been that, but I would really like to be more. Jose Reyes is a great one. Carl Crawford. When something happens, they're in the middle. That's what I call elite, and I want to be there."
That ability to be in the middle of the action on offense is also part of Scioscia's criteria for an effective leadoff hitter. Recognizing that the leadoff man is only guaranteed one turn at leading off an inning each game, Scioscia is equally concerned with Figgins' ability to create scoring opportunities, either by moving runners over, hitting with runners in scoring position, or getting himself into scoring position.
"He's connecting with the middle of your lineup every time he comes up," Scioscia said. "Even if there's two outs, you want to keep the inning going. That's his job. If there's one out, you certainly want to get on base and have the potential of having a guy on, keep it going, you have the middle of your order, three and four, hitting with hopefully a guy in scoring position or a guy on base. The leadoff hitter is hitting in front of your best hitters on your team. He's a tablesetter first of all. Are they generating enough scoring situations for your big guys? Figgy is terrific at that."
More often than not, Figgins is the one in scoring position. Last year he scored 81 runs in 115 games, which, projected over 162, would have come in at 114 runs, enough to eclipse Orlando Cabrera's team-best 101, representing a trait Scioscia calls "off the charts."
The manager said that "Figgy has the ability not only to get on base, but to get into scoring position. That's very important when you're hitting in front of that grouping of players in the middle of your lineup, which are your best hitters. The ability to hit a lot of doubles or steal a base or get to second base somehow and get in scoring position -- Figgy brings a great example of combining both of those. He was in scoring position an awful lot last year."
Figgins got himself over every which way in '07, whether with his team-best six triples, his 24 doubles -- sixth best for the Angels, despite missing six weeks to injury -- and his Halos-high 41 steals. His goals are set considerably higher on all fronts for '08.
"Scoring a whole bunch of runs," he said, previewing what he expects of himself in front of the meat of the order. "Fifty stolen bases and then score, touch 100-and-something times. That's a goal."
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.