On Cole Figueroa | The Process Report

On Cole Figueroa

Courtesy of Adam Sobsey.

You’ve heard the term “writer’s writer”? Figueroa is a ballplayer’s ballplayer: smart, steady, precise, quietly productive. His teammates love him. He has a cute dog named Cutter. He’s most comfortable at third base, where he makes up in technique what he lacks in range, flash and arm. But he can play second base and shortstop, too. He was moved off shortstop in the Rays’ system a couple of years ago when Hak-Ju Lee came over from the Cubs, but showed no signs of rust at that position when injuries to Lee and Tim Beckham forced him to be the Durham Bulls’ everyday shortstop this season until Lee’s return three weeks ago. Figueroa probably doesn’t have big-league range at short, but he can certainly play there if necessary. Last season, injuries in Durham forced him to play right field for a couple of games, and he handled that just fine, including making a diving, run-saving catch.

An approximate comp might be former Rays infielder Will Rhymes. Figueroa is probably a little better than Rhymes, overall.

Figueroa is small, though not as small as Rhymes. He probably doesn’t quite measure his listed 5 feet 10 inches. He isn’t fast; a scout timed him at about 4.2 seconds to first base last year in Durham (about average for a lefty hitter). He isn’t beefy. He’ll hit the very occasional homer, but this is the result more of ambushing certain pitches than of natural power. In other words, he lacks traditional tools. And despite his solid overall numbers in Durham to begin 2014, he arrives in the bigs in a little slump, with just three hits in his last 26 Triple-A plate appearances.

That’s the bad news. The good news is pretty much everything else. You sometimes hear that Figueroa has good “instincts,” but it’s really more acumen and awareness — things you learn, not things you inherit — and that’s despite his bloodline. Figueroa’s dad, Bien, was a player, coach and manager, and that’s evident in his son not in natural talent so much as long, deep baseball experience: you can tell the kid grew up on the diamond and absorbed just about everything he saw. (Cole’s twin brother played college ball, as well.) He thinks ahead of the game, has a plan, and knows what to do at all times. An example: last year he started a 5-4-3 triple play. Asked about it after the game, he said he always makes a mental note when there are runners on first and second and no outs. When the ball was hit to him, he went straight to third base without hesitation. His reaction to pulling off the triple play? “Cool: that worked.”

Figueroa has great plate discipline. He walks more than he strikes out (he was one of the hardest guys to punch out in Triple-A last year). His stance is low and somewhat splayed, but it works for him. He studies pitchers. Last year in the clubhouse, I heard him talking with teammate Rich Thompson about the next day’s opposing starter’s arsenal — you don’t hear that sort of thing often in Triple-A clubhouses. Later in the year, the Bulls faced a blue-chip starting prospect. Even though the prospect shut the Bulls down impressively in a three-inning stint (Figueroa grounded out against him on a full-count pitch in his lone plate appearance against him), I heard Figueroa breaking down the prospect’s stuff afterward: “It’s a good slider, but I’m not sure he always knows where it’s going.” He’s never intimidated, and always working.

Nor is he just looking to draw walks. As an example, here’s an excerpt about him from one of last year’s game stories:

“His size and shape, his coach’s-kid bio, and his plate discipline made it easy to assume all kinds of things about him.That is what International League pitchers did coming into 2013, having seen Figueroa’s game for much of 2012. They started busting him inside with fastballs early in the count, rendering his patience ineffective, taking away his ability to hit the ball to the opposite field. About a month into the season, Figueroa had a weak .625 OPS, an empty .263 batting average, and had drawn just six walks in 112 plate appearances.

So he reinvented himself. If he got one of those middle-in fastballs early in the count, he developed a plan to jump on it and yank it into right field or line it up the middle. I don’t have minor-league hitters’ spray charts at my disposal, but I bet if you looked at Figueroa’s from Mothers’ Day until now, you’d see a very different hitter than the one you saw in April and all the years before this one.

After last night’s game, Figueroa was asked about this new, aggressive, pull-hitting tendency, and he acknowledged that he had changed his approach somewhat, while adding that he had the pitch-taking, patient routine “still in my repertoire.” He said that, of course, middle-in fastballs are great pitches to hit, especially for lefties, who like to drop the bat head down on them. And he recognized that opposing pitchers were challenging him with those pitches to begin the season, perhaps thinking that he couldn’t handle them.

He could, and he does, and this “quiet” coach’s kid wasn’t taking those pitches lying down. “It was definitely just to let them know they can’t throw the first pitch down the middle,” he said. “I’ll swing at it.”

Figueroa and the Bulls had just seen the Braves’ starter, David Hale, in Gwinnett five days earlier. Figueroa went 0-4 against Hale, hitting the ball to the right side all four times. He knew, coming into last night’s game, that Hale was likely to be around the plate with his sinker, so he jumped on the first pitch Hale threw in the first inning and lined out hard to right field. He singled to right on the third pitch he saw in the third, homered to right field on the second pitch Hale threw him in the fifth, and doubled to right on reliever Mark Lamm’s second pitch in the eighth.

The fifth-inning home run trot was useful to watch. Figueroa ran briskly around the bases, but he was clearly quite pumped about his homer, and he crossed the plate with emphatic triumphal velocity, getting animated high-fives from his teammates. So much for the “reserved,” “quiet” role player. Figueroa will never be a big-time power hitter; he’s just not big enough. But that was his third of the season, and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t hit eight or ten a year as he moves into his prime.”

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