When Cole Figueroa first joined the Tampa Bay Rays’ roster on May 16th, it was a nice story. The then-26 year old had over 1000 Triple-A plate appearances under his belt and was considered an excellent team player, and he was finally getting his chance. Few people thought, though, that Figueroa would make much of an impact, and that was certainly the case to begin his big league career. Figueroa did have a game-winning RBI double against the Boston Red Sox on May 23rd, but that was one of his few highlights as he went just 3 for 26 (.115) to begin his big league career. Since then, however, Figueroa has turned everything around and may just be proving that he capable of a little bit more than we thought.
Since August 1st, Cole Figueroa is 7 for 17 (.412) with a triple, a double, 3 RBI, and 2 walks against only 1 strikeout. He has started against right-handed pitching at second base a decent amount of the time, providing good at-bats and solid defense as well. But is this all just a fluke? Figueroa was considered a Quad-A player as an infielder lacking much power, but incapable of playing shortstop. He may be a gritty player who hustles at every opportunity, but he never had one tool that particularly stood out. What we may not have appreciated, though, is just how good Figueroa’s plate discipline is.
In 1119 Triple-A plate appearances, Figueroa walked 109 times against just 76 strikeouts. So far in his big league career, he has a 4-4 strikeout to walk ratio. Even when he hasn’t been walking, however, he has done a nice job laying off pitches out of the zone and making contact. Here’s a quick table courtesy of Minor League Central comparing a few of Figueroa’s plate discipline statistics to the AL averages.
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Part of the reason that plate discipline at Triple-A often isn’t deemed significant is that weak hitters will see more strikes (and more quality strikes) against big league pitchers. Figueroa has faced 50.3% pitches in the strike zone compared to the 49.6% average, but that isn’t as big of a difference is we might have thought. As it turns out, big league pitchers are not having the easiest time putting away Figueroa. He is excellent at identifying breaking pitches and fouling off offerings within the zone. He actually has not struck out looking yet in his major league career, and low swinging strikeout rates have been a signature of his numbers in the minors as well.
Figueroa may not have the conventional five tools, but he is using a sixth–pitch recognition– and simple peskiness to compete in at-bat after at-bat nonetheless. He may not have a ton of power, but by seeing so many pitches, he has a better chance of finding mistakes than other hitters, and he seizes those opportunities to hit the ball with authority. We are dealing with a small sample size, but this is the type of hitter that Figueroa is, and it is not so far-fetched that he can make this last.
None of this necessarily means that Figueroa is going to be a great big league hitter, but as the 24th or 25th man on the roster, his ability to play a few positions and put together good plate appearances against right-handed pitching can make him a valuable player. We will have to see where Cole Figueroa fits in with the Rays the rest of this season and in coming years, but there is a chance that a nice career as bench player is in his future.