Maikel Franco is projected as a cornerstone of the Phillies rebuild as a power hitting third basemen who can hold his own defensively. Has the 23-year-old done enough to cement that role and meet expectations?
I don’t think many would argue that Franco hasn’t had the breakout season the Phillies’ front office, dugout and fans believed he would have. He hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been superstar-ish either.
Franco is 23 and in his second season as a major league ball player. Growing into the star he’s projected to be takes time. Not every player comes up and is Mike Trout, in fact most aren’t. Sometimes the youth shows and the player needs time to grow into the big shoes.
Anthony Rizzo is at superstar status now, but looking at his career gives us a glimpse of how it took one of the leagues best time to get there. At Franco’s current age, 23, Rizzo had already spent parts of two seasons in the majors; Franco has only spent part of one season. In Rizzo hit .233/.323/.419, with 23 home runs and 80 RBI’s.
Like Franco now, this was Rizzo’s first season as an everyday player. For comparison, Franco is currently hitting .248/.298/.421 with 22 home runs, so there’s an obvious similarity there, one that bodes well for Maikel’s future.
Franco has the 6th worst BABIP in baseball and hits the third most pop ups. What was an extra base hit for him last year is now a pop up.
Another interesting player to compare him to is Marcel Ozuna. The Marlins outfielder came up at age 22 and played a small portion of the season. His first season full-time at age 23 in 2014, hitting .269/,317/.455 with 23 HRs and 85 RBI’s. Like Rizzo, Ozuna had to gain some experience before he could become that All Star caliber player he was this year.
Lastly, someone who a lot of people already compare Franco to and to whom Phillies fans hope he can emulate is Adrian Beltre.
Beltre was 19 when he first came up and played a half season but in his first full year at age 20 he hit .275/.352/.428 with 15 HRs. Beltre has had an rollercoaster 19 year career as a major leaguer. Some years he’s unstoppable and will hit in the .320 range, some years he’s not so hot, but still putting up a respectable .260 average.
All in all he’s a career .286/.338/.479 batter, and the Phillies would be ecstatic if Franco could put together the kind of numbers that Beltre has.
So what would it take to get Franco to that kind of production?
Franco’s biggest offensive deficiency this year is his approach at the plate, an affliction that seems to run as rampant in the Phillies line up as E.Coli on raw meat left in the hot sun.
Just watching Franco at the plate you often see two very different players – sometimes even in a single at bat. He’ll take one swing that’s wild, with his head flying out and his balance completely off, and another that’s calm and disciplined with excellent mechanics.
There are no official stats kept on the results from the different swing types but anyone who watches the team regularly could tell you that the wild swing typically doesn’t result in anything more than a swinging strike 99% of the time.
The one saving grace seems to be that the wild swing never follows the controlled swing, it always comes first, as if Franco realizes the poor attempt and makes a concerted effort to immediately adjust. It’s probably his helmet flying off his head and the fact that he ends that swing in the other batter’s box that tips him off that he’s maybe swung just a bit too hard, but who knows?
While there may not be stats for Maikel’s different swing types, unfortunately for him there are stats for his overall appearances at the plate. While he seems to possess an extraordinary amount of potential and raw talent, that alone is not enough to carry most players to stardom in the major leagues. For that a player needs to have a disciplined approach to how they go about their at bats.
One of Franco’s problems is that he swings entirely too often. He swings at 52% of the pitches he sees, which is good for 20th most in the majors, 10th most in the National League. He misses the ball on swings at an 11.8% clip, good for the top 30 in the majors.
Those numbers in and of themselves aren’t necessarily bad for everyone. Steven Piscotty, Corey Seager and Carlos Gonzalez are all very similar in terms of swings and swings and misses. The difference between Franco and those guys is that Franco is the only one hitting under .249 and getting on base at less than .300.
Piscotty and Gonzalez are hitting .279 and .298 respectively, and Seager is hitting .315. But those guys are also getting on base at .350 while Franco is at .299. Those other guys are getting more pitches they can hit and taking their walks when they’re not.
Those averages and on-base percentage differences are not subtle. People would have a very different opinion of Franco’s offense if he were hitting .290 and getting on base at a .350 clip.
Basically, that’s the difference from him being a blooming young superstar who will anchor the Phillies offense for years to come and a borderline failure relying on the age/experience excuse; it’s the difference between him being Chase Utley or Dom Brown.
So why isn’t he hitting better and getting on base more? One of the more obvious indicators of something being wrong is Franco’s BABIP, the average of which he gets a hit when he puts the ball in play. Franco has the sixth worst BABIP in all of baseball at .259.
To some degree this can be written off as bad luck but to another extent it’s indicative of failure. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who said that good luck belongs to those that work hard for it.
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Of the bottom 30 in BABIP in baseball, Franco is among the very worst in his walk percentage and almost all of the players behind him in that list are defense-oriented shortstops who are typically forgiven for their poor offense because of what they bring in defense at a premium position (yes, Galvis is in that group).
Again, like swinging too much, the inability to work out a base on balls is severely hurting Franco’s offense.
One of the reasons Franco’s BABIP is so abysmal is his tendency to hit an infield fly ball, where an infield fly ball represents the easiest, least productive out of any ball put in play. Franco is third in all of baseball at hitting the ball both high in the air and not out of the infield. This is not a category you want to lead in.
Last year Franco hit .280 with a .297 BABIP, and the only real difference this year is those infield fly balls and his extra base hits, which have dropped-off significantly this year
When looked at together, they can easily represent the year to year difference in his BABIP. While he’s still hitting singles at nearly an identical rate, last year he was hitting for an extra base once every 8.22 at-bats. This year he’s doing it once every 11.5 ABs.
Put another way, what was a double or a HR last year is an infield pop up this year. And indeed, if you go back to the players mentioned above who swing and make contact at a similar rate to Franco, you can see an obvious outlier in Franco’s pop up percentage where those players are all under 10% and Franco is over 17%.
There’s also some peculiarities in Franco’s situational hitting. He seems to underperform when there’s a sole runner on second base, regardless of the outs. In 60 plate appearances he’s hitting only .130.
What’s strange is that if that same runner is instead at third he excels, hitting .333. His career numbers show the same thing, albeit he hasn’t had a very long career.
Both situations are an opportunity for an RBI, but only when the runner is on second does it take a hit to score him. However, with two outs and a runner on third, a situation where a hit is needed to score the runner and an out will leave him stranded, Franco hits extremely well at .343.
It’s a strange anomaly that may even out with a larger sample size but it could also be indicative of trying to hard with that runner on second and being more relaxed with the runner on third.
He may also be trying to hard when he’s playing at home. There’s a fairly significant difference in his home/away splits this year. At home in front of his fans he hits .231/.269/.386, while playing outside Philadelphia he hits .263/.327/.457.
That’s a .130 difference in OPS when he’s not at home. Away he compares to All Stars Wil Myers or Marcell Ozuna; at home he’s Freddy Galvis.
So whether it’s age or approach or situational, one thing it fairly clear: Maikel Franco has not yet arrived. He’ll get older, he can work on his discipline and he can be more consistent regardless of the situation, but whether or not that turns him into the player we all want to see remains to be seen.