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Jeff Francoeur: Good Guy, Bad Hitter

7 Aug

Jeff Francoeur, by pretty much every account I could find, is a great guy. He is loved by the fans at Turner Field (Francoeur’s Franks popped up early in his rookie season), and he loves them back. What’s not to love? He’s a homegrown talent for the Atlanta Braves, drafted in the 1st round in 2002 out of Liburn, Georgia. He played for the United States in the World Baseball Classic. He was on the front cover of Sports Illustrated during his rookie year. He’s even got a Bible reference on his batting gloves.

Here’s what Baseball Prospectus’ David Cameron said about Francoeur while he was still a prospect toiling in the minors:

When you watch a player like Jeff Francoeur, it is easy to see why Atlanta’s Director of Player Personnel, Dayton Moore, calls him “an especially gifted athlete.” At 6’4″, he generates a lot of power with his swing and hits everything hard. He has a quick stroke but has been out in front of off-speed pitches each time I have seen him, and timing is still an issue. A right-handed hitter, he has above-average power pulling the ball to left field, but still needs to learn how to hit with authority to right and center fields. His main focus this season has been hitting the ball up the middle, but most of his power still comes when he turns on a pitch. He covers the plate well but isn’t very selective, and would be better served to wait for pitches that he can pull. He doesn’t have any mechanical flaws in his swing that suggest he will have difficulty adjusting to higher-level pitching, so his plate discipline could be what makes or breaks him.

The last line stands out, and is what should be kept in your mind while reading the rest of this post. Now let’s go back to the rest of the piece:

When he first came up in 2005, he hit like he was shot out of a cannon. Before even drawing his first major-league walk he hit 379 average /394 OBP /734 slugging with 10 HR in 120+ plate appearances. Simply insane, especially since he was swinging at everything. He was on pace to be the rookie of the year by a wide margin and he did it his own way, by doing what only Vladimir Guererro has been able to do succesfully: swinging at the first pitch all the time, and swinging at everything else too.

Then the bottom fell out. The league realized this, and while for whatever reason it took them 120+ plate appearances to do it, they started to constantly throw him low and away, sliders especially. Since his first walk he hit: 228 average/281 OBP/376 slugging with 4 homers in about 160 PA. A STARK contrast to his early numbers, and it allowed Ryan Howard to take the Rookie of the Year title away from him. Howard has since gone on to amazing success in his sophmore season, especially since the all-star break. And Francoeur? He’s having a horrible season.

How bad? His 727 OPS ranks him 150th out of 178 qualified hitters in the major leagues, inbetween light-hitting SS Yuniesky Betancourt (729 OPS) and speedster Scott Podsednik (724 OPS). He’s 10th out of 11 qualified right fielders in the National League, ahead of only Geoff Jenkins (724 OPS). His on-base percentage is simply horrendous at 279. It’s ranked 175th out of 178 qualified hitters. He has 10 (10!) walks, of which 4 were intentional. That means he has actually drawn 6 ‘real’ walks from the opposing pitcher. He sees only 3.24 pitches per plate appearance, which is tied with Vladimir Guerrero for 174th out of 178 qualified hitters. He’s also struck out 91 times, which shows he doesn’t make that much contact either.

So, he doesn’t get on base, he strikes out a lot, and yet still doesn’t There are other hitters with poor stats like these, but most of them are middle-infielders or have been benched and thus no longer qualify. Their teams have actually realized how much they hurt their offense by continually letting them hit and not get on.

Thing is, all of this could have been predicted, to a point, by looking at his minor league stats. He had pretty good power numbers, made decent enough contact for a 282 batting average in 1413 at bats, but walked only 88 times, 13 of which were intentional. Before he was called up in July of last year, he was getting on base at a 32% clip in AA. That’s pretty bad.

Am I suggesting that the Braves get rid of Francoeur? No, of course not. He IS only 22 years old, and is only in his second season of play. He’s a good defensive outfielder with a TREMENDOUS arm. He has good speed. He’s still got a lot of power for how rarely he actually gets on base. His 448 slugging implies that when he does actually get on that he ‘makes something happen’ so to speak. Francoeur has 41 extra base hits, the same amount of Johnny Damon and one more than Alex Rodriguez.

So what’s the problem here? The problem is that the guy just doesn’t get enough hits and walks. He doesn’t do what it takes to get the most runs for his team, which is to say that he doesn’t have any plate discipline. He hacks. The times he actually connects for a hit he becomes a good ballplayer, but there are so many times where he doesn’t let that bordline pitch go by him or that high strike or that low and away slider or what have you that he has become a detriment to the Atlanta Braves offense. Nomar Garciaparra and Vladimir Guerrero are also hackers, but they have enough bat control and cover enough of the plate that they make enough contact to nullify the fact that they don’t take many pitches. Thing is, these guys are few and far between, and most players have to let go pitches that they can’t hit. They can’t just keep on swinging simply because they think they can hit them, they have to know their limitations and adjust. It seems to me that major league pitchers adjusted way back in late 2005 and Jeff has yet to adjust. He still has several years to improve, and I’d suggest that a good part of the Braves success in the coming years depends on whether he improves or not because they’re likely going to keep trotting him out there, pass or fail. He’s so enamored himself with the front office, the manager, and most fans that he’s going to be sporting the Braves logo for some time. If he learns some plate discipline, he could become quite a feared hitter with his natural abilities.

Currently though, he’s a bad hitter. And that’s a good thing for the Phillies, and bad for the Braves.

Boy Meets World Monday

7 Aug

Remember that time Cory wanted to touch something?!?!

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