On Wednesday night, Ben Francisco hit his second home run of the year, which, combined with his seeming comfort in a regular role on a contending team, probably caused more than one Indians fan to utter an epithet under his or her breath. Investigating Francisco’s route to the present day seems to call to mind the titular saying – it seems that his beauty is dependent on the person (or organization) that is doing the appraising.
In Cleveland, despite some mostly awful major league options in the corner outfield, the Indians kept Francisco in the minor leagues. In 2005, Francisco hit .307/.357/.474 in Akron in his second go-round at Double-A, and he could have been considered ready for the major leagues. In 2006, he hit .278/.345/.454 in Triple-A and almost anyone would agree that he wasn’t going to refine his skills any further against inferior competition. In 2005, Francisco was ‘blocked’ by Jody Gerut (.275/.357/.377 in 157 PAs as a fourth outfielder), and/or Aaron Boone (.243/.299/.378 at third base instead of Casey Blake). In 2006, those in his way included Jason Michaels (.267/.326/.391 in 548 PAs). Francisco’s major league output to date as been .265/.330/.448, so it looks like he was ‘unfairly’ blocked in Cleveland.
It’s not like there weren’t flaws to point out. Francisco has a long swing, and always had nigh-average minor league strikeout rates that seemed to suggest he might have strikeout problems in the major leagues. Then he struck out nearly 30% of the time between his major league debut (66 PAs in 2007) and his return to Triple-A (104 PAs in 2008). Still, he settled in at 19% in his first full year and they should have known that he could be average in that category.
The other most often-cited flaw is contained in Francisco’s platoon splits. “Can he hit righties?” came the response whenever his overall numbers were cited. Thanks to DriveLineBaseball, however, we have the resuscitated Minor League Splits numbers at our disposal. His MLE, or park-and-league-adjusted, slash line against lefties from 2005-2008: .242/.306/.380. Against righties, over the same time period: .254/.309/.385. In the major leagues, he has a .267/.346/.460 line against lefties… and a .264/.324/.443 line against righties. That may be a little bit lower, but the split comes in just over 1200 combined plate appearances, too. Is this the line of a platoon-only player? Perhaps the platoon splits were overblown.
The overall minor league numbers are meh. It’s not like Francisco’s adequacy was obvious. Just to use some arbitrary benchmarks, he never showed an ISO over .200, and he never walked 10% of the time. He was a corner outfield with a long swing, potential platoon issues, and no elite skill – it might not even have hurt the team much to include him in the Cliff Lee trade.
But the Phillies, needing depth in the outfield, figured that the floor on Francisco suited them well. Not needing him to be an everyday outfielder, they were happy to get a platoon bat that would not embarrass himself in the field or at the plate. Because they came from a different angle, they have seen some things differently.
For example, Francisco never walked 10% of the time in the minor leagues, but he did walk 8.33% of the time over his MiLB career, which is above average. He may never have had an ISO over .200, but he did have a career ISO of .168, which is above average. He may have had a long swing, but he only struck out 16.59% of the time in the minors. That’s also better than average! Now we’re talking about a guy with at least three above-average skills, who might or might not be better than his baseline against lefties. Now we’re talking about a decent cost-controlled outfielder capable of playing every day on a contending team. This rose smells different with a new name.
This missing piece is, of course, defense. His outfield UZR/150 is below zero, and subjective reports agree – he’s not a good corner outfielder. On the other hand, all of the above-average statistics above have been born out in the major league – look at his MLB walk rate (7.7%), ISO (.183) and strikeout rate (20.5%). Those numbers are all around average or better for the general population. Even if his position and glove make his ‘average-ish’ overall package a little less attractive, there’s value here to be had. At this age, and this cost, he’s a good piece to have on your team.
Statistics can be slightly malleable, depending on how they are appraised. Context, and expectations, are king. If you need Ben Francisco to be a cornerpiece for your team, you might look at the statistics and talk about the lack of an elite skill paired with flaws. If you need Ben Francisco to play a cheap corner outfield without embarrassing your veteran team, you just might get what you need.
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