I don’t have much insight into the mind of the average baseball fan, but thanks to the chats that we host on this website, I’ve gotten some glimpses into the mind of the average FanGraphs reader. And, it seems to me, the average FanGraphs reader at present is wondering about two questions:
(1) Why is literally every single pitcher in baseball literally dying?
(2) Who the heck is finally going to trade for Nick Franklin?
Franklin has taken over the chat section, and for every Franklin question or comment we accept, I’d say we reject another five. Franklin’s is an unusual and compelling situation: he’s a young player, fairly highly rated, who’s all but certain to be moved because there’s nowhere for him to play. Young players aren’t often such obvious trade bait, and everyone wants to know if their team can get a new young player in a deal.
Now, this isn’t going to speculate about potential destinations. There are several potential destinations, given the number of teams that would like to acquire a cheap bat with years of control. But there’s a big flashing question regarding Franklin’s trade value: is he, or is he not, a shortstop? See, if Franklin’s a shortstop, he’d be worth more than if he were just a second baseman for the years ahead. The Mets have been scouting Franklin to see about his defense. Presumably, they’re not alone. If Franklin’s a shortstop, he’s more appealing to more teams.
And on Franklin as a shortstop, plenty of people have opinions. The goal here is to figure out what Franklin is. It’s not like he has a long big-league track record of playing the position. He’s been there for just under 21 innings. So, what we can’t do is just point to the numbers, but what we can do is try to consider all of the evidence that we do have. What are the numbers and what are the thoughts? Might we be able to establish some sort of range?
Let’s start blending. And we’ll begin with the more flattering evaluations. Here’s John Sickels from last May, when Franklin was promoted to Seattle:
All told, as a shortstop I would describe him as “adequate, has a chance to improve, workable if he hits enough.” On the other hand, I have no doubts at all about his ability to be an above-average, even excellent, gloveman at second base.
The evaluation there seems to be that Franklin is maybe a 0 shortstop, but more likely something along the lines of a -5 shortstop. Perhaps -10 — I don’t know what Sickels means by “adequate”. Let’s say somewhere between -10 and 0.
How about Keith Law? Asked whether he thinks Franklin can play short:
I actually do. Maybe somewhere between 0 to -5 runs a year on defense, but with his bat, that will work – and I won’t rule out the possibility that he can be more than that. He has unusually good instincts out there.
Law spells out the range, and hints at potential improvement down the road. “Unusually good instincts” is the best comment you’re going to read about Franklin’s defense in this post.
Franklin is reliable at shortstop, fielding everything hit to him, and has good actions but both his range and arm are fringe-average for the position. Second base would probably be his best position but Dustin Ackley is far more secure in his job than Ryan.
Hulet describes Franklin as something kind of like a Jhonny Peralta. Again, Franklin seems no better than league average, and likely a little below.
Baseball Prospectus, also last May upon Franklin’s promotion:
He is limited at shortstop, offering only modest range and an arm that earns below-average to fringe-average grades. He has decent hands and solid instincts but they are not enough to make him a palatable defender on the left side of the infield long term. If he is shifted to second base permanently, a position he has played extensively in the minor leagues, Franklin could be an average defender with an average arm for the position.
There’s a little more praise of Franklin’s instincts, but this evaluation would seem to describe Franklin as more of a -10 shortstop or so. Maybe -5 right now with decline on the way. Describing him as maybe an average defensive second baseman establishes a low ceiling for ability at short.
Do we have anything else? There is a little bit. Our own Dave Cameron has described Franklin in the recent past as not a shortstop. Through my own conversations I’ve heard expressed skepticism that Franklin is even a second baseman. Last year, in more than 800 innings, Franklin was at -7 as a second baseman by UZR, but he was at 0 by DRS. He emerged with a very low Fan Scouting Report rating. The Mariners themselves liked Franklin as a shortstop less than Brad Miller, and it seems they still think that way, despite reports that Franklin and Miller continue to compete in camp for the starting job.
But! Franklin says he played with some injuries last year. Tangotiger has demonstrated in the past that shortstops, on average, improve a little in the field until an early-career defensive peak. Franklin’s only 23 years old. And for the record, it’s not like Franklin is incapable of making a difficult play as a shortstop in the bigs. This play he made against Kole Calhoun is a play many shortstops would’ve had trouble with:
It’s interesting how much Franklin looks like Derek Jeter in that clip. Jeter, for a very long time, has been a below-average defensive shortstop. The Yankees haven’t exactly struggled to win on a consistent basis because of it. Jeter’s been good enough to play the position, and he’s offset the defense with his hitting, which is the expectation for Franklin, as well.
Putting everything together, I don’t see any reason to believe Franklin is above-average at short, right now. He might be best described as somewhere between -15 and -5, or maybe -10 and 0. If you believe in early-career defensive improvement, and if you put stock in Franklin’s offseason workouts with Barry Larkin, you might prefer the latter description. Really, we’re just talking about a handful of runs. Franklin would be expected to peak soon, and then he’d start to decline, and it wouldn’t take much of a decline to turn him into a defensive mess. So even if he’s a shortstop today, he’s probably not a shortstop further down the road.
That’s the best evaluation I can come up with. Could Franklin be a shortstop on a winning team? Shin-Soo Choo was a center fielder on a winning team. Anything’s possible. Franklin would probably end up more comfortable at second, and while he’s most familiar with short, the same goes for most players who get drafted there and end up changing to go somewhere else. If a team trades for Nick Franklin and sticks him at short, he could probably stay there without being a catastrophe for a few seasons. But he’s unlikely to be a long-term solution at the position, however important that might be. Trade for Franklin as a shortstop and you could still use some shortstop security.
The big question’s been about Nick Franklin’s defense. Seems to me the big question ought to be about Nick Franklin’s offense. He’s demonstrated that he can walk, and he’s demonstrated that he can probably hit about 15 dingers a season. To what extent are strikeouts going to remain a part of his game going forward? He struck out almost a third of the time down the stretch as a rookie. In his first exposure to Triple-A, he struck out 23% of the time. In his second exposure to Triple-A, he cut that rate in half. It’s the bat that’s going to determine whether Franklin’s a regular, and his being special depends on whether he makes more contact now that he’s gained considerable experience.
One way or another, Nick Franklin, for the next several seasons, ought to be a middle infielder. Whether he’s a good one will probably have more to do with his bat than with his glove. One question is whether Franklin’s a major-league shortstop. A more important question is whether Franklin’s a major-league regular.
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