Overreaction season is underway. Each year, it starts sometime around mid-March, and lasts until… anyone have the date? Last Monday of May? No, that’s Memorial Day. This is embarrassing; I’m drawing a blank here. If anyone has this year’s date for the end of Overreaction Season, let me know. It lasts well into the regular season — I know that much — and I know that it’s already begun.
As you may have heard, Maikel Franco has played in 11 Spring Training games, and Maikel Franco has hit six home runs. During last year’s Spring Training, Franco hit zero home runs, and then he went on to have an excellent rookie season, so we understand how little these things matter, but it’s hard to ignore Maikel Franco right now. If, say, Darin Ruf were the one doing this, it might be easier to cast aside as one of those weird Spring Training things, but it’s not Darin Ruf; rather, it’s a top prospect, one who either met or exceeded all expectations in his rookie year and is being looked to as one of very few bright spots on the 2016 Phillies, and he’s doing in the games that don’t matter exactly what everyone hopes he’ll do in the games that do. Don’t get me wrong — it’s definitely still just a weird Spring Training thing. But it’s the kind of weird Spring Training thing that feels worth looking into a bit.
Franco had the kind of rookie season that gets you compared to Adrian Beltre. Not in terms of “this kid is going to be a future Hall of Famer” but more in terms of “this kid’s offensive profile looks like Adrian Beltre’s and they both play third base.” Beltre is Beltre because of the bat and the glove, and Franco’s glove could have him at first base before too long. But if the bat’s there, that’s half of a hell of a player, and the kind of thing that should excite Phillies fans.
The Beltre profile looks like this: not too many walks, not too many strikeouts, but plenty of swings, plenty of contact, and good power. You could also call it the Adam Jones profile, or if we want to stick with third baseman, here’s another one who Franco emulated last year:
Others have succeeded with the profile, but the thing about that profile is, it’s a tough one to make work without either plus speed, or plus power. Think about it. The aggressive nature, which Franco’s always had, limits the walks (though Franco did walk more as last year went on), and the lack of strikeouts means plenty of balls in play. Franco doesn’t have good speed, so that means those balls in play really need to do damage; in other words, the power’s got to be present at all times. Without the power, plenty of guys with this profile fail; Delmon Young‘s been invoked in the past. The power is how Nolan Arenado made it work last year. The power’s how Beltre’s made it work.
Franco made it work with the power last year, too, and now, overreaction or not, he’s being talked up as a home run threat along the same lines as Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant. And, while we saw the power last year, and we’re seeing it again this Spring, there was this one thing that got me hung up on Franco’s power last year, and that’s the ground balls.
Last year, Franco hit more balls on the ground than the average hitter. Not the average power hitter, mind you, more ground balls than just your average, run-of-the-mill hitter. It’s hard to hit a home run on a ground ball. It’s hard to hit a lot of home runs when you hit a lot of ground balls. Nelson Cruz made it work last year, but Nelson Cruz hasn’t typically hit that many grounders, and also Nelson Cruz is just a freak. The list of hitters with above-average ground ball rates coupled with plus power is a short one, and so to fully buy in to Franco’s power, it’d be nice to see more balls hit in the air. It’s the same adjustment Beltre made when he went to Texas.
The caveat will come after the jump, but let’s observe a couple numbers without hesitation:
- Franco 2015: 53% air balls
- Franco 2016: 70% air balls
The caveat is big, bigger than the stats themselves, and the caveat is that “Franco 2016” is 26 batted balls from Spring Training. Batted ball rates don’t stabilize until around 200 plate appearances, and right now we’re at 32, so the data, for all intents and purposes, is useless. But I’m not positing that Franco is suddenly a fly ball hitter, and therefore a home run hitter. I’m just saying, if we’re invested in Franco’s future power potential, then we wanted to see more balls in the air, and so far Franco hasn’t not given us what we want.
Here’s a dinger Franco hit the other day off Jordan Zimmermann:
The pitch was 88, belt-high, and crushed.
Out of curiosity, I wanted to see what Franco vs. 88 belt-high looked like last year, when Franco wasn’t hitting many balls in the air, and here’s the first example I found, but in slow-motion and edited so we can pay close attention to what the swing looks like:
And then back to the Zimmermann dinger:
The pitches are nearly identical. The swings are not. Look at the hands on the bottom, more recent clip. Look how they stay tucked inside, allowing Franco to drop them lower, earlier in the swing, and create lift. I can’t say for sure if either swing is representative of the larger sample, but if we wanted to see a Franco who hit more balls in the air, the newer swing is exactly the kind of thing we’d be looking for.
We can’t say for sure whether Maikel Franco has actually made an adjustment. It’s just far too early, and the games far too meaningless, to have any sort of confidence that what we’ve seen so far is real. But what we can say is this: last year, Maikel Franco was already impressive, and hinted at a very bright future. With more power, that future could become even brighter, and the risks that come along with his profile could become even smaller. For more power, Franco would need more fly balls, and for more fly balls, Franco would need more lift in his swing. Will any of that happen this year? We’ve got about as good an idea now as we did two weeks ago. But at the very least, we haven’t been given any evidence that adjustment can’t happen, and now we know what to watch for.
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