And the winner of the award for Best Free Agent Signing Of The Winter goes to… Dayton Moore? Wait, seriously? Who counted these votes?
January 14th, 2011 – the day that up became down, right became left, and FanGraphs writes that Moore got the best deal of the winter in free agency. But, here we are – the Royals just signed Jeff Francis to a one year contract for 2011 that will pay him just $2 million, and if he stays healthy and pitches well, could earn him up to a whopping $4 million. To put it in other terms, he just signed for the same amount of guaranteed money as Melvin Mora, and if he hits enough incentives, he might end up making as much as Bill Hall. This is, quite simply, a steal for Kansas City.
Francis happens to be the somewhat unlucky owner of three things that significantly drove down his market value – a fastball that isn’t as good as it was when he was a first round pick in 2002, a medical report card that includes the words “shoulder surgery”, and an ERA over 5.00 in each of the last two seasons he has pitched. The combination of question marks about his health, stuff, and performance served to drive his price down this winter to a point that I would argue goes beyond reason. Let’s tackle these three issues one by one.
1. Missing Velocity?
For whatever reason, it has become popular to talk about Francis as a guy who has lost significant velocity. I’ve had conversations with team officials where they mentioned the deterioration of his stuff, and around the game, he’s viewed as a guy who simply doesn’t throw as hard as he used to. To some extent, this is true, as he did used to throw harder than he does now – back in 2005.
He broke into the league with a fastball that averaged 88.5 MPH, but it quickly fell off, and he’s been sitting in the 86 MPH range for the last five years. In fact, the 87.2 MPH average fastball velocity he showed last year was the highest he’s had since his second year with the Rockies. While he’s not going to blow anyone away with his heater, the idea that his arm problems have led to a significant drop-off in stuff isn’t supported by the evidence.
2. Injury Risk?
Due to arm surgery that sidelined him for all of 2009 and half of 2010, Francis is seen as something of a health risk. Given that he has only thrown 250 innings over the last three years, that’s understandable to a point, but medical procedures for pitchers have advanced significantly over the last ten years, and simply are not the death knell they once were.
Does anyone care that Tim Hudson had surgery and missed almost all of the 2009 season? What about Josh Johnson? Chris Carpenter? C.J. Wilson? A.J. Burnett? These guys are often considered to be workhorses now, but each have major arm problems in their medical file. From 2005 to 2007, Francis threw 598 innings, and established himself as a reliable every-fifth-day guy. He doesn’t have a long history of arm problems. His shoulder hurt, he had surgery, and he got it fixed. He doesn’t have leprosy. In a winter where Carl Pavano and Rafael Soriano are landing multi-year deals, the injury concerns for Francis seem to be somewhat overblown.
3. Bad Pitcher?
Finally, the ERA. I won’t spend too much time on this, because you can probably guess where this is going, but Francis’ combined 2008 and 2010 performance give him a 5.01 ERA, but only a 4.29 xFIP. The difference is, as always, BABIP and HR/FB rate. Francis allowed a .315 BABIP in 2008 and a .322 mark last year, which earned him the hittable label and prevented him from stranding runners, driving up his runs allowed total. You know what team has the lowest UZR in baseball over the last three years? The Colorado Rockies, with a -109.1 total (Brad Hawpe accounts for a whopping -59 runs of that total by himself).
Now, there’s some evidence to suggest that Coors Field might inflate BABIP, and part of the Rockies atrocious defensive ratings could be due to a park factor, but even if that is true, that is also something that is still out of Francis’ control and won’t be following him to Kansas City. Likewise, we shouldn’t overly surprised that a pitcher who has to spend half his time pitching at altitude had a higher than average HR/FB ratio. Let’s not get so caught up in the humidor that we stop giving Colorado pitchers any benefit for having to overcome a challenging home environment.
I’m not saying Francis is the best pitcher in baseball, but he has a pretty specific set of demonstrated skills that have been proven to work in the big leagues. He’s a lefty who pounds the strike zone, gets a decent amount of grounders, and misses enough bats to get a strikeout when he really needs it. His change-up is a legitimate weapon, so he doesn’t have much of a platoon split. His career numbers are pretty solid, especially for a guy who has spent his whole career in Colorado.
In a market where mediocre relievers are commanding decent money, there’s no reason why a talented 30-year-old lefty with decent ability and a pretty decent 2010 pitching line should have been ignored the way Francis was. He got caught in the perfect storm of velocity bias, ERA bias, and fear of injured pitchers, but kudos to Dayton Moore for overlooking these superficial problems and finding a pretty solid pitcher for bench player money.