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What Does Jeff Francoeur Bring to the Rangers?

As the “real” trade deadline approached last night, the New York Mets finally got rid of their 2010 team mascot, Jeff Francoeur, trading him to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Joaquin Arias. Dan Szymborski has already issued a brilliant analysis of the trade, but I want to focus on what Francoeur might bring to the Rangers over the last month of the season.

It depends on his role. Obviously, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz are far superior to Francoeur, but as Rob Neyer notes, they’ve each struggled with injury issues this season, so Francoeur provides a bit of depth in case those come into play again. Still, Francoeur has been close to worthless for two seasons, so it’s not clear why the Rangers would need to trade for a replacement-level bench player at this point, especially one who can’t play center field (assuming the Rangers don’t want to play Julio Borbon and don’t want Hamilton in center). In any case, the Rangers already have David Murphy, who does play center occasionally, although he isn’t very good there.

Assuming Murphy and Francoeur are roughly equivalent in the field (and some quick number crunching has them in the same general area), the main skill Francoeur supposedly brings to the Rangers is as a platoon partner for Murphy. When Francoeur’s abilities have been (rightly) criticized this season, his alleged usefulness as a right-handed platoon bat is usually brought up as a way he might be made useful. Francoeur does have a fairly big observed split: .302 wOBA versus RHP and a .344 versus lefties. However, as most readers of FanGraphs know by now, there’s a difference between observed performance and true talent. We have to properly regress Francoeur’s split against league average to get an idea of what his real platoon skill, i.e., what it will likely be going forward.

As is covered in the linked post, there is less variance among right-handed hitters with regard to platoon skill, so while Francoeur’s observed split is bigger than average, his 961 career PA versus LHP is regressed against 2200 of league average RHH versus LHP. In other words, his estimated hitter platoon skill is still far closer to league average than to his past observed performance. ZiPS overall rest-of-season projection for Francoeur is a .311 wOBA, which is pretty useless for a corner outfielder who isn’t exceptional defensively. Applying the split estimate to that figure gives us an projected wOBA of .304 versus RHP, and .330 versus LHP — terrible versus RHP and a bit above average versus LHP. Murphy’s ZiPS RoS wOBA is .344, and his estimated splits are .319 wOBA vs. LHP, .353 vs. RHP. *

* I realize that the ZiPS RoS projections currently assume Francoeur playing in the Mets’ pitcher-friendly park and Murphy playing in the Rangers’ hitters’ paradise. There isn’t a simple way of working around that, so I’ll simply note a) the park differences aren’t as big as one might think, especially over the few games left in the season (in terms of run values), and b) they are somewhat offset by the AL’s superior pitching.

Over a full season of 700 PAs, the difference between Francoeur’s .330 vs. LHP and Murphy’s .319 is about six runs. Of course, there isn’t a full season left, but about a fifth of a season — so it’s one or two runs over 140-150 PA. But even that is too much, since Francoeur would be the lesser part of a platoon. Assuming one third of the PAs go to the right-handed batter, the expected offensive difference between Murphy alone and a Francoeur/Murphy platoon would be less than a run over the remainder of the season. Yes, they’ll have Francoeur in the playoffs, but that’s (at most) 19 games. The expected difference is miniscule.

From the standpoint of creating a productive platoon, Francoeur’s expected platoon skill isn’t enough to overcome his overall lousiness at the plate, and can’t reasonably be expected to make much of a difference over the remainder of the season over just playing Murphy. If an injury does occur to one of the starters, forcing a backup into a full-time role, then Francoeur will have to face right-handed pitching. In that case the Rangers would be better off playing Julio Borbon (superior defense) and keeping the recently-designated Brandon Boggs around as depth.

It might not be a total wash. Francoeur might get a big hit in the playoffs and that, combined with his apparent ability to charm the press corps, will lead to some indignant newpaper columns when he gets non-tendered in the off-season. Fun for everyone!