Old Man Franco

HAMPTON, Va., May 29 — The Peninsula Pilots completed a six-game sweep of the Alexandria Dukes last night with a 5-0 triumph.

Paul Kiess, who entered the game batting .144, slammed a two-run homer in the third to start the Pilots on a four-run inning. Julio Franco’s single and Will Culmer’s double, both to left field, drove in the final two runs of the uprising.

The Washington Post, May 30, 1980: “Pilots Blank Dukes For 6-Game Sweep”

A 21-year-old Julio Franco, then a promising shortstop prospect, hit .321 for Peninsula that year. He went on to hit .301 at Reading in 1981 and an even .300 at Oklahoma City in 1982, before making his major league debut with the Philadelphia Phillies that season. Following the 1982 season, in which he hit .276/.323/.310 in 16 games with the Phillies, Philadelphia traded Franco to the Cleveland Indians.

Here’s a story on the trade from the December 10, 1982 edition of The New York Times:

HONOLULU, Dec. 9 — After three days of mostly frustrating talks, trading activity picked up today at the winter meetings. The Cleveland Indians sent Von Hayes, an outfielder with a promising future, to the Philadelphia Phillies for five players, including Manny Trillo, an established second baseman who is 31 years old.

Besides Trillo, one of the best second basemen in the National League, the Indians received George Vukovich, an outfielder who hit .272 in 123 games last season; Julio Franco, a 21-year-old minor leaguer whom the Indians expect to be their starting shortstop, and two other minor leaguers, Jay Baller, a 6-foot-6-inch pitcher, and Jerry Willard, a catcher.

A little less than a month after the trade was a made, a boy named Aaron Jay Gleeman was born in a St. Paul, Minnesota hospital. Yes, that’s how old Julio Franco is.

Franco did indeed become Cleveland’s starting shortstop and he had a nice rookie season in 1983, batting .273/.306/.388 when .273/.306/.388 wasn’t bad for a shortstop. He drove in 80 runs, stole 32 bases, and scored 68 times.

Here’s part of an article from the November 23, 1983 edition of The New York Times:

Ron Kittle, the left-fielder who helped lead the Chicago White Sox to a division championship, today was named the American League Rookie of the Year.

In voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America, Kittle out-polled Julio Franco, the Indians’ shortstop, and Mike Boddicker, the Orioles’ pitcher. Kittle collected 15 of the 28 first-place votes while Franco received 8 and Boddicker 5.

Ron Kittle‘s final season was 1991 and Mike Boddicker was finished after 1993. Thirteen years after Kittle was done and 11 years after Boddicker hung em up, Julio Franco is currently batting .286/.412/.393 as a platoon first baseman for the Atlanta Braves. Yes, that’s how long Julio Franco has been playing.

Take a look at some of the differences in baseball between Franco’s first season, 1982, and Franco’s 19th season, 2003:

                         1982     2003
Runs/Game                4.09     4.61
League ERA               3.60     4.28
Steals/Team               149       81
Homers/Team               108      169
League OPS               .692     .744
Strikeout/Team            858     1062

Homers and stolen bases basically flip-flopped, and offense went up about 13% in the process. Not coincidentally, the average team struck out nearly 25% more often last year than in 1982.

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Dontrelle Willis was born about two weeks after Julio Franco made his major league debut. Jose Reyes, Edwin Jackson, Joe Mauer and Miguel Cabrera had not even been conceived yet when Franco played his first major-league game.

Since Franco finished third in the voting in 1983, there have been 40 Rookie of the Year winners. 15 of them are retired. Of those 15, one is the manager of an American League team, one is a television announcer for ESPN, and one very briefly held the all-time single-season home run record.

A total of 82 people have been inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame since Julio Franco played his first big-league game. The two players the baseball writers voted into the Hall the year Franco debuted were Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson.

Players who were still playing during Franco’s first season in the majors include Willie Stargell, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, Bill Lee, Luis Tiant, Joe Rudi and Mark Belanger.

The New York Yankees have a television channel called the YES Network. They use multiple color commentators, but their main guys are Ken Singleton, Jim Kaat and Bobby Murcer. All three were still playing when Franco began his major-league career.

Some of Franco’s teammates on the Phillies in 1982 include Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Sparky Lyle and Tug McGraw. Also on that team was Gary Matthews, whose son Gary Jr. has played over 500 games in the majors and was recently let go by Franco’s Braves. Mike Krukow, who is currently an announcer for the San Francisco Giants, went 13-11 with a 3.12 ERA for the Phillies in 1982 and was their starting pitcher in Franco’s first game.

Dave LaRoche, a left-handed relief pitcher who played 14 years in the majors, retired following the 1983 season — Franco’s rookie year. LaRoche had a son named Adam while he was doing his second stint with the Angels. Adam LaRoche is now 25 years old and he is currently Julio Franco’s platoon partner at first base for the Braves.

Okay, so I think we’ve established that Julio Franco is really old and has been playing for a really long time. He finally fessed up to his true age a little while back, which means he turned 45 years old last August. He’ll turn 46 on his next birthday, but for baseball purposes, this is his “age-45” season.

We’re not even a full month into the 2004 season, so it’s obviously tough to predict what Franco’s final numbers will look like. Thus far, he’s hit .286/.412/.393 in 14 games. Assuming he can keep up a reasonably similar pace (Franco hit .294/.372/.452 last year and .290/.365/.413 over the past three years), is there a chance he could have the greatest season in baseball history for a 45-year-old hitter?

Well, the competition for that honor is extremely limited. In fact, in the history of baseball, only two 45-year-olds have had more than 100 plate appearances in a season.

Way back in 1897, Cap Anson had 497 plate appearances with the Chicago Cubs. And then, 90 years later, Pete Rose had 272 plate appearances with the Cincinnati Reds. And that’s it, those are the only two 45-year-olds who had any sort of significant playing time.

Here’s what Franco has to compete with for the title of Best 45-Year-Old Hitter Ever:

            G      AB      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+    RC
Anson     114     424     497     .285     .379     .361      92     57
Rose       72     237     272     .219     .316     .270      61     19

I think it’s safe to assume that Julio Franco will be better this season than Pete Rose was as a 45-year-old. Of course, assuming anything for a 45-year-old hitter is never all that safe. Still, Rose simply wasn’t very good at all. After just 14 games and 34 plate appearances, Franco already has 4.4 Runs Created, 23% of Rose’s total, and Franco will destroy Rose’s performance in all of the “rate” stats like batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+.

Beating Cap Anson is going to be significantly more difficult. For one thing, Anson played nearly everyday in 1897, playing in 86% of his team’s games while accumulating nearly 500 plate appearances. While Franco may play in a similar percentage of Atlanta’s games thanks to pinch-hitting, it is extremely unlikely that he’ll even come close to 500 plate appearances.

For one thing, Franco hasn’t had that many plate appearances in a season since 1997. For another, he had just 223 plate appearances for Atlanta last year and is on pace for just 290 this season. And finally, assuming LaRoche starts to heat up a little offensively (he’s only hitting .212/.255/.346 thus far), Franco could see the starts he is getting right now dry up quickly.

So, it’s not looking like Franco will be able to top Cap Anson when it comes to the counting stats like plate appearances or Runs Created. Still, there’s a decent shot he could beat Anson is batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and/or OPS+.

I bet that would be a pretty big honor for Julio Franco too, because I heard he was a big Cap Anson fan back in the late 1800s.


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