Bold Prediction: Maikel Franco Will Receive MVP Votes
This week, the Crashburn staff will be posting our bold predictions for the 2016 Phillies season.
I’m a person who is loathe to put my name next to baseball predictions of any sort – variation and randomness hold too much sway to be able to say much with confidence. Making a prediction that qualifies as “bold”, or, unlikely enough to be surprising? Even worse. However, I’ve attempted to find a sensational-sounding prediction that isn’t as unlikely as it initially appears (AKA, having my cake and eating it too).
The prediction? Phillies’ third baseman Maikel Franco will receive MVP votes in 2016. While predicting MVP votes for a player who has never received serious consideration for the award sounds like a bold move, there are a couple factors in Franco’s favor.
Even in the sabermetric age we currently experience, MVP votes are still awarded by traditional baseball writers using an ambiguous and fluctuating combination of actual performance, event sequencing, and narrative that is frustrating to some. From a performance perspective, there are legitimate expectations and hopes for Franco this year that alone could vindicate my argument.
Most projection systems are forecasting a roughly league-average performance from Maikel over a full season, led by a combination of power and contact but dinged by few walks, below-average defense, and a general lack of major league track record. That power and contact combo is pretty rare, and as FanGraphs’ Carson Cistulli noted in Franco’s 2016 player preview, it places him among some pretty exclusive company.
Per Cistulli, only six other hitters with at least 300 PA recorded a .200+ ISO and a sub-16 percent strikeout rate in 2015 – Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Manny Machado, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, and Anthony Rizzo. Additionally, other players of this profile have figured out the lack of walks in the past – Machado, Encarnacion, and Adrian Beltre are all former early career third basemen with low strikeout rates, high power figures, and few walks.
The key to getting this profile to work is making consistent, quality contact, and Maikel has been a little more reliant on groundballs than you’d ideally like to see. However, FanGraphs’ August Fagerstrom has noted more loft in Franco’s swing during his torrid Spring. Obviously, the Spring Training caveat applies, but it offers some optimism that this is a feasible adjustment. Hitting more fly balls with authority will be the key to blowing past his projections in the short term.
Even if Franco has a moderate breakout in 2016, the all-important narrative aspect is lacking for a player on a potential last-place team, even if he is the best player on that team. However, it is actually not at all uncommon for good players on bad teams to receive MVP votes. In fact, in 2015, six players received MVP votes while representing sub-75 win teams. In the National League, Joey Votto, Nolan Arenado, and Dee Gordon represented the Reds, Rockies, and Marlins. In the American League, the 74-win Tigers had three players receive votes (Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, and Ian Kinsler). This has happened in both leagues for at least each of the last five seasons (per Baseball-Reference’s voting records); it happens every year.
Additionally, as the best young hitter on the team, Maikel Franco will continue to be given a large share of the Philadelphia’s publicity and gain further notoriety if he performs even as expected. He’ll also be placed in the heart of the lineup and given every opportunity to accumulate those RBI that some writers still consider when awarding their votes. Beyond all this, his skill set is one that’s conducive to receiving consideration for end-of-season awards.
His most obviously conducive skill is hitting home runs, an ability he’s demonstrated ever since breaking out as a prospect in 2012. He’s projected by most systems to reach a total in the low 20’s this season, but if he can even marginally exceed expectations, his odds of receiving MVP votes go through the roof.
Over the last five years (2011-2015), qualified batters have hit 25 or more home runs 168 times. They’ve received MVP votes in 101 of those seasons (60.1 percent). Below is a more detailed breakdown.
For those curious, four players have hit 40 home runs and not received MVP votes in the last five years, despite attention paid to the “lack of power” in the game – Curtis Granderson and Adam Dunn were victims in 2012, while Carlos Gonzalez and Albert Pujols were surprisingly overlooked just this past season. Lack of defensive value and low batting average likely cost all of the above.
Predictably, a lot of the players who hit home runs and don’t receive votes lack other value in their profiles, and often have very high strikeout rates. If Franco can even get up to 25 home runs this season – only a couple more than is projected by Steamer – would his odds improve due to his contact-oriented profile? In short, yes.
Over the last five years, 56 qualifying batters have hit 25 or more home runs with at least a .265 batting average, while striking out at most 18 percent of the time (fairly loose constraints, given Franco’s projections). Of those 56 batters, 43 of them have received MVP votes (79 percent). Obviously, this isn’t the largest sample ever, but it makes sense that batters who don’t strike out, hit at an above-average rate, and mash home runs receive consideration for awards. That’s especially true when only discussing vote-getters and not winners. Every year, somewhere between 24-36 players receive at least one down ballot MVP vote in each league. It’s a large field.
Given the large amount of attention he’ll receive as the best hitter in a large media market, higher than ever expectations, and a conducive skill set, it seems completely feasible that Maikel Franco could receive MVP votes in 2016. Somehow, I’ve talked myself into thinking that this isn’t actually that bold a prediction. All that remains is the hard part; he actually has to go do it.