Let’s Talk About Maikel Franco

Maikel Franco is not off to the start Phillies fans hoped to see. He’s posted a 91 wRC+ and his 0.2 fWAR ranks 25th of 26 qualified major league third basemen. Last night, he hit his ninth home run of the year and over his past ten games he’s batting .306/.350/.500; so, maybe a corner has been turned. But whether brighter days are on the horizon or not, it’s worth taking the time to look at what’s gone wrong.

I’ve stopped and started writing an analysis on Franco’s struggles multiple times over the past month, and the reason why I haven’t completed one until now isn’t good. It’s been hard to find an interesting or compelling angle on this analysis because what Franco has been doing is in line with his known profile. To be clear, there have been changes and areas where we can expect to see Franco improve going forward, and we’ll get to those; but, overall, what’s happened in 2016 so far aligns well with what we know to be true about him. Maikel Franco has been Maikel Franco this year and, given the results, that’s a scary thing.

If you were to boil down Franco’s offensive profile to one sentence, it might look something like this: Franco is an aggressive hitter with power and strong bat-to-ball skills. Now check out Brooks Baseball’s automatically generated profile of Franco at the plate in 2016:

brooks franco

(click to enlarge)

That’s “very” to “exceptionally” aggressive, “average” to “above average” power, and “average” to “above average” likelihood to swing and miss. The aggressive approach and power check out with our assumptions heading in, so let’s start by taking a look at his propensity for whiffs.

Last year, Franco posted an ISO (isolated power) of .217 and a strikeout-rate of 15.5 percent. Of the 20 qualified hitters with an equal or better ISO, only two — Albert Pujols (10.9 K%) and Anthony Rizzo (15.0 K%) — posted a lower strikeout-rate than Franco. Despite that impressive achievement, his Contact% was 76.9%, or a touch below the league average mark of 78.8%. Perhaps it would be more accurate to update our simplistic profile of Franco to say that he has “strong bat-to-ball skills for a power hitter.”

This year, his strikeout-rate has crept up from 15.5% to 17.0% and his Contact% has fallen from 76.9% to 74.5%. So he is, indeed, making less contact this season. Let’s break down his contact by pitch type:

Pitch Type 2015

Count

2015

Whiff/Swing

2016

Count

2016

Whiff/Swing

Change
Fourseam 356 14.29% 236 22.95% +8.66%
Sinker 271 14.38% 150 12.16% -2.22%
Change 113 33.33% 95 43.14% +9.81%
Slider 237 39.66% 154 32.63% -7.03%
Curve 128 36.21% 81 35.14% -1.07%
Cutter 65 28.00% 34 31.25% +3.25%

What’s most striking about this chart, to me, is his increase in whiffs against fourseamers. Secondary pitches are designed to induce whiffs, but a contact-oriented power hitter should be crushing fastballs and that doesn’t appear to be happening for Franco so far this season. According to Statcast, Franco’s whiff-rate against fourseamers is the 43rd worst out of 186 major leaguers (min. 100 swings). This certainly passes the sniff test for anyone who has watched Franco flail helplessly at high fastballs this season.

In a likely related development, pitchers are throwing Franco pitches in the zone more often this season. If he isn’t giving pitchers reasons to fear him, then pitchers won’t be afraid to challenge him.

Year Zone% O-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Swing% Z-Contact%

2015

41.5% 32.9% 61.1% 69.3%

87.2%

2016

46.0% 33.3% 56.3% 75.4%

83.9%

He’s seeing more pitches in the zone, swinging at them at a higher rate, and making significantly less contact. That’s a surefire way to become less productive at the plate and, frankly, it makes it impressive that his strikeout-rate has only increased slightly to 17.0 percent. He’s being less selective at the plate and the results are incredibly poor. As David Murphy recently pointed out on Philly.com, Franco would be wise to work on his plate discipline.

Which brings us to one final chart, Maikel Franco’s batted ball profile:

 Year LD% GB% FB% IFFB% BABIP
2015 18.2% 47.0% 34.8% 14.8% .297
2016 17.3% 45.7% 37.0% 18.3% .261

This is actually really good news. His pop-up rate is elevated (a problem which could likely be rectified through being more selective at the plate), but beyond that his batted ball profile is remarkably similar to last year’s.

Now look at his spray charts —

2015


Source: FanGraphs

2016


Source: FanGraphs

Just like last year, he’s a bit pull happy on grounders, but is doing well to spray balls in the air to all fields.

Maikel Franco is still Maikel Franco, but his BABIP has fallen from .297 to .261. BABIP luck is often an overstated analytical crutch and I do think it’s a strong hypothesis that poor plate discipline could be leading to weaker overall contact for Franco, but that’s not enough to dismiss the likely fluky nature of a fall of 36 points of BABIP.

The tweaks and adjustments Franco needs to make going forward are relatively small. He should work to become more selective in the zone and, in doing so, cut back on whiffs against high fastballs. But beyond that 2016 Franco looks eerily like 2015 Franco. The question then is which results do you believe are real? Is he the 128 wRC+ player of a year ago? The 91 wRC+ of this year? Or somewhere in between?

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