Franco’s Problems Are Popping Up
There is one number that sums up the frustration of Maikel Franco‘s season thus far: 26.5%. That’s the percentage of hard hit balls, according to Baseball Info Solutions, that he has hit this year, and that ranks him 151st out of 175 qualified hitters in MLB. It’s not that Franco is incapable of hitting the ball hard, as he has certainly shown the ability to crush a baseball. His problem is in doing it with any consistency.
The obvious answer to this is the approach. Franco is an aggressive swinger, and this year he has increased his rate of swings specifically on pitches in the strike zone. This aggressiveness would be justified if he was choosing the right pitches to swing at, but a small piece of Franco’s batted ball profile hints that he is not.
Franco is hitting more fly balls this year, and a larger percentage of those fly balls aren’t leaving the infield. Taken as a percentage of all balls in play (PU%) and not just as a percentage of fly balls (IFFB%), his infield pop-up rate has increased by almost 30% from last year, making him one of the most pop-up prone players in the league.
Not only is the infield fly an almost automatic out, it suggests a higher rate of easy outs in the shallow part of the outfield. There is also a significant correlation between the pop-up and some other batted ball tendencies.
Fewer line drives, more fly balls, and a leaning toward the pull side are all associated with a lower average on balls in play. With that context, the following plot of BABIP vs. PU% is not entirely surprising.
Using the best fit line, Franco’s career pop-up percentage would predict a .282 average on balls in play. His actual career line: .275. So while we would like to write off Franco’s low BABIP as a product of poor luck, the evidence points to it being a consequence of poor contact.
Beyond just providing insight into his contact quality, the pop-up rate gives a clue as to where Franco is specifically going wrong in his approach. Infield flies are usually a product of swinging at pitches, especially fastballs, up in the strike zone, with the highest rate coming on pitches up and in. Not coincidentally, the increase in Franco’s pop-up rate this year has been accompanied by an increase in his swing rate on these high pitches. You can see the year to year change in where Franco is swinging most often at the fastball:
And this is the crux of Franco’s struggles this year. A higher percentage of his swings are coming on pitches he is not able to drive with consistency. The two best outcomes for a hitter are the line drive and the home run, and Statcast data has given us the ability to identify the best launch angles for each. The ideal line drive comes off the bat between 10 and 25 degrees, while the ideal home run range is between 25 and 30 degrees. Looking at all tracked pitches Franco has hit in this range with a minimum exit velocity of 95 mph (the velocity at which the ball starts to leave the ballpark), you get a picture of what pitches he should be looking to hit.
Franco’s ideal contact comes slightly down in the zone and out over the plate. The results on these well struck pitches charted above are a 1.686 SLG% and 1.029 ISO. Yet despite this, Franco continues to swing heavily at pitches up in the zone, and the combination of targeting high fastballs while trying to fend off low and away breaking balls has him flailing at both offerings, leading to a lot of pop-ups and weakly hit ground balls.
Franco needs a change in approach, and perhaps the best thing he can do is to eliminate the top of the zone entirely. More swings in the lower half would portend better contact, and focusing down in the zone might allow him to see the breaking ball better. For Franco, exchanging a few called strikes for more hard hit balls is a tradeoff worth making. Franco’s mix of power and contact gives him the potential to rate among the most dangerous hitters in the game. To get there, he needs to start hitting fewer pop-ups.