Maikel Franco: Can He Just Chill Up There?
Heading into the 2017 season, we here at Crashburn Alley strive to update you on a specific storyline regarding many of the returning staples from last season’s roster. Today is third baseman Maikel Franco.
Maikel Franco certainly makes himself look silly sometimes at the plate. As it became clear that his 2016 sophomore campaign was going to be a year-long source of frustration, spilled drinks, and, in it’s more unfortunate moments, broken screens of various sorts, the sight of Franco’s helmet flying off while reaching for a pitch low and away felt more rule than exception.
Because of Franco’s above-average ability to make contact on pitches out of the zone, his regression in plate discipline and strike-zone discernment don’t necessarily manifest themselves in more strikeouts or fewer walks. Of course, it did to some extent: Franco struck out in 16.8 percent of 2016 plate appearances versus 15.5 percent in 2015 and walked only 6.3 percent of the time versus 7.8 in 2015. Those are steps backwards, to be sure, but hardly alarming ones on their own.
Similarly, his approach didn’t make him overly pull happy–at least, no more so than is typical for Franco–nor did it significantly alter his batted ball type distribution. Yet, despite this surface-level stability in performance, Franco posted the lowest BABIP of his professional career (minimum 200 PA) since his 2010 debut in rookie ball. In the early days of saber metrics, we would look at Franco’s .271 2016 BABIP and simply declare him unlucky that season. His performance was sure to improve going forward, absent any change in approach, simply due to a his luck on balls in play regressing toward a .300 BABIP.
We know slightly better now. It seems to be the case that hitters have some level of control over their BABIPs. This makes intuitive sense, especially in the case of Franco. If he’s lunging at–and putting in play–more pitches out of the zone, it’s unlikely that those pitches will end up being particularly difficult to field. We know that not all batted balls are created equal in terms of conversion into outs. It could be that it is not poor luck, but Franco’s approach that explains his low BABIP.*
If we look, for instance, at Franco’s 15-game rolling averages of swing rate at balls outside the PitchF/X strike zone, and compare that with the same 15-day rolling averages of his BABIP–FanGraphs does not support their inclusion on the same graph due to different scales–we can begin to see a relationship between Franco’s approach and his results on balls in play.
Intuitively, we would expect Franco to exhibit a higher BABIP during stretches when he is swinging at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone. Visually, we expect that relative low points on the O-Swing% graph will coincide with relative high points on the BABIP graph. It’s not perfect, but that’s more or less what we actually see. Periods of very high O-Swing rates (approximately games 0 through 20, 110 through 130, and 200 through 230) coincide with the lowest BABIPs of his career. At the same time, periods of greater adherence to the strike zone (games 50 through 100 and 175 through 200) are reflected on greater success on balls put in play.
The conclusion that Franco’s success in 2017 may very well hinge on him refining his plate discipline isn’t exactly shocking, nor am I the first–or the second, third, or fourth–to reach it. Sometimes, it’s useful to state the obvious, and even more useful when intuition is backed by some real-world data.
What is encouraging is that the Phillies new hitting coach, Matt Stairs, seems to be aware that Franco’s decline in approach was a major factor in his struggles last season. According to Delaware Online’s Meghan Montemurro, Franco has been working with Stairs to develop a better approach at the plate and remain under control when swinging.
“I told him I don’t want to see that helmet come off one time this year,” hitting coach Matt Stairs said…Delaware Online
It’s minimizing the at-bats he gives away,” Stairs saidDelaware Online
Franco’s helmet comes flying off when he’s lunging forward in an attempt to reach a pitch off the outside corner of the plate or sacrificing contact for a chance at mammoth power. In Montemurro’s article, she describes Stairs–and to some extent Howie Kendrick–as constantly reinforcing this adjustment in approach with daily reminders.
If the approach sticks, there’s no reason Franco can’t get back to being the player that hit .280/.343/.497 as a rookie in 2015. Refining Franco’s approach will likely be both the top priority and the most difficult task facing Stairs in his first months as the Phillies hitting coach. But, if Stairs and Franco can succeed in getting the latter to cut down on his misplaced aggressiveness, it would go a long way to eliminating any growing doubts about Franco’s place with the Phillies long-term.
*It should be acknowledged that, despite this assertion, Franco’s average exit velocity from StatCast and Soft, Medium, and Hard hit percentages from Baseball Info Solutions did not change appreciably from 2015 to 2016. These methods–average exit velocity and grouping batted balls into three categories–represent broad brushes. It’s possible that at a finer level of precision, we could find some changes that contribute to his lower BABIP. What is to follow certainly suggest that we might.