The Phillies offense continues to be among the worst in baseball, and just about everyone is to blame. The only hitters with an above-average wRC+ (weighted runs created, or the value of your offense against a replacement hitter) are Andres Blanco (152), Odubel Herrera (146) and Carlos Ruiz (130). That doesn’t lead to a lot of runs.
You may notice that Maikel Franco isn’t part of that list. His wRC+ is 86, fourth on the team after the three leaders. The gap between Ruiz and Franco is scary enough, but the more important thing about this statistic is it underscores a hard truth about the first 35 games of this 2016 season: Franco has not been good at the plate.
Yes, let’s get the disclaimers out of the way:
- We’re still in “small sample size” territory, as Franco has accrued 139 plate appearances.
- We can all agree that Franco has improved his defense, which is not as important as his offense but still important.
- There are other statistics outside of wRC+.
Still, we were prepared for opposing pitchers to treat Franco specially this season. He came into 2016 the only multi-faceted extra-base-hit machine on the team, the only hitter who could strike fear for other teams. That kind of hitter gets a lot of nothing: few fastballs, more breaking pitches, pitch-arounds and intentional walks. And we surmised that how Franco adjusts to this treatment would be the next important step in his offensive development. So far, so not very good.
Franco has hit seven home runs and five doubles in his 139 appearances. That’s one extra-base hit every 11.58 appearances, a bit higher than where he should be (10-11 range) but not terribly off. But here’s the bigger problem: seven walks and 28 strikeouts. Extrapolate that over 600 appearances and Franco ends up with 30 walks and 120 strikeouts. Last year he walked 26 times and struck out 52 times … in 335 appearances. That’s regression; the strikeouts are close to last year’s mark (still too high this year), but Franco isn’t walking as much.
Here’s the funny thing, though: Franco is seeing about the same number of pitches as last season. In 2015 Franco saw 3.57 pitches per plate appearance – a relatively average mark that could still be higher. This year? It’s 3.56. He’s maintaining the same approach, reaching his appearance outcome on 2-1, 3-1, 1-2 and 2-2 counts. He generally sees at least one ball per appearance. Nothing has really changed here.
Not until you look at his swing. Franco is swinging 53.8% of the time this year, good for 15th in baseball and right up there near the top with known free swingers Brandon Phillips, Carlos Gomez, Yaisel Puig and Matt Kemp. And if you’re going to swing that much you’d better make contact – a 71.2% contact rate is low for someone who swings that much.
Here’s where it gets bad: His 44.8% contact rate for pitches not in the strike zone. Franco swings at non-strikes 35.4% of the time; only 45% of those he actually gets a piece of. Compare that to skilled slugger Jose Bautista, who swings at 16.6% of non-strikes and makes contact with 81.2% of them.
To compare with last season, Franco swung at 47.9% of all pitches and 30.9% of non-strikes. He made contact with 76.9% percent in all swings, and 56.3% of non-strikes.
In short Franco is swinging at more non-strikes and missing at more of them. He’s also swinging at more pitches and missing at more of them. He should be tightening up his strike zone, earning the right to see zone pitches he can clobber. But he’s doing the very opposite. In every metric here, Franco is regressing.
Can you chalk this up to pitcher approach? That was supposed to be the change facing Franco this year; however, very little has really changed. Last year 53.5% of the pitches Franco faced were fastballs; this year it’s now 51.1%, one of the lower marks in the league but not a large enough change. Interestingly Franco has seen fewer sliders (20.3% last year; 17.9% this year) and more cutters (5% last year; 9.3% this year) and curveballs (9.7% last year; 13.6% this year).
If anything pitchers may be changing the order of pitches thrown to Franco, which could upset Franco’s timing and discipline.
But in the end Franco is showing to be a major regression candidate. He’s hacking, at times blatantly disregarding the fact that pitchers consider him the only true power threat on the Phillies. Also it’s likely he’s not swinging as a reaction to what’s being thrown, but instead he’s swinging with an objective already in mind: crush the ball. It’s the same mentality employed regularly by Ryan Howard and other sluggers who, when they don’t hit home runs, strike out or hit a weak pop or grounder. And while it’s still early, and things can change, so far this season Franco is turning into that very kind of hitter.