Analysis

Maikel Franco is hitting better than it shows

Maikel Franco might be the best hitter he’s ever been, but you’d never know it by looking at the box score.

Through the team’s first 18 games, Franco slashed a dismal .171/.244/.329 — a worse batting average than shaky rookies Brock Stassi and Andrew Knapp. By wOBA, he ranks 156th out of 189 qualified hitters. He’s left the yard three times and plated the game-winner in an exciting walk-off finish against the Braves on Saturday, but he’s otherwise drawing the ire of some fans who expected a big year from the young third baseman.

There are signs of encouragement, as Todd Zolecki pointed out last week in a fine article about the slumping slugger. Among them is Franco’s exit velocity, a recent measure by way of baseball’s Statcast technologies. The ball has averaged 91.2 mph off Franco’s bat this year at an average launch angle of 8 degrees.

According to Statcast’s tabulations, balls hit 91 mph have been good for a .254 batting average. I have my scientific skepticism about the utility of Statcast in its infancy, but the measure seems to suggest that players who hit the ball as hard as Franco has been tend to see it land for a hit more often. That’s encouraging, at least.

Franco has also improved in the areas he came into the season needing to work on. He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone – chasing on 24.3 percent of non-strikes compared to his career average 32.3 percent – even while being thrown more breaking pitches than in the past few seasons. As a result, he’s walked more and struck out less, which are more encouraging signs for a player who swung too freely.

Sensibly, Franco’s patience includes seeing more pitches per plate appearance. He’s averaging 3.86 pitches per PA, up from 3.57 in his career and roughly equal to the league average. Few players will brag about being league average, but it’s progress for a guy who habitually swung into outs a season ago. The thinking is that seeing more pitches will make him less likely to get himself out and more likely to see a pitch he can drive.

There’s the rub.

Hitting coach Matt Stairs expressed to Zolecki the possibility that Franco’s newfound patience has bled into him taking pitches he should be swinging at. He might be so insistent on seeing more pitches that he’s taking too many of them, letting the pitches he should be attacking go right by him. The numbers support this thinking to an extent, as Franco is swinging at about 3 percent fewer pitches in the zone in 2017. Still, the margins are small to the point of being relatively insignificant this early in the season, when the total number of pitches he’s seen is a drop in the bucket compared to what he’ll see in a full season.

Stairs also mused that Franco’s timing might be off and that, when he does make contact, it’s not always the strong contact he needs to be making.

Stairs might be right – he’d know better than I would – but that’s not the whole picture. Even if Franco has missed a few of the pitches he should have attacked, he’s still hitting the ball harder than before and making soft contact less often. His hard-hit ball rate is 4 percent better than his career average, and his soft contact rate diminished by the same amount. He’s hitting more line drives than ever before. Even though those numbers aren’t astronomically different from what came before them, they do nothing to suggest that he should be hitting below the Mendoza line.

And sure, he might have let a few sweet pitches go by, but even when he does drive the ball he has little to show for it.

It’s not impossible that Franco has been just plain unlucky. His batting average on balls in play, which is generally seen as an indicator of luck, is an unbearable .155, corroborating the possibility that the ball just can’t help but find a fielder’s glove no matter where or how hard he hits it. There are circumstances that could cause a player’s BABIP to fluctuate organically, but Franco’s growth in other areas doesn’t seem to suggest anything other than sheer bad luck on balls in play.

The good news is that, if all else is equal, bad luck tends to turn around.

Results matter in sports, and many of Franco’s results in 2017 have been invisible or abstract — more patience, fewer strikeouts, his helmet staying on his head at least some of the time. But, while unsatisfying at times, these are the same traits that point to his improvement being an inevitability. Franco is, in these ways, a better hitter than he’s been, and his batting average just doesn’t know it yet.

Phillies Nation Podcast

Dan Walsh speaks with Tim Malcolm about Franco’s hitting this week:

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