Is Maikel Franco Ready To Be The Man?

urlThe Phillies lost Monday to the Orioles, 8-7. The main storyline from the game, however, Maikel Franco’s continued power surge. The Phils’ third baseman hit two home runs -in his first two appearances against Yovani Gallardo – to bring his major-league leading spring total to six.

Spring totals aren’t a true indicator of future regular season success, but Franco has a growing track record of power throughout his young career.

In 2012 Franco broke out in Lakewood, hitting 14 home runs with 32 doubles and three triples in 555 appearances. The home run power increased in 2013 with Clearwater and Reading, where Franco combined to hit 34 home runs, 44 doubles and four triples in 751 appearances. Then, in 2014 with Lehigh Valley (717 appearances), Franco hit another 23 dingers with 41 doubles and four triples.

And combining his 2015 Phillies numbers with his totals in Allentown, Franco hit 21 home runs last season, plus 36 doubles and two triples, all in 579 appearances.

We’re basically finding that Franco is capable of an extra-base hit every 10 plate appearances. That makes him a natural middle-of-the-order talent in 2016.

Here are other middle-of-the-order players and their 2015 extra-base hit per plate appearance ratios:

Bryce Harper: 1 XBH : 8.07 PA
Josh Donaldson: 1 XBH : 8.46 PA
Mike Trout: 1 XBH : 8.63 PA
Maikel Franco: 1 XBH : 9.05 PA
Paul Goldschmidt: 1 XBH : 9.52 PA
Jose Abreu: 1 XBH : 9.97 PA
Kris Bryant: 1 XBH : 10.48 PA
Andrew McCutchen: 1 XBH : 11.04 PA

Franco, of course, had about half as many major league plate appearances as some of his contemporaries in 2015, but the upper-minors track record shows he’s capable of at least approaching the 1:10 mark, which puts him in solid company.

Like all middle-of-the-order talents capable of an extra-base hit every two games, he’ll start to receive the type of treatment his peers get, specifically more breaking pitches and pitch-arounds. This is, in time, what exposed Ryan Howard as a beatable slugger. At first teams simply walked Howard (72 intentional walks between 2006 and ‘07). But the emergence of Jayson Werth, especially, stopped that practice, forcing pitchers to find new ways to pitch to Howard.

The answer, of course, was a steady diet of breaking pitches that Howard couldn’t lay off. While it didn’t completely derail Howard, his on base percentage (.425 in 2006 and .392 in ‘07) turned merely mortal (.339 in 2008, .360 in 2009).

Franco doesn’t have the luxury of Werth, a wholly underrated talent who – for much of his career – has possessed an excellent combination of plate discipline and power. Franco also doesn’t have Chase Utley, or Shane Victorino, or Jimmy Rollins or Placido Polanco.

We should then expect Franco to be challenged early and often in 2016. This could introduce an element of pressure – if the Phils and fans are relying on Franco to be the big bat, what happens if he struggles early because pitchers are already treating him like a premiere slugger? Will Franco put greater pressure on himself? Will management allow Franco to learn like everyone else around him?

If there’s a standard argument against stacking your team with young, unproven talent, this usually wins out. You need a veteran or two to keep the opposition honest, to keep the young guys from being thrust into roles they’re not quite equipped to handle.

Then again, maybe Franco can handle it. Maybe he’ll be more patient, forcing pitchers to exhaust themselves more and, in turn, forcing his teammates to be patient too.

Early data is tough to gauge and pretty typical: Last season, with the pitcher ahead in the count (0-1, 0-2, 1-2), Franco hit a mere .208/.215/.340. When Franco was ahead in the count (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-2) he hit .344/.487/.622.

Comparatively, Donaldson – last year’s American League MVP – hit .281/.283/.495 with the pitcher ahead, and .340/.507/.690 when he was ahead.

There isn’t a huge difference between Donaldson and Franco, only that the former simply hit the ball better when behind. Looking deeper into both players’ plate discipline ratios, we find that Franco swung at pitches outside the strike zone 33.7 percent of the time in 2015. Donaldson, meanwhile, swung at pitches outside the strike zone just 25.9 percent of the time. Franco actually made contact with those pitches a little more than Donaldson, but those swings will more likely generate ground outs or pop ups.

In essence Donaldson has been steadily trimming the edges from his peripheral plate vision. He’s more locked in than ever and will more often just swing if the ball is in the zone. Even down 0-2, Donaldson won’t swing unless the ball is in the zone.

Franco, meanwhile, is showing good discipline, but in order to remain a steady force in the middle of the order, he needs to also trim his vision. If not, he’ll be exposed like Howard and become a more one-dimensional hitter.

For now we’re seeing Franco launch bombs out of Bright House Field, justifying at even a small level that the next generation of Phillies baseball looks promising. And yes, there’s reason to believe that promise lay ahead.

2016 will prove a crucial year for the rebuild, in showing us that promise with each new promotion. But it will also prove crucial for players like Franco, who we hope to see reach a new level of success. He’s capable, sure, but in getting there, he’ll be challenged like never before.

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