Pondering Jeff Francoeur

I’ve been wanting to post some these thoughts for some time, even before the season started. But, I kept putting it off, thinking that The Natural would prove me wrong. And I was hopeful that the kid had something to teach me. I’ve hinted at my thoughts on Francoeur publicly, and discussed them more in private, but I guess I should go ahead an put my thoughts in a single post. Jeff Francoeur’s 2005 was a fluke. And it was flukey for more than one reason. That doesn’t mean he won’t be a very good baseball player one day, but his current performance in 2006 should have been expected. I don’t care how much “make-up” you have, if you can’t lay off bad pitches you’re not going to excel as a hitter.

First off, his PrOPS for 2005 ( .270 /.311 /.506 /.816) are much lower than his actual line (.300/.336/.549/.884). That is an over-performance of 68 OPS points, about 8%. He was a bit hit lucky.

Second, I believe the evidence indicates that part of Francoeur’s fast start was the result of poor scouting. In Mississippi, Francoeur posted a line of .275/.322/.487/.809 against double-A pitching. The funny thing is that his performance in the minors was slightly worse than is PrOPS numbers in the majors. Less capable minor league pitchers knew something that major league pitchers didn’t, or the Braves had Jeff on some bizarre hitting program. The way Jeff tailed way off over the rest of the 2005 season is consistent with major leaguers getting good scouting reports on the guy.

This leads to another interesting question: why did it take so long for major league teams to figure him out? There were certainly scouts watching him in double-A, why didn’t they pass along what the minor league pitchers were doing? My guess is that Francoeur’s jump surprised everyone, and that scouts were not scouting him like advance scouts typically do. Instead, they focused on his raw ability and promise. Scouts saw his poor plate discipline and just reported, “he’s not ready yet, fire it in there.” And well, that was very bad advice. And because Francoeur is blessed with amazing power, when he got pitches he could hit he hit them along way. He didn’t fluke his way to 14 home runs, you have to be gifted to hit home runs. But I think with good advance scouting reports he would not have been nearly as successful—maybe half of those homers go away. In fact, one thing teams may have learned from this experience is that unexpectedly pulling up kids from the minors can yield benefits, because other teams lack the information to get these guys out. Instead of contenders looking to get Joe Randa through a waiver-wire deal for the playoff push, maybe teams should pick up a talented prospect whom no one expected to see.

And why is it that minor league pitchers figured him out? Well, look at the incentives for the pitchers in double-A versus those in the majors. If a double-A pitcher wants to move up, he has to get outs. The best way to do that is to prepare for the guys you’re going to face, especially the best players on the team. These pitchers saw he liked to swing at everything—a friend of mine who watched him in high school said this was no secret then—and they stayed away from the zone without fearing the free pass. But for major league pitchers, Francoeur was just another rookie. Why worry about him when you’ve got to face the Jones boys? And that’s when Frenchy’s window for success opened.

The problem is that now that the window has closed, what are the Braves to do? He’s nearing the 100 PA mark, without having walked even once. And he’s leading the league in swinging at first pitches, so his pledge to work on plate discipline is not going so well. Also, he’s only had five extra-base hits, so he’s not hitting for power when he does hit the ball. This isn’t a bad-luck, small-sample-size slump. There is a real problem.

So, what should the Braves do? Some people think he should be sent down. I don’t think you can do that now. He’s been in the big leagues too long. If he goes to Richmond, all he’ll be thinking about is how to get back. I think the mental fatigue would be too much. The Braves are just going to have to gut this one out, and let him learn on the job. But, it is time to stop pretending he’s already an All-Star. Moving him down in the batting order might reduce some of the pressure, and he could split some time with Diaz and (gulp) Jordan. He’s still an excellent defender and baserunner, too. There are plenty of players in the league who are no worse. Most of them don’t get to play as much, though.

8 Responses “Pondering Jeff Francoeur”

  1. Mark Citrone says:

    JC:

    Great post on Jeff Francouer — I couldn’t agree more. Even while Francouer was absolutely killing the ball last year, I was telling everyone that I believe Francouer will eventually post very similar numbers to what Eric Byrnes would produce (offensively, obviously). What are your thoughts on that comparison?

    I also agree with it taking a while for the MLB pitchers to find out how to pitch to him. I equate that to what Shane Spencer did in 1998 for the Yankees. It took a while for opposing pitchers to realize he couldn’t hit a non-fastball for his life, but once they did, there was a rapid regression to the mean.

  2. lisa gray says:

    yeah, even i figured out that pitchers shouldn’t never throw him any strikes since he swings at anything

    but he sure is a great fielder – best arm i’ve seen since richard hidalgo

    lisa

  3. Colin says:

    Numbers I posted yesterday over at Braves Journal:

    Prior to drawing first major league walk:
    379/394/734, 10 HR in 120+ PA
    Remainder of last season after that (including postseason):
    228/281/376, 4 HR, 11BB in about 160 PA
    Total line since then including postseason and this season:
    213/250/354, 7 HR, 11 BB in about 240 PA

    He killed for 120 PA, and has since sucked royally for twice as long. My guess is that yes, the league had a scouting report on him, but it took them a while to figure out just how far outside they could throw for him to not drive the ball.

  4. Johnny says:

    JC, I’m sure that you’ve read Dave O’Brien’s article at AJC. The Braves have a very limited set of options with Kelly Johnson on the DL. In the past having Furcal and Giles with above average power (30 homers between them) has made up for not having a plus bat in RF. But not this season. I guess the real question is how to balance the need to get Francouer better developed with the team’s mission to be a contender. The way he is batting now is a drag on the team.

  5. Mac Thomason says:

    I was hoping Burrus or Esquivel could make a jump quickly and add some depth, but Burrus is out injured and Esquivel isn’t playing that well. The only outfielders in the upper levels of the system who are are the No-Power Twins, Blanco and Duran. (I wrote about the minors this morning, so I’m thinking that way.)

    But I still think Francoeur has to go down, even if that means Diaz/Jordan/Orr in left field. Maybe he’ll press if he’s in AAA, but he needs plate appearances, and the Braves can’t give those to him if he’s putting up a .200 OBP. But who cares about Richmond?

    Hey, it worked for Ron Gant.

  6. Trev says:

    As Alexis Rios goes, so does Francoeur?

  7. David says:

    I know a lot of people will not agree with me here, but I think they could do him a lot of good by moving him up in the batting order. One of the problems he has right now is that he has nobody hitting behind him that the pitcher’s fear and thus they are not going to throw him anything hittable. If there is a good bat hitting behind him then he will get better pitches to hit. I would at least move him up to the 5 hole and put LaRoche behind him to give him some type of protection. Of course, he might be better off moving down to the 8 slot so that the pitcher is behind him and nobody fears the pitchers hitting and thus won’t be as worried about getting Francouer out.

  8. Michael says:

    Guess I’m in the minority here. I play fantasy games at CDM and advised a couple of people there to limit Francouer to just home starts and he’s been very good. I admit he needs lots of additional tutelage and reps but maybe we should just bat him 8th because why lose his defense and arm in RF?