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.
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.