The season has started well for Jeff Francoeur, who is batting .304/.358/.493. This is much better than his 2006 line of .260/.293/.449. While unexpected batting averages are quick to revert to the mean, the real change in Francoeur’s game has been his propensity to walk. This season he has walked 11 times for a walk rate of 6.79%—not good, but much better than his 3.35% of 2005. He’s also added a foot-tap to his swing to help with timing. Could he finally be getting it?
My perception from watching him at the plate is that he has improved as a hitter, or at least he has demonstrated that he is capable of improving. In the past, I could almost always predict where to pitch Francoeur to make an out—chasing balls up-and-in and low-and-away would normally do the trick. This year, I have noticed him laying off of these pitches to get into good counts so that he forces the pitcher to throw him a strike.
Sure enough, the data backs up my perception. He’s swinging at the first pitch in 44% of his plate appearances, compared to 52% last year. 14% of his trips to the plate go to a 2-0 count, compared to 11% in 2006. He’s also swinging at 56% of first pitches, compared to 61% the year prior. And he’s seeing 3.54 pitches per plate appearance compared to 3.32 in 2006. Granted, he could be doing better, but it is encouraging improvement. (This sweet data is now available at Baseball-Reference by clicking on Pitch Data Summary.) He deserves more than a pat on the back, because he was forced to learn this at the major league level. Let’s hope these changes are the beginning of something more.
Now for the bad news. First, the batting average: he’s not going to bat .300 for the year. At his best, I see him as a .275 hitter. His career numbers (minor and major league) are below this, and his current batting average on balls in play is .351—about 50-points above his career average. Next, his power has not changed: his isolated-power of .189 is identical to his 2006 performance. When you take this into account, and assuming he keeps his current walk rate, he’s about an .800 OPS player, which would translate to an OPS+ of 108. Again, this is an improvement from his OPS+ of 89 in 2006. It’s respectable, but not All-Star caliber play.
The good news is that Francoeur is 23, so we should expect the improvement to continue. And who knows, maybe the improvement is more than what we see here. He’s still young and learning. His personality is such that I think there is a reason to be optimistic. I do wish that the Braves hadn’t rushed Francoeur to the big leagues. You can work on things in the minors without consequences; there is no time for experimenting in the big leagues. Even if he never blossoms to meet the unreasonable expectations placed upon him, he will be a ballplayer that any major league team would be happy to have on its roster.
Is he for real? It depends of your definition of “for real.”