How Long in the Oven?

Last night, Kyle Davies hit near rock bottom when he was pulled from the game without recording an out. He faced five men, issuing three walks and two singles.

Davies now has a career ERA of 6.15 (70 ERA+) with 6.53 K9, 4.78 BB9, and 1.29 HR9—not good. But he’s only 23 years old—younger than many of the top Braves prospects. Davies has pitched 237 innings in the majors since he was called up in 2005 at the age of 21. Kyle pitched exceptionally well early in his minor league career, but was merely good at Double-A and Triple-A. He made it all the way from Myrtle Beach to Richmond in 2004, the year before he received his call to the big leagues. He would be sent back to Richmond in 2005, but he began 2006 in Atlanta (I think this is right). His woeful 2006 campaign was interrupted by a groin tear. I suspect that he will be sent back to the minors today.

Was Davies rushed? If so, how can we know if he was rushed? These are difficult questions to answer, but they are important. While some favor letting the kids play as soon as possible, I wonder what is lost when a player is forced to play when he is not ready. And there is also the possibility that playing above your true talent level early on can harm development.

If Davies had stayed in the minors, he would be working on getting to the majors. The downside of playing in the minors playing baseball against inferior talent, but the upside is working on potential problems to aid is future performance. In the minors, a pitcher can work on developing new pitches, painting corners, and experiment with new mechanics in game conditions without risking damage to the major league club. At 23 Davies is far too young to give up on, but I wonder where he would be if he hadn’t been called into duty so early. We can never know, but I don’t see he’s gained much from pitching at the big league level. I also wonder if his excellent start in 2005 gave him a false sense of his ability.

This leads me to Jeff Francoeur. Frenchy was called up unexpectedly in the 2005 season after the Mondesi-Jordan experiment failed. At the time, he was posting an .809 OPS in Double-A with a walk rate less than six percent. This is not bad for a 21-year-old prospect, but not dominant. Brian McCann, on the other hand, had been called into emergency duty with an injury to Johnny Estrada and Brayan Pena’s inability to call a game. His OPS in Mississippi wasn’t much higher than Francoeur’s, but his walk rate was nearly 13 percent, which he had improved over the previous season. McCann showed all the signs of a player who had used the minors to improve, while Francoeur was still developing. I’m not surprised that McCann has become the better player.

Francoeur surprised me by posting a .885 OPS in 2005. He batted .300 and hit 14 homers in 70 games (a pace that would have given him 32 over 162 games) while swinging at everything. McCann posted a respectable .745 OPS in 50 games, but he maintained his excellent walk rate. I have speculated before that Francoeur’s fast start was a combination of good play, excellent luck, and poor advance scouting. It’s a formula that is great for the present, but not so good for the long term. Frenchy became an Atlanta hero. Even when he’s in a slump, no other player gets as many cheers at Braves games. He admitted that his fast start lulled him to sleep, and it may have stunted his development. He hit .300 and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, what more did he have to learn? In 2006 and 2007 his OPS has been more than 100 points below his 2005. He continues his free swinging ways, and I have to wonder if he is going to develop into anything more than an passable right fielder.

But did rushing him to the big leagues have anything to do with his development? We can’t know. He might have become a better player or it may have just prolonged his minor league career. It’s something we should study and think about more. It is a question that ought to be of great importance to teams.

5 Responses “How Long in the Oven?”

  1. Ron says:

    Davies was called up and has remained up because of the many injuries to the starting pitching staff the last 3 years. But he’s clearly reached the end of his rope and needs to go back down or be traded. He is killing the big league club.

    You’re too negative on Francoeur. He almost has as many walks this year as he did all of last year. His OBP is a mediocre .327 instead of last year’s horrific .293. I agree with your overall point that Jeff would have been better off learning plate discipline with a couple years in Richmond, but he is showing signs of improvement.

  2. JPWF says:

    Francoeur is slowly improving, but now after 1275 MLB at bats he has an OPS+ of 99, which quite frankly is poor for a corner OF.

    He had 29 HR last year but “only” 59 in 654 at bats, not a superlative number. His XBH rate this year is close (31 in 367 ab) but many of the home runs and triples have turned into doubles.

    He is a career .275/.312/.462 hitter, BUT .305/.349/.514 with runners on and .330/.377/.528 with RISP.
    His splits are extraordinarily extreme- ordinarily such splits in the end turn into sample size flukes- but in this case I suspect that 2 things are going on
    1: His approach with no one on base is bad (career: .253/.282/.423); and
    2: Pitchers throw differently with men on than with no one on- and for whatever reason that benefits Francoeur.

    I watch about 15-20 Braves games a year on TV, and honestly I’ve never seen him have a good at bat (I’ve seen him homer- but still I’ve never seen him have what I’d call a good at bat)- his increase in walks appears to me to be related simply to him taking more pitches and fouling off more rather than putting balls in play, rather than improved pitch identification- I still see him take strikes and swing at really awful balls.

  3. Marc Schneider says:

    I agree with the above comment. Even when Francoeur gets a big hit, I always get the feeling that it is more luck or bad pitching than anything else. He never seems to have a clue at the plate. And his lack of power this year is disturbing. If you are hitting fifth or sixth and playing corner outfield, you really need to hit some home runs. But as long as he drives in a lot of runs and looks athletic, he will be praised as a great player and consistently overrated. My feeling is he is a great athlete but maybe he would have been a better football player.

    He has improved some this year, but I question what his overall upside is.

  4. Ron says:

    I’m hopeful this is a 3 year process of improvemtn that will result in Francoeur becoming the player we all hoped he could be in 2005 next year. Last year he hit homeruns and didn’t do much else well. This year he’s making decent contact and taking more walks. And finally (one hopes) next year he’ll put it all together and have 30+ homeruns, 100 rbi, and a .330+ OBP.

  5. Andrew says:

    I think Davies may have been slightly rushed, but not by more than half of a year. In 2004, Davies proved he had nothing left to do in A+ or AA with great K/BB ratios and K/IP.

    Francoeur is another story. I think it is quite unfortunate that he had so much early success. If he would have just struggled or had MLB teams had good advanced scouting, Jeff would’ve played just like he has now and then would have been sent back to AAA and likely started 2006 there as well.

    I think something else that may be a problem is the drafting of the hometown kids. Yes, Davies, McCann, Francoeur, etc were great in high school and well scouted by the Braves. But what happens when they struggle? It’s damn near impossible to do the right thing for their careers’ developments because too many people are dying to see them, and once they are in Atlanta, it takes a beyond horrible performance to justify sending them back to the minors. C’est la vie I suppose.