Francoeur’s Struggles Go Beyond the Plate

This season, Jeff Francoeur hasn’t lived up to expectations. (Not that it is really his fault, because he hasn’t really performed much different than his minor league numbers suggested he would.) He’s batting .256/.309/.422/.731, which puts him last in the National League in OPS(14th of 14) among qualified right fielders. But, this really isn’t news: everybody is aware of Francoeur’s hitting problems…except fans at Turner Field who still give him more cheers than a .400-chasing Chipper Jones.

Yesterday, I was poking around Bill James Online (subscription required) and looked at Frenchy’s Plus/Minus numbers. If you are not familiar with Plus/Minus, it is the principal metric of John Dewan’s The Fielding Bible, which is based on objective video analysis of all players. It is the best defensive metric out there. According to the metric, this season Frenchy is not doing so hot in the field this season. So far, he has made seven plays below what the average right fielder ought to be making, which ranks him 31st among major league right fielders. It’s not what you expect from a Gold Glove winner.

And this is not just some bias against Francoeur in this metric. The system has rated Francoeur positively in the past. In 2006 and 2007 he ranked eleventh and sixth with three and ten plays above average. In The Fielding Bible Award voting, Bill James, John Dewan, and the BIS video scouts rated Francoeur 2007′s best right fielder in the majors. Frenchy isn’t just struggling at the plate this season.

This may just be a product of random variation; but if it’s not, what could be the cause? This past offseason, Francoeur adopted a weight-lifting program in an effort to increase his hitting power. The other day, he stated that the lifting may have made him too tight.

Saturday’s was his third home run in 11 games. Before that, Francoeur had gone six weeks without a homer. He had some doubts about his offseason workout routine of lifting weights four days a week, which brought him to camp heavier and hoping to improve on his 19 homers of a year ago.

“My dad and I talked last night,” Francoeur said. “I don’t know if I did too much weightlifting, if I got too tight.”

Though he is referring to problems with his swing, the bigger problem may be on defense. Tightness and the extra weight may be slowing him down in the outfield.

Another explanation may be the departure of Andruw Jones. If Jones’s superior defense allowed Francouer to cheat toward the line to get balls that other right fielders usually miss, then Jones may have made Francouer look better than his true ability.

The Plus/Minus system has ranked Jones first and third among center fielders in 2006 and 2007. Mark Kotsay, Jones’s replacement, has been a below average center fielder for the past three seasons. The Braves’s primary left fielder for the past three years has been Matt Diaz. In 2006 and 2007, he was an above-average defender making ten plays above average. In 2008, he has been just about average. This is some evidence that Jones may have made Francoeur look better than he was.

I suspect that luck, extra weight, the departure of Jones, and possibly an injury are all contributing factors.

4 Responses “Francoeur’s Struggles Go Beyond the Plate”

  1. ChuckO says:

    There is a refinement in the way that teams have been pitching to Francoeur this year. In the past, they would throw him low outside pitches that broke off of the plate while and mixing in some high inside fastballs. All too often, Francoeur swings at and misses those pitches. However, when runners got on base, they would throw him better pitches, usually low outside strikes. Francoeur kills pitches like that when he can get the barrel of the bat on it. As a result he tended to hit well with runners on. This season I’ve noticed that they’re now throwing him the same outside breaking balls and high fastballs no matter what the count, and Francoeur flails away at them, whether or not runners are on base.

    In short, I don’t think his hitting problems are due to putting on weight or anything like that. They’re due to the fact that the league’s pitchers have finally figured him out.

  2. Rick says:

    I was at Turner Field for a couple games Memorial Day weekend for the D-Backs series. Francoeur got more cheers when he came to the plate than anybody else on the team. I sat in right-center field for one of the games and spent a lot of time watching Jeff. He does not appear to get a very good read on balls hit in his direction.

  3. dlf says:

    WRT Francouer’s defense: I think you a missing the elephant in the room when you start looking to the departure of Andruw, weight lifting, etc. for the basis of the decline. He has had at least one cortisone shot in his ankle and has been noticably limping during some games. Plus / Minus is based on range; range is based on speed + reaction time; speed requires healthy legs …

  4. Marc Schneider says:

    The amazing thing is, it’s not just fans who think Frenchy is better than he is; even baseball analysts (well, John Kruk) think he is a really good player. Doesn’t anyone see that he is not? I understand why he is popular at Turner Field–he’s a clean-cut local kid and that plays well in the South, especially with teen-age girls. But he just sucks as a ballplayer. He may well be injured but there is nothing to suggest that he is ever going to be much more than what he is–an average at best right fielder.