I picked a bad week to head out of town. The Frenchy demotion is about the most exciting thing to happen in Bravesnation in quite a while. And despite the fact that this could have been handled with some candor, Jeff Francoeur chose to throw a tantrum.
“After three years, after playing hurt, playing every day, going in every day whether I got a hit and never complaining, I just played because Bobby [Cox] kept putting me in the lineup,” Francoeur said. “But I just felt like a little three-minute thing — ‘Hey, you’re going down’ — I feel like after three years, I was owed a little more of an explanation. But that’s Frank’s deal and that’s what I guess they decided to do.
“My question is, what if I had hit a home run or had two hits [Thursday night]? Does it delay it one day, until I was 0-for-4? I was left standing outside in the dark on that. You almost felt like they had made [their minds] up before the game. That’s where I felt frustrated, where I felt a little betrayed.”
And these are his tempered remarks. When your sporting an OPS in the .660s, with a career mark in the mid-.700s, you have to have your head pretty far up your rear end to feel betrayed about getting to choose your brief minor league assignment (as I write, I have just learned that the 10–20 day stay has been reduced to three days).
Here are some excerpts from his pre-season interview with Ken Rosenthal.
Q: Why did you put on the weight?
A: Home runs. To be able to drive the ball. I think I’ve given up on the idea that I’m going to steal 30 or 40 bags a year. I’m really looking to put my last two seasons together and have a big year this year. I don’t think there’s any reason I can’t.
I made huge strides offensively last year in (plate) discipline. Talking to Glav (Tom Glavine), we were playing golf down here, he just said how differently the Mets pitched me in the last two years. Compared to 2006, last year they said, “We’ve got to start throwing him strikes. We’ve got to pitch him. We just can’t throw it up there.”
For me, that’s good. I’m making pitchers think more, forcing them to throw strikes. I don’t think there’s any reason I shouldn’t hit 30 to 35 home runs.
Q: How much are you still focused on improving your plate discipline?
A: My goal has been to go 10 or 15 walks up in the next two or three years, every year. Last year, I had 42 (up from 23 in ’06). This year, I want to get to about 60 or so and keep moving up.
I would love to walk about 80 times a year. I know I’m too aggressive to get into the 100 range. But to be able to do that would be something that would be big for me. And that’s when I will be able to hit .310, that kind of average.
“Huge strides” means improving his walks (rate) from 23 (3.35%) to 42 (6.03%). At the time of his demotion he was on track for 38 walks. With his time off in Mississippi, I expect he’ll fall short of that. 60 walks is certainly out of the question. The thing is, I don’t think he has been actively trying to improve his plate discipline. The reason he improved so much from 2006 to 2007 was that it was hard not to improve from such an awful walk rate. It’s like when I have a student make a 30 on the first test and then a 60 on the second test: you don’t expect a 90 on the final. The improvement had almost nothing to do with improved ability, and the change should not have caused anyone to believe that he would continue making significant progress in this area.
Tom Glavine didn’t say Francoeur was now a tough out, just that pitchers had to change their approach. That approach means doing more than throwing sliders a foot off the plate. Then pitchers quickly noticed Jeff’s other holes.
Despite his stated goal of walking more, he showed little evidence of trying to improve this part of his game. In spring training, where the games don’t count, he walked twice. It’s almost as if Francoeur just expected the walks to keep coming.
Q: You’ve played in 326 consecutive games. You only need 2,306 more to catch Cal Ripken. What are your chances?
A: That’s my goal! That’s my goal! People laugh at me all the time, but that is my favorite number in baseball, my favorite record. I watched every second of his Hall of Fame speech last year. We were in Arizona playing the Diamondbacks. That was one of my idols growing up. Ripken and Dale Murphy, those were my two favorite players growing up. My first goal is to get Murph, get the Braves’ record (740), then go after Cal.
This comment seems to contradict his comment that he just played because Cox put him in the lineup. It reminds me of a guy I knew in grad school who believed that he would win the Nobel Prize. When someone has such unrealistic goals, and is allowed to think about them too much, it’s a bad combination.
Francoeur’s PrOPS indicate that he has been a bit unlucky. While he has posted an atrocious OPS of .662, his PrOPS is a more respectable .745. It is unfortunate that this is close to his career OPS of .760, which is below the league average for his career of .771. Francoeur didn’t need to be sent to the minors because he was hitting .662, he needs to make changes to make himself into more than a fourth outfielder. But, he doesn’t seem to think there is anything wrong with his game. He can talk the talk, but he can’t (literally) walk the walk.
The Braves are not blameless in this whole affair, but it’s not exactly for the same reason that Francoeur is upset. Yes, the team should have been sending him different signals about his performance. Playing him every day and centering its marketing around the kid didn’t convey information about needing improvement. But, I don’t think Francouer is upset about those things. The problem is that he believed the hype.
The mistake the Braves made is by centering the team’s marketing campaign around one, young, unproven player. There are more #7 jerseys at Turner Field than all the other uniform numbers combined, and it is entirely the Braves fault. Not only has the organization damaged a prospect by giving him a false sense of entitlement—and recalling him after he whines about it doesn’t help—but treating him like such players of similar quality are usually treated will upset the fans. A baseball team has many players, and it is a cardinal sin to tie a team’s marketing to one person. Unless something dramatic happens to Francoeur’s game, he’s not going to be an exceptional baseball player. And it’s tough to build your team around a popular player who isn’t exceptional.
Let the players play, and then use the best to promote the team. Demoting Francoeur should not have been such a big deal; but, it was because the front office let it. become a big deal. Let this serve as a valuable lesson to all franchises. However, the Braves seem to be a bit slow in getting the message.