Congratulations to Dave B. for correctly predicting that Jeff Francoeur would walk 39 times this season. The early-season part of The French God of Walks contest was won by the first entrant, and David B. was the second entrant. Also interesting is that the first entrant, Jack, would have won if Francoeur had taken the same number of plate appearances as he had in 2007. Basically, Francouer’s walk total would have been identical to his 2008 total of 42. The lessons here are that Francoeur’s walking eye didn’t change a bit and that winning Sabernomics contests requires entering quickly.
The season was a disaster for Francoeur; not because of his overall poor performance, but because he didn’t improve where he needs improvement. In fact, I think much of Francoeur’s 2008 struggles can be attributed to bad luck, and then adjusting for bad luck in a way that made things worse. At season’s end, Francoeur’s PrOPS was .726, which isn’t too far off from his career OPS of .746. I agree with most people that Francoeur will bounce back to the player he was. The problem is that a mid-.700s OPS from a corner outfielder isn’t good.
Francoeur’s walks, strikeouts, and hitting power were quite similar to his 2007 performances. His strikeout rate was a little lower (17% versus 18.5%) and his isolated power was down a bit (120 versus 151). His base-stealing remains abysmal. He attempted one steal and was caught. How is it possible that a man recruited to play safety for several major college football programs is unable to steal a single base in a season? Brian McCann, who runs like turkey flies, stole five bases without getting caught.
On top of this, his defense—the area where he had been good—declined significantly. After winning in a Gold Glove in 2007, Francoeur was an absolute disaster in the field in 2008. According to John Dewan’s Plus/Minus ($) Francoeur was the sixth-best right fielder in 2007, making 10 plays more than the average right fielder. In 2008, he ranked 28th among right fielders, making 17 fewer plays than the average right fielder.
Many commentators have blamed Francouer’s 2008 on a weight-training program designed to increase his hitting power. This, they say, accounts for his decline in the field and the bat. While I might be willing to buy the explanation for the fielding—though he didn’t appear to get any better after shedding the weight—I think it had no impact on his hitting. If anything, he should have increased his power as he expected. One thing we have learned in recent history is that increasing muscle mass does not hurt bat-speed. That myth went out the window with late-80s Oakland A’s. And furthermore, Francoeur’s fundamental holes are the same ones he has always had. The reason his power didn’t improve is that you can’t hit the pitches he’s hitting (non-strikes), or not hitting, any harder.
I expect Francoeur will improve until his late-twenties before plateauing and declining in his early-thirties like most players. At his peak, I expect he will be an .800 OPS hitter, which is about average for the position. That is, at his best, he will be average for his position. And the peak will occur after he is no longer controlled by the Braves. 2005 was a fluke, and people just need to accept that.