If you’ve paid any attention to the Phillies whatsoever over the last six months or so, you’re well familiar with the consensus on Maikel Franco’s sophomore campaign: it was bad. The prevailing narrative is that the presumptive future third baseman of the Phillies regressed significantly in his age-23 season. He was flailing at pitches, lost all semblance of plate discipline, and cast serious doubt on his potential future as a cornerstone on the next great Phillies team, if such a thing happens in the next 10 years.
A prevailing narrative is rarely such without reason, and the sense that Franco’s 2016 was a disappointment is no different. His overall .255/.306/.427 batting line was below league average; his 16.8 percent strikeout rate was the highest of his career at any level in which he recorded 100 or more plate appearances; his walk rate tumbled by 20 percent from about league average to one of the worst in the league among qualified hitters. Overall, by all of the three main WAR calculations, he was worth fewer wins in 2016 than he was in 2015 despite recording nearly 300 more plate appearances. He went from a player who, as a rookie, deserved serious All-Star write-in consideration and, in any other rookie class, a real shot at NL ROY to a source of all-too-frequent consternation.
It’s true: Franco did not live up to the expectations he set as rookie or by leading the Grapefruit League in home runs and smashing Freddy Galvis’ windshield. Let’s take a broader perspective here. The following is an exhaustive list of Phillies opening day starters at third base since the departure of Scott Rolen in 2002 and prior to 2016: David Bell, Abraham Nunez, Wes Helms, Pedro Feliz, Placido Polanco (age 34-36), Michael Young (age 36), and Cody Asche. Aside from Asche, all were 30 or older. Not one of them hit 20 or more home runs; only David Bell in 2004 cracked 15. Franco hit 25 home runs and 88 RBI as a 23 year old. The list of Phillies third baseman to hit 20+ home runs and 80+ RBI at age 23 or younger: Dick Allen, Scott Rolen, Maikel Franco. None of this is to say that Franco is off to a career as a fringe Hall of Famer—one Play Indexed search result is scouting by absolutely no means. What it is to say, however, is that, as frustrated as we all may be at times by Maikel Franco, we should realize that it could get much worse. In fact, until May 2015, it had been much worse for over a decade.
We came into 2016 seeking to answer the question: Is Maikel Franco the sort of third baseman the Phillies can comfortably slot into the position for the next five years or more? What’s ultimately unsatisfying about his season, then, is that we still don't have a clear answer to that question. Defensively, metrics regard him as more or less average at the position, but it’s still an open question how long that will be the case as he ages, grows, and slows.
Offensively, we still don’t know much more. For a player with 25 home runs, his 16.8 percent strikeout rate is far from concerning. What is concerning, however, is his tendency to swing at pitches out of the zone. He swung at 34.5 percent of such pitches in 2016, which ranked in the top quarter of qualified hitters. Thanks to his ability to make contact, those swings don’t lead to a concerning amount of whiffs, but do lead to weaker contact, which may be partially explanatory of his .271 BABIP in 2016. Pitchers will remain content to pepper him with pitches low and away and watch him make weak contact. His ability to turn around from 2016 will hinge on his ability to either lay off those pitches or find a way to make better contact on them.
Because of the lack of high-level third base prospects in the Phillies system, Franco will have the security and comfort to continue to make adjustments. He’s proven himself capable of making adjustments throughout his minor league career. He improved by over 400 points of OPS between his first and second year at single-A and nearly 200 points between his first and second year at triple-A. Of course, he didn’t show the same sort of improvement in his first two major league seasons, but the majors are a different level entirely. It’s too early to write Franco off as a merely average player. He’s still only 24 and has a track record of acclimating himself to his competition.