(Ed. Note: This was written after the first game of this Tigers series. It does not include events in the last two games. All peripheral data taken from Brooks Baseball and Texas Leaguers. GIFs thanks to LONG_DRIVE.)
Maikel Franco has just had consecutive multi-hit games, the second even better than the first. He hasn't accomplished this feat since the series in Milwaukee exactly a month ago. As a hitter who walks infrequently, he relies on hits to anchor his offensive game more than most hitters. Thus, his lack of multi-hit games this season speaks to his struggles, which have been as obvious as they have been befuddling. Even after his 2-for-4-with-a-HR performance last night, Franco has contributed below league average hitting as estimated by wRC+ (currently 94, 99 OPS+ which overvalues slugging). With below average speed and defense, Franco must hit well to be a contributor to a competitive team. So far in 2016, the Phillies have won a lot of games without his contributions. But that is unlikely to continue, and we would like Franco to turn into the cornerstone in the lineup that he seemed to be in his rookie campaign. So, I thought it would be interesting to take a deep dive into Franco's peripherals to see what is happening with him this year as compared to last year.
Baseball is a game of adjustments. As we have employed advanced statistical modeling more and more, we have ironically centered more and more on an Aristotelian conception of players. Players have a true talent level—their essence—which is the primary cause of their performance, but that performance is also produced by unaccountable variations—what old metaphysicians called accidents. That model is quite useful and I don't mean to challenge it here. However, we tend to interpret a player's essence as if it were exhausted by their developed athletic skills. Consequently, we sometimes talk as if a player who is struggling is beset by accidents and will regress to their essence eventually.
But if true talent is a useful concept, then a player's kinesthetic intelligence is just as important as the skills the player has already developed and his underlying athletic talents. Indeed, the fact that players tend to achieve a standard level of performance at the MLB level might be caused more by their ability to readjust after the league adjusts to them than their first-order baseball skills. Players have a skill or skills to implement their athletic skills. A large part of the game is putting those second-order skills to the test: thrust, parry, counter-thrust, etc. When a player like Franco is struggling, it can be useful to investigate whether his opponents have made an adjustment that he hasn't caught up to yet, and to employ the fine-grained data the statistical revolution has put at our fingertips.
To start, let's consider how much Franco's performance differs this year from last. The gap in terms of summary stats looks large. He posted a 128 wRC+ in 2015 and currently has a 94 on 2016. In other words, he's gone from producing 28% more runs during his plate appearances (excludes stolen bases and taking extra bases) to 6% below average. That is a large drop. But, interestingly, if you compare Franco's average week from 2015 to his average week in 2016, the difference is quite small. In other words, what Franco's struggles have looked like on a day-to-day basis seem less significant than the overall effect. In the average 2015 week, Franco walked twice, struck out 5 times, and collected 8 hits with 1 HR and 2 2Bs. In 2016 he's walked just once, struck out 6 times, and collected 7 hits with 1 HR and 1 2B. The difference between the 2015 and 2016 weeks is 1 walk, 1 strike out, and 1 2B. Obviously, no one has an average week every week and Franco's struggles have been concentrated more in May than in April. So, our perception of how bad he's been recently rightly does not track his average week. Nevertheless, as we look for differences in Franco's peripherals from 2015 to 2016, we should keep in mind that the changes in results are small and, so, the explanatory fluctuation might be also. Just a few pitches per week could produce the effects we are seeing.
I should note that I do not intend to defend a complete explanation of Franco's struggles. Based on watching his at bats, I am confident part of the explanation is that his mechanics are somehow out of whack. But I think his peripherals complicate that picture, even if they don't falsify it. It is of interest at least to describe what has happened in order to watch more attentively to what will happen.
How Franco is Pitched
First, let's get a basic profile of the pitches thrown to Franco this year and last. In general, Franco is seeing a hair fewer hard pitches and a hair more breaking balls and changeups. Since he sees about 100 pitches per week (~3.5 pitches per PA, consistent across seasons), the change in pitch selection amounts to 3 fewer hard pitches and 3 more soft pitches per week. That small a change per week could be a slight adjustment in approach by a certain arsenal type, but could just as easily be a random fluctuation in pitch selection in accordance with a game theoretic model. That is to say, Franco is probably seeing the same types of pitches this year as last. Then, pitchers treated him like a power hitter who makes pitchers pay on their fastballs; now, same.
There is one interesting and possibly significant change in the hard stuff he's seen this season. Lefties are throwing him 38% four-seamers as opposed to 30% last season. And these four-seamers correspond to an 8% drop in sinkers/two-seamers and cutters. From these numbers, we might be tempted to infer that lefties are choosing to beat Franco with location and velocity rather than movement. But I doubt that is the case. Most likely, this change is due to the profiles of the (very few) lefties he's faced this season.
If the pitch types he's seeing are basically the same, have pitchers decided to attack him in different parts of the zone than last season? No and yes. Pitchers still primarily attack Franco low and away, trying to keep him from pulling fastballs over the LF wall and to get him to chase soft pitches that move off the outer edge. As a result, Franco's overall zone profiles this season and last look very similar. Check them out below (you might have to hover over the image to get it to alternate between 2015 and 2016):
Nevertheless, there is one important change in Franco's zone profile: he's seeing more pitches in the zone. According to Baseball Info Solutions, which measures pitches in the strike zone based on the called zone and not the rule-book zone as PitchF/x does, Franco is seeing 5-6 more pitches in the zone per week. Moreover, he's seeing about 2-3 more first pitch strikes per week. Combining these two trends we see that pitchers are being more aggressive against Franco. They get ahead of him early and keep the pressure on. Although the increase in strikes seems small, it is easily enough to account for the loss of one walk and the gain of one strike out per week. I don't mean to say that the pitchers' more aggressive approach causes Franco to strike out more and walk less; Franco has his role to play too (which I will address below). I only mean to suggest that the changes in results are linked to a change in Franco's zone profile, and it is worth taking a closer look at how pitchers are getting these extra strikes.
The extra strikes are coming in a few areas of the zone. First, pitchers are going up but in the zone against Franco more or better than they did last season (2-3 more strikes per week). Second, pitchers have gotten better at locating down and away in the zone against Franco (2-3). And finally, pitchers are locating in the middle of the zone slightly more. These called strike zone images might help you visualize the difference. Notice the increased relative density of red dots up in the zone and down and away in the zone. (Keep in mind Franco has seen many fewer pitches this season than last.)
The increase in middle-middle strikes is small enough that it might be simply a fluctuation in how pitches middle-middle and middle-away were bucketed. After all, a centimeter in or out can be the difference between a pitch registered as middle-middle or middle-away. But the other changes are significant, especially because they are changes along the edges of the zone. The changes suggest two things. First, pitchers think they can beat Franco up in the zone. Second, pitchers are taking advantage of the notorious modern low strike against Franco. (This general trend holds up on first pitches as well, which helps explain how pitchers are getting ahead of him.)
The general in-the-zone profile extends to how pitch types are deployed against him. As you might have expected based on the above results, Franco is seeing more hard pitches up but in the zone as well as up and in off the plate. But he's also seeing more fastballs middle-middle. So far he's failed to take advantage of them.
Again, as you might have expected, Franco is seeing more breaking pitches down and away but in the zone. In fact, it seems that pitchers have brought their sliders and curves from off the edges of the plate onto the edges of the zone and within, even locating middle-middle more often. For some reason, pitchers are less worried that Franco can cover the down and away strike.
There is one change you probably did not expect. Pitchers are throwing more offspeed pitches down and in off the plate to him. See here:
Of course, most of these (if not all) are thrown by lefties so the sample size is quite small. I cannot say whether pitchers are just missing their spots or are intentionally throwing changeups (and a scant splitter) to this spot. In light of that uncertainty, it will be worth tracking whether this trend continues as the season progresses.
To summarize this section, Franco is seeing two significant changes in how pitchers approach him. They are throwing more strikes up and in and more strikes down and away. Of course, that the pitchers are doing this does not a fortiori mean Franco should be faring worse at the plate. Franco has to oblige them, so to speak. So, let's take a brief look at what Franco is or isn't doing against this slightly changed approach.
How Franco Swings
We have long known that, as a hitter, Franco is a rare mixture of power, contact, and aggression. He swings a lot, makes a lot of contact for an aggressive hitter, and hits the ball very hard when he squares it. Unfortunately, this year Franco is swinging more and making contact less. He's swinging 4-5 more swings per week, while at the same time whiffing 2 more times per week. Speaking loosely, his return on extra swing investment is 2/3rds of a strike out per week. Furthermore, Franco's plate discipline has not changed at all. All of his extra swings are coming on pitches inside the strike zone. Unsurprisingly, pitchers are pitting his aggression against the extent of his contact abilities, both whether he can make contact and whether he can make quality contact. So far, pitchers are winning this gambit because Franco is whiffing a little more and making slightly worse contact.
The increase in whiffs is not directly related to the increase in Franco's swings. His contact rate inside the zone has dropped a bit but not much, whereas his contact rate outside the zone has dropped substantially. Instead, where Franco is whiffing outside the zone has changed. Last season his whiffs were distributed mostly along the bottom exterior of the zone. This season he is whiffing on a lot more pitches inside on his hands and up. Again, take a look:
This means that his whiffs do not track where pitchers are primarily attacking him, except with offspeed pitches. If pitchers are getting more whiffs because of their altered approach, then it is an indirect effect, probably by getting Franco off-balance.
His worsened contact is harder to detect. His batted ball and hardness profile has not changed in a significant way. His line drive rate is basically the same, even up a tick and the same goes for his HR/FB rate. Yet his BABIP is down. Could this be just bad luck?
Well, yes, of course. But there are a few pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. First, as the below image shows, he has changed where he swings so that now he swings at many more high strikes across the zone. This, naturally, coincides with how he is being pitched.
Second, he's hitting fewer line drives on high strikes than he did last season.
And, finally, look at the empty RCF corridor in his 2016 spray chart.
Thanks to the inimitable Matt Winkleman, I know that the Phillies wanted Franco to break his reliance on pulling the ball and use the entire outfield before they would call him up for good. For the most part he has done that, as his field-splits indicate. But up to this point in 2016, he is not using a key power area in the opposite field. Now, I shouldn't overestimate the role that the RCF power gap plays for Franco. He didn't pepper that corridor last season either. But in about twice the playing time he used it about 6 times as much as he has so far this year. We might explain this difference by noting that pitches up and away or middle are ripe for driving into CF and RCF. But he hasn't had success driving those pitches yet this season.
As usual, I have no firm conclusions to offer. So, let's just consider the broadcast booth narrative that Franco is pulling his body toward third and overswinging (aka, "trying to hit too many home runs"). I wouldn't deny that this explanation is plausible, especially since Franco is failing to drive the ball into the RCF gap. But if that were the problem, Franco probably wouldn't be whiffing so much on pitches in on his hands. He might be if he's just pulling his head off the ball and ruining his hand-eye coordination. But probably not. If Franco's problem is mechanical it is more likely that his swing has gotten long, most likely because he is loading his hands farther away from his body than he should. Speculating, I think he might have slipped into the arm-bar mechanics that sometimes plagued him in the minor leagues. I'm not very confident in that speculation. I just think it is more likely than the bailing-overswinging explanation. One way to test it is to watch his at-bats closely to see where his hands go when he loads. If his hands go too far back and pull into his body, then he is probably creating a straight lead (left) arm, an arm-bar.
Furthermore, I'm not sure whether the root of Franco's struggles are his own mechanics or a failure to adjust to how pitchers are pitching him this season. Did pitchers diagnose holes in his swing in the offseason and start to surgically carve away those parts of the zone? Or are they swarming on a struggling hitter like black flies on a snoozing eco-tourist? I can't say I know. Franco's success on high strikes last season suggests to me the root problem is Franco's mechanics. But it is possible that the way pitchers are approaching him now has him off-balance or guessing wrong more often. And that's as much as I can say. Best thing to do is to watch his at-bats closely to see whether he starts hitting high fastballs again.