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Can Maikel Franco be fixed?

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The Phils’ young third baseman had another bad year, but is there still hope?

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MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Maikel Franco’s 2017 season can best be described with a number of different words, none of them flattering.

Disastrous. Horrendous. Disappointing. Substandard. Awful. Brutal. And I did all that without a thesaurus and all of the swear words.

Franco was hitting coach Matt Stairs’ toughest project in 2017, and the results weren’t there for most of the season. In 623 plate appearances, he hit a meager .230/.281/.409 with a wRC+ of 76 (100 being considered a league-average run producer) and a wOBA of .292.

That’s a bad year, gang.

Among 144 Major Leaguers who had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, Franco’s -0.5 fWAR was tied for 137th. His .281 on-base percentage was 4th-worst, his 76 wRC+ was tied for 7th-worst, and his .230 average was 8th-worst. Yes, he hit a team-leading 24 home runs this season, but there were more dingers slugged in 2017 than in any other year in baseball history, which placed those 24 bombs tied for 75th in baseball.

But something seemed to happen in September, specifically during the final week of the season. Franco started producing, setting season highs in batting average (.271), slugging percentage (.529), OPS (.825), ISO (.259) and tying his high in homers (6). And during that final week, Franco went yard in four of the Phils’ final five games.

Franco also was on the bench for much of the season’s final few weeks in place of the rookie J.P. Crawford, who proved he could handle the position with great aplomb. As Franco found more idle time in September, he talked about his desire to put a rough 2017 behind him (quotes via Philly.com).

“That’s what I’m looking for. That’s what I want to be,” Franco said. “Forget about the four or five months that happened, tough situation and tough moment, and try to just go out there and enjoy my game.”

One of the most surprising statistics of the 2017 Phillies season was Franco’s strikeout total. In a season that also saw more strikeouts than any other in baseball history, Maikel whiffed only 95 times, tied for 37th-fewest among 144 qualified Major Leaguers. That’s in the same neighborhood as guys like Dee Gordon, Francisco Lindor, Albert Pujols, Mike Moustakas, David Peralta and Ender Inciarte. His 15.2% strikeout rate was 36th-lowest, a low number for a power hitter, and he saw his walk rate increase from 6.3% in 2016 to 6.6% in 2017.

Strikeouts were not his problem. Weak contact was. When ahead in the count, Franco batted .200/.344/.384 for a .727 OPS. That .200 average was tied for 7th-worst among hitters with at least 90 PAs ahead in the count, his .344 OBP was 3rd-worst and his .727 OPS was 12th-worst out of 303 players (numbers via Baseball Reference Play Index).

As a team, the Phillies were the worst in baseball at hitting ahead in the count, with a league-low OPS of .931, but it’s important to remember much of that came while Michael Saunders was still here and before the arrival of Rhys Hoskins, Nick Williams and Jorge Alfaro.

So what happened in September? Franco became more aggressive, with a walk rate that dropped to 3.4%, down from 5.1% in August and 8.3% in July. His heat map also shows he stopped swinging at so many pitches down and away.

Franco swing percentage April-August 2017
Franco swing percentage September/October 2017

In the first five months of the season, Franco chased that low-and-away pitch 14% of the time, resulting in weak ground balls to the left side of the infield or pop-ups that were easily caught by infielders or outfielders. But in September, he swung at just 3% of those pitches, and concentrated his fire on pitches closer to him.

Franco pulls off the ball, and pitchers have had a field day exploiting this. The adjustments he has needed to make were to force pitchers to bring the ball closer to him by resisting the urge to chase the pitch low-and-away, and to stop yanking his head down the third-base line with every swing.

It’s easy to forget that Franco just turned 25. Yes, he’s played 402 MLB games, and it’s perfectly fair to believe that what he has shown in his first three big league seasons is who he is going to be. A big improvement may not come. If you’ve given up on him, no one could blame you.

But unless the Phillies get a really good offer for him this off-season, there are enough signs that indicate he should at least be given the start of the 2018 season to prove himself as the everyday third baseman. Sure, the Phils could sign a free agent like Mike Moustakas or trade Franco for pennies on the dollar and stick Crawford at third base for next year, but neither of those options offer as much promise as the potential for Franco to improve and either keep around long-term or use as a legitimate piece of trade bait after the ‘18 season.

In the end, there may be nothing Franco can do short of a .280/.350/.500 season with 35 homers and 100 RBIs to prevent the Phils from going after Manny Machado or Josh Donaldson next winter. But he’s at least earned another look in 2018, even if the leash is short.

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