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Should the Phillies demote Maikel Franco?

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The struggling third baseman’s struggles continue, and his time with the big league team may not be long.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve all been asking ourselves the same question since the start of the 2016 season. When is the “good” Maikel Franco going to show up?

Ever since his rookie year, when he hit .280/.343/.497 in 80 games, with 14 homers and an fWAR of 1.6, Franco has been seen as one of the players the franchise would build around. But here we are, two years later, and the numbers look even worse.

After batting .255/.306/.427 with 25 home runs last season, his slash line has continued to nose dive. Heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Miami Marlins, Franco was batting .209/.268/.349 with just six dingers and an fWAR of -0.4.

He has just two hits in his last 22 plate appearances, and it now appears as if Phillies manager Pete Mackanin may be close to sending Franco down to the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.

That would clearly be the last resort, but it has happened before. The big question is whether sending an established Major League player, even one who is still just 24 years old, would do any good or not.

In 2015, the Phillies kept Domonic Brown in the minors as he attempted to return from tendinitis in his Achilles. Brown had struggled in his rehab assignment and the team decided he wasn’t ready to return to the club. And while it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, in the two seasons prior, Brown had slugged 27 HRs in 139 games and then struggled the following year when he hit .235/.285/.349 with just 10 bombs.

In Brown’s case, the stint in the minors didn’t help. He hit .228/.284/.349 in 63 games that season, his final one with the team.

In 2008, starting pitcher Brett Myers had an ERA of 5.84 in his first 17 starts before he was sent down to the minors in late June. Although he had no options left, Myers agreed to the demotion to work on his mechanics and mental state, and upon his return posted an ERA of 3.06 in his final 13 starts for the eventual world champions.

Two demotions. Two different results.

The other option is to ride it out, which the Phillies did with Pat Burrell back in 2003. At age 26, Burrell suffered the worst year of his career when he hit .209/.309/.404 with 21 homers in 146 games that season. And while he had a couple stints on the bench, he was never demoted.

Burrell rebounded to bat .257/.365/.455 the following season with 24 dingers before hitting at least 29 home runs a season each of the next four seasons after that.

Mackanin has already tried benching Franco, and urged the young player to come see him about why he wasn’t playing. But after Franco said he wouldn’t do that, Mackanin had him back in the lineup the following day.

Franco has just two hits since returning.

Obviously, hitting coach Matt Stairs and Franco are working on things in the batting cages and in private sessions, but so far they have not translated into a better slash line or more extra base hits for the slugger.

So how does sending him down to other coaches in the level below help? Aren’t the best coaches at the big league level? Isn’t this why the Phils brought Stairs on board? Isn’t he supposed to be the one to fix this?

It’s curious Mackanin mentioned publicly that they were thinking about sending Franco down to AAA. Generally these types of things stay in-house, but it was obviously said with the intention of letting the public know their thoughts, and perhaps to try to light an even bigger match under the third baseman’s posterior.

But that same tactic didn’t work so well last week.

It should be noted that Franco is having a legitimately weird season, one that doesn’t match up with some of his peripheral stats.

Franco Batted Ball Data 1

Year BB% K% LD% GB% FB% IFFB%
Year BB% K% LD% GB% FB% IFFB%
2015 7.8 15.5 18.2 47 34.8 14.8
2016 6.3 16.8 20 44.5 35.5 17.1
2017 7.4 14.7 21.8 45.6 32.7 6.3

His overall numbers show improvement, or at least a maintaining of the status quo, in all the important areas above. His walk rate is up and his strikeout rate is down, although those numbers have reversed significantly in May, where he has walked just once and has struck out 29 times.

And while his season-long stats show he’s hitting more line drives and just a handful fewer fly balls, his April-May splits show a drop in line drive percentage (26.9% to 15.9%), and an increase in infield fly ball percentage (2.9% to 6.3%).

Franco Batted Ball Data 2

Year Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
Year Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
2015 44.7 38.7 16.6 22.1 49.4 28.6
2016 45.5 34.7 19.8 21.5 47.8 30.7
2017 42.9 34.7 22.4 17 50.3 32.7

The data above shows Franco actually pulling the ball less and going to the opposite field more, which is what the Phils want him to do, but he’s taken it to an extreme in May. His pull percentage has dropped from 44.9% to 40.6% and he’s going the other way 30.4% of the time now, up from 15.4% in April. And his hard-hit rate has fallen from 35.9% in April to 29.0% in May.

Yes, he has a comically low BABIP of .213 in 2017, down from .271 a year ago and .297 in 2015. But while much of his struggles in April could absolutely be attributed to that, May has been a different story. It’s not all bad luck.

Franco now has just SIX hits on the season when AHEAD in the count (.102/.274/.119) with just one of them an extra-base hit. He’s smoking the ball on the first pitch (11-for-22) with four of his six homers coming on that initial offering.

The problem is that even when pitchers are ahead in the count, they’re refusing to give in, yet Franco continues to swing as if he’s going to get a fastball. He’s seen a fastball just 46.9% of the time this year, down from 54.3% a year ago. Among qualified hitters, only six are seeing fewer fastballs this season. And when he does get a fastball, he’s not doing much with it, batting .235, although it does come with a .510 slugging percentage.

Meanwhile, Franco has seen a slider in 26.4% of his plate appearances this season, the largest percentage of any qualified hitter in the Majors. Against the slider this year, Franco is hitting .071 with a .095 slugging percentage.

Would a demotion to the minors help Franco’s issues with sliders? Would he have more success against lesser competition, pitchers who aren’t as comfortable pitching backwards against him? Or would he simply start jacking fastballs in hitters counts only to see his issues with the slider re-emerge upon coming back to the big leagues?

It’s fair to note that the Phils showed patience with Mike Schmidt in 1973 when he hit .196/.324/.373 over 132 games in his first full season. Adrian Beltre was a mess through his age 24 season when he routinely had on-base percentages barely around .300.

But both players broke out after the team stuck with them.

That’s not to say that would definitely happen with Franco. It seems clear the Phillies are running out of ideas of how to help their young third baseman, and perhaps some time in the minors would help.

It’s the only card they have left to play, one that is by no means a sure thing to fixing a guy who has not been able to replicate the success of his rookie season.