I think, sometimes, we forget how young Maikel Franco still is. Still more than five months shy of his 26th birthday, the Phillies’ two-time Opening Day third baseman has largely been given up on, the dead man walking in advance of the free agent frenzy of 2018-19 or, perhaps sooner, Scott Kingery. It seems impossible to think that this guy hit .339/.363/.563 as a 20-year-old in Double-A or, after a Triple-A hiccup at 21, ripped off a .355/.384/.589 line in 151 PA for Lehigh Valley at age 22 before being recalled for good. It seems equally occluded in our minds that Kingery, while he was 22 years old himself, had a .606 OPS in Double-A.
But time passes, players change, and gazes drift. Our natural tendency toward recency itches to tell us we should plug in the prospect as soon as we can, never minding the clear hit that prospect’s numbers took as he played one half-season in Triple-A.
The argument around Kingery’s necessary return to the minor leagues to start this season is for another day. It feels pertinent to remind ourselves who and what, exactly, we’re dealing with at third base for, at the very least, the first six or eight weeks of the season. His success is in the best interests of this organization, whatever his ultimate fate may be after this season.
With that in mind, let’s dust off our microscopes and take a closer look. How has Franco changed at the plate over the years? What work still needs to be done? Is there hope for a return to 2015 form? Each of these questions is more critical than the last, and the Phils’ ability to contend for a Wild Card spot may hinge on how positive the answers turn out to be.
For now, let’s look at what we’ve seen, what we know, and what it all means.
There may be no single thing scrutinized more heavily this season than Franco’s swing. Even with a new manager and coaching staff, whose tendencies and quirks with player management and deployment have yet to be put in broad daylight and dissected, the 25-year-old third baseman will be the one who finds himself under the highest magnification. The subject of that study: Franco’s swing, and the tantalizing production potential that still lies locked within.
During this past Saturday’s Grapefruit League game against the Braves, Franco went 1-for-3 with a solo home run and an RBI groundout. As of this writing, following Monday’s 0-for-4, his line is just .163/.182/.395this spring, with Saturday’s homer being his third in 43 ABs. That’s only about 11-12 games’ worth of ABs spread out over these past few weeks, but it’s far from encouraging, and entering such a critical season in his career, you almost feel like Franco has to do everything right. He’ll have his stat slate wiped clean in a couple weeks; these current numbers don’t mean a ton. And, as we all know, Franco is in the midst of further tinkering with his swing, so it’s almost better to think of his spring progress on a rolling basis.
What, exactly, has this swing progression looked like? Where has Franco been, and where can this new swing take him? His 2015 half-season showed glimpses of what he could be at his peak, and the two seasons since have done little to avoid corroding that luster. So, what changed? And is salvation realistic?
Let’s consider 2015. Franco had the best month of his career that June, ripping off a .352/.391/.648 line with eight homers and eight doubles in 115 PA. The best of those games came at Yankee Stadium on June 22, when Franco went 4-for-5 with two homers, one off Michael Pineda and the other off Chris Capuano. They looked like this:
The only similarities between the two dingered pitches are their speed; everything else, from pitch type to count to location, varied enough so as not to make the two solo shots carbon copies of one another.
Consider the Pineda home run first. It’s the first inning, the bases are empty with two out, and Franco’s buried a bit in a 1-2 count. Catcher Brian McCann indicates to Pineda that he wants the slider buried away - you can see the mitt on the dirt before he slides to the outer edge of the plate - and Pineda throws a sloppy, loose hanger that Franco crushes.
At set, Franco is slightly open and crouched, his hands at his chest and the bat pointed skyward. As this pitch leaves Pineda’s hand, Franco loads by cocking his hands back, raising them slightly and bringing them in line with his back shoulder. It’s not an extreme example, but we also see a bit of arm barring.
The resulting swing shows Franco’s hips open and fully cleared by the time the bat flies through the zone. He’s a little early, but not enough to be too far out in front. The slider being hard (89 MPH) helps keep the timing in line.
The pitch is just outside of centered on the plate, but is more or less grooved. Franco whacks the pitch into the left field seats to give the Phillies the early lead. The homer off Capuano came on a 3-0 green light, an inner-half, 88 MPH fastball just below the belt, right in Franco’s wheelhouse. That pitch and location also play well into Franco’s still-leaky swing.
So even in the face of good outcomes, we see Franco had a rusty rivet or two in his swing’s chassis. There are a lot of moving parts in that swing, and that’s certainly something the coaching staff has tried to correct over the years, while leaving it unlocked enough to allow Maik’s power to be as unhindered as it can.
Fast forward to the following year, June of 2016, and Franco finds himself in a bit of a rut. Franco is not immensely strikeout-prone despite his approach holes, but he struck out at least once in 10 consecutive June games, and that remains the longest such streak of his career to date. The eighth game of that streak came at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks and starter Robbie Ray. In the bottom of the sixth, Franco came up against Ray for the third time in the game. The Phils were down five, with one out and the bases empty, and Franco was buried in an 0-2 count.
Ray turned him into a pretzel with a slider.
Franco was tuned up, and had already unceremoniously whiffed twice to arrive at 0-2: First-pitch slider down and in, second-pitch elevated fastball at 95. Franco does identify the pitch, but only after committing to swing, and so his timing is off enough to get him out in front, lunging a bit with his back shoulder even after he’s already opened up. He’s thrown off-balance, but it’s more a credit to Ray’s sequencing in the quick K. More on his two-strike approach in a bit.
Jump further ahead to the very end of last season, where things have just gotten weird. Franco is having a nice end to the season, and winds up hitting his fourth homer of the season’s final five games off the Mets’ Chris Flexen.
A fat, lobbed changeup over the inner half just above the belt, and it didn’t stand a chance. But look how different Maik looks here.
His left foot is pointed at an angle that’s so obtuse it’s past the third base line. His foot is still quiet, but he doesn’t reset it to point toward the mound or really close up at all as he prepares to obliterate this pitch.
Look at a side-by-side of how varied things got in just a bit more than two seasons:
The transformation is laid bare. The stance has been opened immensely, as Maik went from a slight open to a barn door. His hands, as a result, are higher above the ground but still stay about the same distance from his body.
The most significant change apart from the widening of Franco’s stance is the alteration of his step. In 2015, Franco’s left foot never fully leaves the ground; his toe remains in contact with the batter’s box dirt. The 2017 swing sees the timing mechanism shift toward a lift and full step. Here’s what I mean:
If you’ve watched the Phillies over the past three seasons, firstly: Bless you and your patience for waiting through this calamity. Second, I may not be telling you things you didn’t already know. The differences in Franco’s stance and swing have likely stood out to you, even passively. The above highlights some of the ups and downs, but really only provide a sample. Did these changes and alterations provide any meaningful difference in results? Can the swings in Franco’s production be tied to those “fixes” at any point? This needs a closer look.
Since full game archives from past years aren’t currently available on MLB.tv as of this writing - inconvenient! - I had to try and roughly map where changes in Franco’s swing occurred based off of highlights. I looked at the stance and set-up of one home run spaced a few weeks apart; the dates I picked are graphically burned into the gif for reference.
Those dates are:
- 2015: May 17, June 2, June 16, July 26, August 10, October 3
- 2016: April 6, April 23, May 23, June 21, July 28, August 13, September 24
- 2017: April 12, May 18, June 27, July 18, July 31, August 25, September 9, October 1
Between 2015 and 2016, the changes are mostly confined to how open Franco stands in the box, and the variance isn’t so great. Between those May 18 and June 27 home runs in 2017, though, you can see Franco has been straightened up significantly, and is more closed off until the September 9 and October 1 stances, when he’s flung wide open. This seems like a good place to start.
Again, without being able to track down a more exact date of change, Franco’s straightening looks like it takes place in the third week of June. There’s noticeably less bend in his knees in these highlight videos, the most apparent indicator of significant change being adopted in-game. We’ll use June 23 as our cut-off, then, for this examination.
From the start of the season until June 22, Franco hit .224/.286/.362 with eight homers, 40 strikeouts and 20 unintentional walks in 280 plate appearances. Not great! Pitchers frequently pitched him low and away - which shouldn’t come as a shock to some of you - and Franco offered and whiffed at those pitches at a just-too-high clip.
Then, for comparison, let’s look at those same plots from June 23 on, presumably post-stance change.
What immediately jumps out isn’t the change in outcomes on those low-and-away bugaboos, but instead the massive leap in aggressiveness on elevated pitches. You’ll also see Franco’s whiff rate below the zone creep outward toward the outer half of the plate, possibly as a result of widening his stance. There’s a bit of a drift at the top of the zone, too.
As for the balls that made it into play, here’s how that before-and-after looks. Note that the red/blue shading is relative and inclusive to each image; expanding the image will allow you to see hits on balls in play (as x/y) above the SLG for that zone.
The sweeping visual improvement aligns with Franco’s .234/.277/.445 line from June 23 through the end of the season. Of course, the drawback to that 83-point SLG increase is that Franco’s increasingly aggressive tendencies lowered his OBP in the process.
So, things aren’t totally rosy just yet. And Franco’s spring seems to indicate he hasn’t, as of yet, actually begun turning into Aramis Ramirez. But in spite of all of the tinkering, all of the scrutiny, and all of the creeping resignation, is a breakout actually lurking? Does the key to unlocking Franco reside more with his approach, obfuscated by the smoke-and-mirrors cosmetic changes to a stance that may or may not be immaterial to his potential 2018 success? The answer isn’t just a simple “yes” or “no,” but even as Franco bounces from closed to open to closed once more, what if he might just be on the right path?
Consider our late June delineation once more. Up through June 22, Franco’s batted ball profile featured just 30.4 percent “hard” contact, per Fangraphs. That put him in a virtual tie for 231st of 331 hitters with 100-plus PA, level with Derek Dietrich and Adonis Garcia. The remainder was divvied up in a 19.4% soft/50.2% medium spread. After June 23, this alternative triple slash went to 22.0 soft/46.6 medium/31.3 hard; that big a jump in soft% isn’t great, and is a product (largely) of the jump in balls in play on pitches low and away (see the side-by-side SLG comparison above).
But we’re looking for positives, here, and that’s what I’m going to keep working off of. In this case, the new subject is Franco’s persistent 30-plus hard%. That seems like a respectable enough rate, and probably should’ve helped boost Franco’s stats some. What did his batted ball results look like on a different level?
In all, 240 players featured a hard% of 30 or higher in 100 or more PA from June 23 on. I tried to find as many players as I could with similarities, and one of the more intriguing ones that stood out to me was how Franco’s batted ball profile lined up with Josh Donaldson’s, and how the two still had wildly varying amount of success.
You’ll see why.
Franco v. Donaldson, 6/23-10/1
Franco v. Donaldson, 6/23-10/1
The types and geographical distribution of their batted balls line up nicely, but three words keep them separated: Quality Of Contact. Donaldson holds a significant edge, getting far more hard contact and far less soft contact, contributing to his 44-point BABIP edge and subsequent 116-point SLG edge, as well.
Both hitters struggle getting good wood on the ball low and away, but Donaldson notches victories in every in-zone area but down-and-in, as well as with pitches in on the hands. I mean, this is only 87 MPH from Bartolo Colon, but look at what Donaldson does to this pitch:
It’s just a different animal.
The better comparison, it turns out, is to a player you wouldn’t necessarily think of first: Elvis Andrus.
Franco v. Andrus
That’s a 91-point BABIP difference, despite strong similarities in batted ball profiles. Andrus, to his credit, has far more speed than Franco, and his 7.9 infield hit percentage certainly tops Franco’s 3.2 in that category. But, hell, it’s hard not to think Franco was shortchanged a fair bit by things out of his control. Even if he had a .275 BABIP - leaving him short of Andrus still, just as a ballparked compensation for speed and a slight difference in soft contact - and each of those 19 extra hits were a single, Franco’s 2017 slash would rise to .263/.311/.442. Food for thought, but unfortunately nothing more than just that.
The Next Step
Now, as much as I’d hoped this research would lead to a conclusion that there is a nascent superstar lurking inside Maikel Franco all along, that just doesn’t seem to be the case. The quality of contact requires significant improvement yet. He makes contact, as evidenced by his modest strikeout totals, and he clearly has pop, but the jigsaw puzzle still has a few pieces outside their rightful homes.
So, why such an investigation? Why look for answers and bright lights beyond the horizon for a player so many assume will not be a member of the Phillies in 2019? Simply: Nothing is guaranteed. As much as you or I dream on Manny Machado, or believe Scott Kingery can play a full season at third base, neither of those are certainties. And perhaps Cesar Hernandez is moved, what then? Kingery can’t play both second and third, and the Phils’ depth options - non-roster invitees aside; think Arquimedes Gamboa and Daniel Brito - are still some time away from being viable options. It’s a testament to the club’s belief that Franco is still capable of so much more that he’s made it through consecutive subpar-to-bad seasons as the guaranteed Opening Day starter, and that’s something we shouldn’t write off.
Franco, for his travails, again is still just 25. Even Josh Donaldson had just 10 Major League homers and a .666 OPS through his age 26 season. That Aramis Ramirez cautionary tale is still worth being told. I won’t say that I think he should be given another full season’s worth of leash, especially with Cesar Hernandez likely being here until at least July and Kingery probably warranting a call-up before then if all goes well, but I truly do think it’s in the organization’s long-term best interests for Franco to start this year hot.
So count me among those who believe Franco can - and will - have a better 2018. It’s been a frustrating trip at times, but the glimpses and flashes of power and arm strength and youth, though convoluted, still tease potential. If a closed-off, straightened-up stance unlocks that, then so be it. Either way, come hell or high water, I’m ready to find out.