It’s been a hell of a start to Phillies third basemen Maikel Franco’s 2019 season. He’s hitting, hitting for power, hitting to the opposite field, walking, albeit often intentionally, and just generally putting together very good at bats. He’s done this before though – where he’s had spurts of exceptional productivity offensively – but he hasn’t been able to maintain them. Has something changed for Franco? Can Phillies fans expect that the Franco they’re seeing now is the real deal, the one they’ll see throughout the whole of 2019?
DISCLAIMER: Yes, it’s early and Yes, it’s a small sample size. Everyone is aware. We go on the information we have available at the time and we try to dissect it as much as possible to try to see if what’s happening is a fluke or if it has some substance behind it that lends credence to the notion that it may be sustainable.
This, of course, isn’t exactly from out of nowhere. Franco was once a top MLB prospect, cracking the Top 30 on Baseball America’s annual Top 100 list and Major League Baseball’s own prospect rankings, both trusted industry lists. As a minor leaguer he managed a very respectable .280/.329/.456 slash line (.785 OPS) while playing as mostly a teenager. He made his Major League debut as a September call-up in 2014. He was 21 at the time.
He proceeded to tantalize Phillies fans with an excellent 2015 season in which he hit .280/.343/.497 (.840 OPS) but that was pretty much it. He was never able to reclaim that success and as such the expectations for him to be a big part of the next great era in Phillies baseball waned – so much so that he was competing for his job in this year’s Spring Training.
Well, he won. And it’s proven to be a good thing for manager Gabe Kapler and the Phillies. With all of the offseason additions the team made Franco was moved from his career-norm middle-of-the-line-up to the very back, eighth. Right in front of the pitcher. He’s proven to be more than effective there as he’s hitting ,265/.40/.621 (1.012 OPS) with five home runs, 13 walks and only five strike outs in 43 at bats.
Franco currently sits at fourth in the majors for base-on-balls/strike out ratio at 2.20, ahead of everyone but Mike Trout, Tommy La Stella and Carlos Santana. Cause, you know, that’s just who he is?
The strike outs is what’s curious here. Throughout his career Maikel has struck out at a rate of about once every 5.94 at bats but this year, in a very small sample size, he’s raised that to once every 9.8 at bats. Yes, it’s only 49 AB’s but when you look at what’s going on beyond the result, the data is promising.
He’s swinging less at pitches outside of the zone. Franco has always been a bit of a free swinger who was consistently susceptible to the outside pitch. But so far this season his outside-the-zone swing percentage is 24.8%, down from his career 33.7%. Obviously this is most likely what’s having the most profound effect on his improved performance. If he’s not swinging at pitches he can’t hit his entire offensive game will improve…and it has.
And while he is laying off those extreme outside pitches, when he’s getting a pitch in the zone on the outer portion he’s doing the right thing in not trying to pull it but instead taking it to right field. Again we find a huge difference so far this year against his career numbers: from 2014-18 he was pulling the ball 45% of the time and only going to the opposite field 20.9%; this year those numbers are drastically different at 30.8% pull and 46.2% to the opposite field. He leads baseball in going the opposite way.
A common occurrence the last few years with Franco has been watching his helmet fall off while swinging. This is the result of an uncontrolled, wild swing. You swing hard and your hips fly backward causing your head to dip and forcing you to be off balance; you miss the ball and your helmet falls off. Pretty basic.
This year that is gone for Franco. The swings start with a leg kick timing mechanism that keeps him on the pitch, his hips open up, where the front side turns towards the pitch instead of flying backwards towards third and his head stays nice and calm, looking down with his eyes on the ball. The swings are controlled and as such he’s squaring the ball up better. He’s no longer reliant on the amount of force because he’s actually making good, solid contact with the ball. Again, we see that his numbers reflect this change. His soft contact percentage is up from his career mark of 23.4 to 35.9 and his hard contact percentage is down from 29.1 to 20.5%.
Here’s a perfect example of his new mechanics:
Now compare that to this example from last year:
There are some very noticeable differences in each swing and it’s those differences that have made Franco a more effective offensive player. Look at where his head is in each swing; in one it’s looking out at shortstop when he’s finishing and in the other it’s right down on the point of contact. Also notice the left foot through and after the swing. In the more effective swing it’s a small kick and then it lands flat and provides stability for his torso through the swing; in the other it’s a small toe tap (he’s not using his legs at all in the swing) followed by an awkward twisting where the foot is actually on it’s side at the end.
Notice how it’s practically the same pitch in each example? The top one from this year he took to right field for a two run double, the bottom one he pulled on the ground to shortstop for a double play.
Now look at this one, also from 2018:
He actually jumps backward while he’s in the process of hitting the ball. Again his head is all the way around.
One last one to look at. In this one his helmet almost falls offend he’s to even close to making contact:
Nowhere is the improvement more noticeable then looking at some of the swing/whiff data. Through his career Maikel has demonstrated the inability to keep from swinging at the outside pitch and he’s rarely been able to be effective with it. Check out the graphs below.
While he may still be a bit susceptible to swinging at that pitch, the difference now is that he can actually hit it:
Obviously it’s very, very early in the season and the sample size is extremely small. He had a very good year at the plate last year when he worked a bit harder on approach and it appears as though that improvement coupled with adjustments to his swing mechanics could be the difference in him reaching the potential he once had as a top prospect.