Jeff Francoeur's Awful Season

Jeff Francoeur had some good seasons in his first three years in the majors, hitting 62 homers over two-and-a-half seasons. However, this power was accompanied by nearly unparalleled hacky-ness, as Francoeur managed only 62 unintentional walks during this span, good for one walk in every 26.7 plate appearances. For comparison’s sake, noted free-swinger Vladimir Guerrero averaged one unintentional walk in every 18 plate appearances during the same time period.

Still, there is no denying the fact that, despite his lack of plate discipline, Jeff Francoeur was not a bad hitter. In fact, he managed to post OBPs of .336, .293, and .338, despite his low walk totals. Obviously, these are not good OBPs, but they are not downright awful (okay, except for that ugly .293 figure). The point is, Francoeur was obviously skilled at hitting the ball – and hitting it far. If he could only add a little more plate discipline…

And then there’s this year. Francoeur has been an absolute disaster, posting a line of .235/.293/.352 with 11 homers, good for an OPS+ of 72. If not for the horrendously awful Tony Pena Jr., Francoeur would have the lowest VORP in all of baseball.  What’s gone wrong?

 

The answer is not obvious. In fact, Francoeur has appeared to actually improve his plate discipline this year: his strikeout rate has gone down, and his walk rate has gone up (albeit very slightly). Take a look:

Year       K%        BB%      
2005    22.6%    4.1%      
2006    20.3%    3.4%      
2007    20.1%    6.1%      
2008    17.8%    6.3%     

Interestingly, Francoeur has also been swinging at fewer pitches and making more contact this year:
 
Year    Swing%    Contact%      
2005    60.87%    71.79%      
2006    61.56%    76.76%      
2007    57.38%    73.92%      
2008    55.53%    76.83%     

But the thing is, Francoeur is not swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone. Rather, he’s cutting down on the pitches in the strike zone that he swings at.

 
Year        O%                Z%      
2005    34.91%    83.06%      
2006    36.67%    85.83%      
2007    36.70%    80.42%      
2008    35.95%    75.49%     
(O% is percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that were swung at, and Z% is percentage of pitches inside the strike zone that were swung at.)

Furthermore, Francoeur is swinging at a lower percentage of first pitches this year than in the past:
 
Year    First%      
2005    47%      
2006    52%      
2007    46%      
2008    43%     

This is significant because from 2005-2007, Francoeur hit .355 when he put the first pitch in play, with a .648 SLG. In fact, 24 of his 62 homers (38.7%) came on the first pitch of an at bat, even though Francoeur only put the first pitch in play in 18.7% of his plate appearances. However, this year Francoeur is only hitting .263 on the first pitch, with a .400 SLG (but he has 3 of his 11 homers – 27.3% - despite putting the first pitch in play in only 15.4% of his at bats).

Another large part of Francoeur’s problems this year can be attributed to his BABIP. Despite a 20.4% line-drive percentage, Francoeur is only hitting .266 on balls in play.

Year    LD%    BABIP    xBABIP    Difference      
2005    19.1%    0.337    0.311    0.026      
2006    18.3%    0.284    0.303    -0.019      
2007    19.4%    0.337    0.314    0.023      
2008    20.4%    0.266    0.324    -0.058     

As you can see, Francoeur’s LD% (and therefore his xBABIP) has remained very stable throughout his career, with his BABIP fluctuating up and down. This year, Francoeur has underperformed his expected BABIP by 58 points. If you normalize his batting line by adding in his “expected” hits (adding non-HR extra base hits at the same rate as he’s actually accumulated them), his 2008 line becomes:

.263/.319/.415

Which is right in line with what we could’ve reasonably expected before the season. In fact, PECOTA’s 25% quartile prediction for Francoeur was .260/.304/.418.

Francoeur is probably trying to improve his plate discipline, but this year it has not worked. While he has swung at fewer pitches, he’s generally still swinging at too many of the wrong pitches (pitches out of the strike zone), and perhaps laying off of too many strikes. However, even given his poor season, much of Francoeur’s lack of success can be attributed to poor outcomes on balls in play – outcomes which we can reasonably assume have to do with bad luck. However, even if we adjust for this luck, Francoeur’s power is still notably down.

But after undergoing this analysis, we can see that Jeff Francoeur’s future is not nearly as dim as it first seemed; while he has failed to improve this year, he also hasn’t gotten as bad as his overall line suggests, as he’s been quite unlucky on balls in play. Regression to the mean should bring his batting average closer to his career line in the future, and if Francoeur can continue to make adjustments with regards to his plate discipline, he could still become a very good major league hitter.

(Editor's Note: all numbers are as of Friday. And this weekend Corey Patterson has a surge of suckitude to vault into second-to-worst in VORP, making Jeff Francoeur the third least productive player in baseball this year.)

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