Young Jeffrey Francoeur has fallen back considerably much like he was expected to do. I can't find a quote anywhere on this website, but I expected a significant decline in performance this season as pitchers adjusted to his free-swinging ways, with potential rebound in 2007. He has tremendous talent, but it certainly has not refined itself into any form of valuable production to this point. This doesn't mean he won't, but his lack of improvement as the 2006 season has played out is somewhat disheartening in that regard.
Francoeur was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the 2002 amateur draft out of Parkview High School in Lillburn, Georgia. He was a highschool All-American in baseball and right in the Braves backyard, so one would guess the scouts had every opportunity to watch him.
He was placed in Rookie League with the Danville Braves, and smacked the ball around for close to 150 at-bats: .327/.395/.585 while walking in nine-percent of all plate appearances. Baseball Prospectus 2003 wasn't extremely informative at this stage, simply citing that Francoeur was handed the largest signing bonus in Braves history while drawing comparisons to former Brave Dale Murphy.
For his first full professional season, 19-year old Frenchy was promoted to A-ball. His tendency to swing freely was on display somewhat more than it was the previous season, although it didn't appear to be detrimental at this stage. Frenchy's hitting line of .281/.325/.445 was nothing spectacular, but he was also 19 in A-ball, so his ability to be league average is worth more than normal. His walk rate dropped all the way down to 5.3 percent, but he also cut down on his strikeouts dramatically. Francoeur only struck out in 12 percent of his plate appearances, rather than the 20.4 percent from the previous year.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 gives a little more insight with the 2004 comments:
Emphasis is my own, considering Frenchy was immediately rushed through the minors in the subsequent two years. The Braves promoted him to A+ ball for the 2004 season, and Francoeur responded by taking his offense back up a notch.
His walk rate was steady with the previous season, only coming in at 6 percent, but his strikeout rate climbed back up to 2002 levels, all the way to 19 percent. He had growth in his power as well though, with his Isolated Power climbing from .164 to .215, with a line of .293/.346/.508 at Myrtle Beach. For his efforts, Frenchy was promoted to AA Greeneville, and immediately flopped. He didn't walk once in 76 at-bats, and collected only fifteen hits (5 for extra-bases). The Braves did keep him in Double-A for the next season though, this time at Mississippi.
At this point, Baseball Prospectus 2005 asked people to take the hype down a notch:
His 2004 season was certainly impressive given the hitting environment, but his PECOTA projection suggested he was in no way, shape or form prepared to hit in the major leagues yet, coming in at only .251/.291/.426, which interestingly enough looks a great deal like his 2006 line with the Braves. Francoeur spent half of his season at Double-A, improving on his small sample from 2004. He hit .275/.322/.487, which is to be expected from a 21-year old who still can't hit breaking pitches that well in his first full year at Double-A.
John Sickels rated Francoeur a B+ in his 2005 prospect book, but with this caveat:
After an injury to Brian Jordan in July, Francoeur made his major league debut with the Braves. Everyone knows the story from there, as Frenchy took the National League by storm, decimating opposing pitching. From his callup on July 7 through August 15, Francoeur hit .382/.394/.745 with a homerun ever 11 at-bats. There was an obvious problem with his plate discipline at this stage, as his OBP was only 12 points higher than his batting average. When the hits stopped coming in -- Frenchy hit just .245/.300/.419 with a homerun every 31 at-bats the rest of the way -- his value dropped precipitously. His defense was very good though, as he set a rookie record for assists. This has caused fewer baserunners to go on him in 2006, for obvious reasons.
One item that wasn't discussed in much detail was Francoeur's struggles against right-handed pitching. Although he destroyed southpaws at a .379/.408/.803 clip, he managed just .272/.310/.461 against right-handers. Granted, the sample size is incredibly small, and you can't make legitimate platoon generalizations until the proper number of plate appearances have occurred, and you have to allow the young player time to develop his hitting against opposing pitchers, etc, etc., but this just adds to the "Francoeur wasn't ready for the majors" argument. In the 2006 season, his struggles against right-handers has continued: he has now hit just .255/.284/.436 against them in 560 at-bats.
PECOTA projected Francoeur to a weighted mean line of .274/.316/.484. His 25th percentile projection looks more accurate: .259/.300/.440. The reason his weighted mean is as high as it is most likely is the fault of his incredibly high 90th percentile projection of .320/.364/.618 with an EqA of .314. Chris Constancio's projections at First Inning augered much the same, with a .257/.298/.458 line, and Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections had a .274/.315/.474 line.
As of this writing, Francoeur is a career .273/.302/.486 hitter. He's still only 22-years old, but his plate patience has not improved whatsoever since his callup. He's only taking 3.3 pitches-per plate appearance (3.4 P/PA in 2005) and has only managed 11 unintentional walks in 501 plate appearances; that's a walk in 2.2 percent of all plate appearances. If you really need to know how poor that is, Jose Reyes' 2005 BB% was 3.7 percent, and Shawon Dunston was at 3.2 percent for his career.
His defense seems to have taken a step back, but that might have more to do with runners not attempting to advance on him as much, which hurts his assists totals, rather than with actual regression. Larger samples will tell for sure. His EqA has dropped all the way to .239 from last year's .291 mark, and his wOBA sits at a woeful .302.
All I can derive from his batted-ball data is that he most likely is continuing to make contact with pitches he cannot do anything with offensively. His infield flies have increased, as has his groundball percentage. I can't say for sure, because I don't get to watch the Braves often enough to make this kind of claim, but it's possible that Frenchy is jammed constantly, hits weak grounds off the end of his bat, and strikes out in almost 20 percent of all PAs. If anyone who watches a great deal of Braves games cares to say yay or nay to that, please do.
Francoeur is still very young, and he has time to develop into a very good hitter. He most likely will never walk a great deal, but if he can learn to sit and wait for the right pitch, he could hit a great deal of homeruns with his power. Combine that with his defensive skill and potential, and you have yourselves a guy who can hit with authority and man a corner outfield spot -- possibly even center when Andruw Jones is no longer there, or cannot manage the position. Francoeur is a special talent, but until he learns to utilize his skills like say, Jose Reyes has this year, and Curt Schilling did many a year ago, he is more harmful than helpful to the team. In 501 plate appearances, Francoeur has made 365 outs. That's even more telling of the wasted production than his .282 on-base percentage is.