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Nick Franklin’s drastic improvement

In 2016 something finally clicked for the former top 100 prospect.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the bleak midwinter of the baseball offseason, when the Winter Meetings have finished and the frequency of transactions has slowed, one’s mind begins to wander to hypotheticals. On one such day I began thinking about Dodgers center fielder Joc Pederson. In his sophomore season Pederson posted a 129 wRC+ to go alongside 3.4 bWAR in a mostly platoon role. I was wondering to myself whether or not the Dodgers would give him increased opportunities against lefties in 2017 after he demonstrated the ability to handle it in the admittedly small sample of the playoffs.

Knowing that Pederson had improved his contact rate by an astonishing 8.5 percentage points from 2015 to 2016, I wanted to look up the numbers to reaffirm my assumption that he had led the league in that regard. The contact rate stabilization mark is 100 plate appearances, so I made that the baseline of my search. Of course this does not mean a player’s rate won’t continue to change, just that after 100 plate appearances we can infer that the demonstrated contact rate is not just random fluctuation.

After running the numbers, Pederson ended up in second place, his 8.5 percentage point improvement bested third place finisher Travis d’Arnaud by a wide margin of 1.6 percentage points. I’ll admit it was a surprise to see that he didn’t have the most improved rate in baseball, and even more shocking when what to my wondering eyes did appear, but Rays utility-man Nick Franklin in the top spot.

2015 Contact % (pfx) 2016 Contact % (pfx) Difference
Nick Franklin 66.8% 84.4% +11.5%
Joc Pederson 66.6% 82.2% +8.5%
Travis d'Arnaud 78.1% 88.0% +6.9%
Kris Bryant 66.4% 83.0% +6.6%
Miguel Montero 72.0% 80.6% +6.0%

From 2015 to 2016, Franklin saw his contact rate rise from 66.8 to 78.3 percent. That’s a difference of 11.5 percentage points and a full three percentage points ahead of the already-impressive Pederson. The sample size issue must be acknowledged as Franklin had just 109 plate appearances in 2015 and 191 plate appearances in 2016. However when we take in to account that his 90 plate appearances in 2014 saw a contact rate of 68.9 percent (similar to 2015’s mark), it’s safe to say that there is some signal in this noise. The changes in Franklin’s game have been significant.

2015 2016 Difference
Contact % (pfx) 66.8% 78.3% +11.5%
Swing % (pfx) 51.6% 49.4% -2.2%
K % 33.9% 22.0% -11.9%
BB % 6.4% 6.3% -0.1%

I mean, just look at the heat map comparison from FanGraphs of his contact rate from the past two seasons. That’s an awful lot more red in 2016. It looks like it was directed by Quentin Tarantino.

So how did Franklin manage such a huge turnaround?

After going back to watch some at bats from both 2015 and 2016, it appears that his toe-tap timing mechanism is now more pronounced. He’s also now keeping his hands inside and closer to his body more consistently. He seems to be a little more upright overall. Here’s a visual from each season with balls that were both hit in the same part of the strike zone, middle-up.

The Toe-Tap: Notice that we can see the bottom of his foot in 2016, but not 2015, despite the 2016 angle being a little further towards left field.

Hands Inside: The frames in these two don’t line up perfectly, but in 2016 the right elbow appears tucked slightly closer to his body.

The 2015 example resulted in a bloop double that should’ve been caught. The 2016 example was a 403-foot home run.

It’s important to note two things in regards to Franklin’s mechanics. First, I am not a hitting professional, so these are simply observations based on information gleaned from the many years of watching and reading the actual experts. Second, watching a handful of plate appearances from two seasons is anecdotal at best and not evidence that can be used to draw a grand conclusion. The differences are very subtle but worth noting. Still, we’re not really in a position to say if they had much of a hand in Franklin’s contact rate improvement.

The next step is to dig into the numbers to find hard proof of a drastic change to Franklin’s approach. As you can see from this Brooks Baseball graph, there was a huge shift in what kinds of pitches he swung at in 2016.

Franklin offered at dramatically more off-speed pitches, increasing his swing rate on changeups by 17.9 percent and on splitters by 22.4 percent. His swung at far fewer breaking pitches, seeing a 15.3 percent decrease against sliders and an 8.6 percent decrease against curveballs. You can see in this zone profile from Brooks Baseball of breaking pitches that in 2016 Franklin had a much easier time laying off those that were below the strike zone.

While he also saw a decrease in swing rate against hard pitches, it was almost entirely against sinkers (-10.9 percent) and cutters (-4.8 percent). He swung at almost the exact same rate against four-seam fastballs in 2015 (52.1 percent) as he did in 2016 (51.8 percent), but saw his whiff rate against four-seamers decrease by 11.3 percent.

The change in approach, attacking four seam fastballs and off-speed pitches with a concerted effort to lay off everything else, appears to be the biggest reason for Franklin’s massively improved contact rate. It’s also evident in his exit velocity, which saw an 84.8 mph average in 2015 improve to 88.5 mph in 2016, a 3.7 mph increase. He has been aggressive with the pitches he’s more equipped to handle and passive with those that he would have more trouble driving.

As so often happens with well-regarded prospects who fail to live up to expectations once called up to the big leagues, Franklin became an afterthought. Even though he was drafted by the Mariners way back in 2009, it’s important to remember that he is still just 25 years old. There’s certainly a chance that 2016 was a case of small sample luck, but it also might be an example of a former top 100 prospect finally figuring it out.

Keep an eye on Nick Franklin. He is the quintessential post-hype sleeper and should have plenty of opportunities to further prove himself in Tampa Bay next season.

. . .

Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.