After a couple of years in the dregs of rebuilding, the Phillies are in the in-between stage — their young talent has arrived in the big leagues but hasn’t quite matured yet. While players such as Aaron Nola are becoming stars, some others will take time to develop. Philadelphia doesn’t expect to contend this year, so it’ll give these players a chance to prove themselves and progress.
On the surface, Maikel Franco seems like he’s struggling to make the leap. After his breakout half-season in 2015 — when he hit .280/.343/.497 with a 129 wRC+ in 335 plate appearances — he appeared to be on the right track. Last year, though, his wRC+ dropped to 92, and this year he’s at 72. With a .200/.278/.358 triple-slash, he doesn’t look like an MLB-caliber hitter, much less a cornerstone Phillies contributor.
As you, the BtBS reader, are likely sick of hearing by now, small sample sizes don’t always tell you the whole story. Maikel’s batting line belies some major improvements he’s made, to both his approach and his results. While he’s not a star just yet, his new approach should make him a fearsome hitter in time.
Let’s start with plate discipline. Through the first two full seasons of his career, Franco swung at most of the pitches he saw in the strike zone — 72.5 percent, to be exact. He was a little too aggressive outside the strike zone, though, offering at 32.5 percent of those pitches. That limited his walk rate to 6.8 percent and contributed to his 16.8 percent strikeout rate.
Come 2017, things have changed. Franco has a 75.4 percent Z-Swing rate, the fifth-highest in the majors. But he combines that with a 24.5 percent O-Swing rate, the 34th-lowest in baseball. When it comes to the difference between the two, no other qualified hitter can touch Franco:
Plate discipline leaders
This is some phenomenal company — Freeman, Votto, and McCutchen have some of the best plate discipline in the game. When it comes to judging balls and strikes, Franco has been even better than three elite hitters, which has helped him improve his walk rate (9.3 percent) and strikeout rate (13.0 percent).
In the offseason, after last year’s disappointing campaign, Franco vowed to become a more patient hitter:
"In 2016, most of the time I just went to the plate without a plan," he said. "I just swung at everything. Now, I think about it like, 'This year is really important for you. You have to know what you're doing and have to show everybody more discipline and be more selective at home plate.' "
He’s certainly fulfilled that promise to start the year. Prior to 2017, Franco’s best 25-game O-Swing rate was 27.7 percent — a full three percentage points worse than where he is now. That he’s stopped chasing like this is impressive on its own; that he’s pulled this off while swinging at strikes just as often is just incredible.
Franco has progressed in another key area, too — he’s hitting the ball harder than ever before. His exit velocity now ranks among the major league leaders:
Franco exit velocity
He’s not hitting those at the wrong angle, either. Franco has one of the higher line-drive rates among qualifiers, at 25.3 percent. After hitting 29 infield fly balls a year ago, he has only one so far this season. Don’t worry about his pedestrian .158 ISO, or his anemic .190 BABIP — as he gets more opportunities, Franco will see more of these well-hit balls fall in for hits.
It’s always tempting to stop at a player’s stat line and stop there. Franco’s batting .200? He must not be a very good hitter! The underlying metrics, though, can tell us something different — in this case, that Franco isn’t struggling, but is in fact excelling. At age 24, he’s finally having the breakout year Philadelphia was hoping for.
For the second straight season, the Phillies had a surprisingly respectable April. In 2016, the team collapsed down the stretch and finished 71-91; FanGraphs projects Philadelphia to go 73-89 this season, despite the team’s current 12-13 record. Regardless of the team’s 2017 outcome, players like Franco will get more chances to prove themselves. As he continues to earn walks, avoid strikeouts, and make solid contact, his triple-slash will eventually show him for who he is: an elite young hitter.