In what was expected to serve as a breakout season, Maikel Franco’s 2016 campaign was riddled with disappointing aspects. His 1.4 WAR finished 21st among 24 qualifying players at the third base position, the same ranking in which his -7.4 Off rating fell when it was all said and done. There’s still plenty of upside there, though, and certain elements of his game indicate that it isn’t quite time to give up on Franco becoming an impact player at the hot corner before long.
Franco’s 2015 season indicated big things potentially on the horizon for him last season. He finished with a slash that featured a .280 average, a .343 on-base percentage, and an .840 OPS across 335 plate appearances. His ISO came in at .217, while he finished with park-adjusted offense that came in at 129, painting him as a well above-average offensive player.
Obviously we’re comparing 335 plate appearances to 630 in 2016, but his average fell to .255, his OBP came in at .306, and his OPS lost over 100 points, down to .733. The ISO that was a source of encouragement in 2015 came in at only .172, a significantly lower figure than that of the previous season. It all culminated in a wRC+ of 92, a far cry from where he was in that first real taste of the big leagues. So what just happened to Franco that he experienced such a regression from 2015 to 2016?
Interestingly enough, it wouldn’t appear that much changed in his overall approach. His swing rates and whiff rates remained somewhat similar to what he did in 2015:
That overall increase in his swing rate, at first, wouldn’t appear to be overly significant. However, when you look at the types of pitches at which he was particularly aggressive, it could help to determine some of the reasoning behind Franco’s 2016 woes (courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
That’s an extremely significant rise in his swing rate against breaking and offspeed stuff, with a minimal change in his approach against the hard stuff. Swinging at those types of pitches tends to lead to more out of zone swings and subsequently softer contact. Which means that it’s probably not a coincidence that Franco’s 21.5% soft contact rate was the third highest among that group of third basemen.
That soft contact rate contributed to a season long battle with BABIP for Maikel Franco. His batting average on balls in play came in at just .271 for the season. His 17.1% infield flyball was the third highest among the group, and his groundball rate, at 44.5%, was a touch higher than you’d like, especially for a guy with a higher Soft% than would be preferred.
Also not working in his favor, in addition to that high Soft%, is the fact that he was almost a dead pull hitter last season. His heatmaps between 2015 and 2016 depict a hitter that was far more aggressive on the inner half of the plate in the latter than he was in the former. He only made opposite field contact 19.8% of the time, the third lowest percentage among third sackers. The difference between Franco and the two below him, Kris Bryant and Matt Carpenter, is that the two made far harder contact at a far higher rate than Franco did, allowing them to compensate for those pull tendencies.
For Maikel Franco, there’s a relatively obvious mental aspect to all of this as well. There was an element of selling out for power, in addition to the approach issues which led to those high pull, soft contact tendencies. Liz Roscher at The Good Phight has a terrific writeup on some of those aspects, and how he and Matt Stairs are working to combat those things that plagued him last year in order to turn in a strong 2017 campaign. Does that mean that the breakout is on the horizon?
The adjustments for Maikel Franco seem relatively obvious. Swinging more at the hard stuff and laying off of the breaking and offspeed pitches will go a long way toward helping him generate harder overall contact. He needs to open up his approach to pursue pitches on the outer half of the plate, in order to try and make more contact up the middle and to the opposite field. Should he cut down on the aggressiveness? Patience has never really been his bag, but if he can be more selective about the types of pitches which he’s swinging at, he can maintain that aggressiveness and still improve his on-base rate significantly in 2017.
There’s still a lot to like about Maikel Franco. He brings tremendously high upside in the power game from the third base position. At his best, he can be a high OBP guy by forcing his way on with hard contact and a high ISO. If he can develop his approach in such a way that allows him to increase that Hard% and hit the ball to all fields, he can utilize that aggressiveness in a way that will allow him to develop into a consistent threat. He won’t be the highly pursued young talent that he was in drafts last year, but those who practice patience with him could find themselves a steal. With the upside present and the work being done with Matt Stairs, there’s still plenty of reason to hold out hope that 2017 can be the breakout for Maikel Franco that 2016 was supposed to be.