My first reaction to Maikel Franco agreeing to sign a one-year, $2.95 million deal with the Royals was one of slight disappointment. After four years of being roughly league-average or worse, I did not have high expectations for Franco going into 2020, but in leaving one of the majors’ best home run parks for right-handed hitters for one of the worst, my expectations got even lower.
Then in looking over Franco’s stats as a Phillie, something occurred to me. He has an incredibly similar profile to another third baseman who has been a much better home run hitter than Franco has been in recent years. While Franco has averaged 22.5 at-bats for every home run going back to 2016, this other third baseman has needed only 16.3 at-bats per homer over the same period. Here is how these two third basemen have stacked up for each of the last four seasons.
|Player Season||K%||BABIP||FB%||IFFB%||EV FB/LD (mph)||FB Pull%|
|Player A 2016||16.8%||0.271||35.5%||17.1%||94.2||31.8%|
|Player A 2017||15.2%||0.234||36.7%||16.3%||93.6||28.6%|
|Player A 2018||13.3%||0.270||33.7%||19.0%||91.8||35.7%|
|Player A 2019||14.3%||0.236||40.2%||24.1%||93.4||30.8%|
|Player B 2016||11.5%||0.214||39.6%||11.1%||95.4||30.6%|
|Player B 2017||15.7%||0.263||45.7%||16.0%||92.3||30.5%|
|Player B 2018||16.2%||0.259||46.3%||19.2%||92.9||35.2%|
|Player B 2019||16.8%||0.250||45.3%||13.5%||93.8||28.6%|
It’s probably wasn’t hard to figure out that Franco is Player A, since he has been the one of the two to hit flyballs at a lower rate. Otherwise, the players’ profiles are remarkably alike. Both have had low strikeout rates (typically in the mid-teens), been prone to pull flyballs and have hit airborne balls with decent power, averaging roughly 93 mph in exit velocity. Even though Franco has been less prone to hitting flies, like Player B, he has been a poor hitter for average on balls in play. Player B has popped up at a high rate, but Franco has been even more inclined to pop up, which has contributed to his low BABIPs.
There is one more thing that Franco will soon have in common with Player B, and that is to have started games at third base for the Royals. Player B is Mike Moustakas, who started 856 games at the hot corner for Kansas City before moving on to the Brewers and Reds. And it dawned on me that if Moustakas could have a 38-homer season with the Royals in 2017 (and he was on pace for another 30-plus homer season before getting traded in 2018), why can’t Franco become more than the 20-to-25 homer threat he was for each season from 2016 to 2018? If not for late-season injuries, he would have had an outside shot at hitting 30 home runs in 2018, and the example of Moustakas shows that he could still have that potential while playing home games at Kauffman Stadium.
One thing that would increase Franco’s probability of being a 30-homer hitter would be to hit more flyballs. He took a step in that direction, posting a career-high 40.2 percent rate in 2019. Even if Franco increases his flyball rate yet again in 2020, he could still be no more than Moustakas Light, as the former Royal has had a higher HR/FB (16.4 percent) than Franco (14.5 percent) over the last four years. That was a bit of a head-scratcher, as Franco has had the far superior home venue for home runs for much of that time frame, and the two have been peers in terms of EV FB/LD and flyball pull rates.
I’ve got a two-part explanation for this. For the last season-plus, Moustakas has had the advantage of playing in Miller Park, but he was not devoid of power at Kauffman Stadium, averaging 18.7 at-bats per home run there from the start of 2016 until he was traded in 2018. He also took advantage of the AL Central venues, which were all better home run parks for left-handed hitters than Kauffman Stadium. Between 2016 and 2018, he collectively hit 14 home runs over 206 at-bats at those venues for a 14.7 AB/HR. If Franco is to make strides as a power hitter as a Royal, he will need to mash when facing his division rivals on the road.
However, Franco’s HR/FB may actually rise as a function of leaving Citizens Bank Park. Over his career, his home ISO has only been eight points higher at home than on the road, and his HR/FB was merely 1.1 percentage points higher at home. This may be because Franco popped out a ton at Citizens Bank Park. His career IFFB% there was an outrageous 22.9 percent, as opposed to a merely high 13.5 percent in away games. Over the last four seasons, no qualified hitter has been close to Franco’s 23.7 percent home IFFB%. (The next-closest player who has played at least two seasons in that span is Jonathan Schoop with a 17.2 percent home IFFB%.) It may not be a coincidence, as Citizens Bank Park has had a park factor for right-handed batting average on airborne balls of 97 or lower for each of the last four seasons (per StatCorner). Kauffman Stadium’s has been at least 106 for each of those years.
Franco was not likely to get drafted outside of deep leagues in 2020 as it was, and now that he is a Royal, his chances at being relevant on draft day probably haven’t gotten any better. It will be worth tracking his batted ball profile in the early weeks of 2020, though, as it could be a signal to pursue him on waivers in 14- and 15-team leagues. If Franco maintains or improves his flyball rate from 2019 and hits more of his flies beyond the infield, he could produce much like Moustakas did during his final years in Kansas City. Should he turn out to be a 30-homer hitter with a batting average in the vicinity of .260 (or perhaps with even better stats if the rabbit ball returns), Franco could emerge as a top 20 third baseman. It may be a long shot, but enough of the necessary pieces are in place to make Franco worth adding to your watch list.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.