Maikel Franco really emerged as a prospect in 2012 when he hit .341/.395/.530 in the second half of the year for Lakewood. He then had his breakout in 2013 where he compiled a .320/.356/.569 line with 31 home runs while splitting time between Clearwater and Reading. He was rated extremely highly by some publications before opening the following year in AAA. Franco then struggled in the first half, before tearing up the league in the second half and earning a call up to the majors in September. This winter he then tore up the Dominican Winter League before struggling in Spring Training in ways similar to his September callup. This brings us to present day, and what to expect from Franco going forward.
At the Plate:
The book on Franco at the plate the past few years is that he is ultra aggressive and a bit of a hacker. He has great bat speed, strong wrists, but the swing is a bit long at times. The consequence has been that Franco has gotten himself out a lot. Even during his hot streaks of 2013 and 2014 he showed extreme pull tendencies and ground ball rates close or above 50%.
Most of the problem stemmed from his bat speed and coordination allowing him to put the bat on the ball at pitches he had no business swinging at, let alone making contact with. The result was all those weak ground balls to third base. When Franco wasn’t swinging at pitches he shouldn’t have, he was crushing mistakes. Almost all of his home run power of late has been to the pull side, but there is plenty enough raw power to take the ball out to every field.
The thing is, that is no longer the book on Maikel Franco. After struggling in Spring Training again this year, Franco has worked a lot on his approach. Rather than rewrite the same piece over again from just over a week ago, I will turn to a piece by Tom Housenick that says this much better than me.
“When I see more pitches to hit, that’s going to happen,” Franco said. “I’m feeling comfortable, too. That’s what I try to do most of the time, use the whole field.”
“Gwinnett had to come back [the third at-bat] and say, ‘OK, we’re not going to throw that changeup,'” Brundage said, “and he came back one step ahead and said, ‘I know they’ve already pitched me nothing but in’ and what does he do, he lets it fly with a first-pitch fastball.”
This was on display the other night as Franco came to the plate with the IronPigs down by one in the 9th inning.
- Pitch 1 – FB up, Franco swings wildly
- Pitch 2 – Close Ball
- Pitch 3 – Close Ball
- Pitch 4 – Slider away, Franco swings and misses
- Pitch 5 – Slider down, Franco drops the bat and lines it up the middle to tie the game
Earlier in the game in a similar sequence he lined it the other way on a two strike pitch. It is a maturity we haven’t seen from Franco to this point, and it shows up in the numbers as he has more line drive in May than groundballs or flyballs, but still has crushed 3 home runs (one was on a changeup he read late and destroyed).
Franco is unlikely to have a high walk rate, because the end goal is still contact. He has shown in the past couple games that he will take a walk if the pitcher gives him nothing to hit, so the walks will come as pitchers respect the power. However, the goal is to get to the right pitch in the right place to hit hard, and then in 2 strikes to get the bat on the ball and let his wrists do the work. This should also limit the strikeouts going forward as he cuts down on the wild hacks.
In the Field:
I have bashed Franco’s fielding the past, but it is best to accept what he can do well and what he can’t do well. Let’s start with the bad, while his first step quickness is quite good, it’s the second and third steps that are the problem. The speed just isn’t there and it is unlikely to ever be there (though he is a bit quicker and more limber than he was a few years ago). This means he just isn’t going to get to some soft hit balls in front of him and he isn’t going to have a lot of range to his left. This limits the defensive upside, and will keep his defense from ever being elite at third base. On the good side, he has quick instincts and soft hands, this makes him very good at anything hit at him, and the first step can help negate some of the range issues by putting him in a good position to make a play. His arm is at least plus and he will show more arm strength at times as well, it is plenty enough to make every throw from third base. I personally am not a big fan of the throwing motion and think it can get a bit rushed and wild at times, but that has become more rare over the years.
On the Bases:
Franco is labeled as a 20 runner, and for good reason, he is one of the slowest accelerating human being you will meet. That being said, he is a fairly smart baserunner who might steal 1-2 bases a year off of pitchers and catcher mistakes. He does have a top speed a bit higher than 20 (though it takes time to get there) and you will see him get some doubles and triples you wouldn’t expect out of a player of his speed.
What Can It All Look Like:
The ceiling here is a guy with plus or more power who has the coordination to hit almost any pitch. The future walk rate does limit the overall potential projection, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to think he is a guy who could hit something like .280/.320/.480 at his peak with 25-30 home runs. If it all works out the defense could be worth a couple of runs, but not enough to carry the profile from a WAR context. It’s a package to me that could be a 3-5 win player during his peak years. He could possibly be an All-Star at times, but the physical limitations make it unlikely he will have reach star level upside without a complete change in profile.
What Can Go Wrong:
Up until about a month ago his approach was horrible. He pressed at the plate, swung at everything, and really only had success when pitchers threw mistakes. Mistakes are a lot more common in AA than they are in the majors, so he is going to need to carry over the recent approach changes into the majors in order to have success. If he starts pressing we could see a repeat of last year where he pounded the ball into the ground to the third baseman and shortstop in every trip to the plate. While the defense is good at third base right now, it is a body that can put on a lot of bad weight without maintenance and he can’t afford to lose any more speed. Franco should be able to handle first base defensively, but it does put a dent in his upside.
What Happens Now:
We start a slow cycle of adjustments and counter-adjustments in the majors. The biggest part of Franco’s season up to this point has been learning to make critical adjustments to his approach to the game to match what pitchers are doing. The major is all about adjustments, he is going to have to counter a lot of different things from pitchers and he is going to need to overcome them. This is not a quick and easy process. I expect him to really struggle at times and I expect to see some hot streaks too. The best prospects are those that continue to grow, and honestly we have little feel for this part of the process. A year ago I didn’t really believe Franco could make the necessary changes to succeed, I am much more confident now that he will make those adjustments. When he steps onto a field tonight he will be the 6th youngest player in the National League and 14th youngest in Major League Baseball, there is plenty of time.
After watching Franco grow over the past few years through the Phillies system, I am very excited to see what he can do on the major league level. He has been an interesting study in looking past the gaudy numbers for underlying cause and for really beginning to understand what goes into hitting.
Photo by Cheryl Pursell