Ever since he went out and hit .287/.367/.411 in Williamsport at age 18, Maikel Franco has been on Phillies prospect radars. He made a big splash in 2012 when he bounced back from a rough start in Lakewood to tear up the league in the second half. His stock went through the roof in 2013 when a .320/.356/.569 campaign across two levels at age 20 set the expectations insanely high (including a ranking at the #17 prospect in baseball by Baseball America). Franco’s 2014 was more of a learning experience and his public stock fell while he became a more well rounded baseball player. After a disappointing Spring Training, Franco made some necessary adjustments in AAA before arriving in the majors in early May. He hit himself into the Rookie of the Year race before a broken wrist essentially ended his season. Along the way he established himself on the national stage as one of the young hitters to watch for out of 2015’s historic rookie class. Along with Aaron Nola, Ken Giles, and Odubel Herrera, Franco is part of the first wave of building blocks towards the next Phillies’ contender.
What Was Written Before the Season:
3. Maikel Franco – 3B
Role: First Division Regular
Risk: Medium – Despite the fact that he has already made the major leagues, Franco still has to make some adjustments to his approach in order to get reach his ceiling.
Summary: In many ways, Franco’s 2014 was not a step backwards; it was just another adjustment along the developmental path. For many of us, the hype on Maikel Franco a year ago was a bit premature; he still had big problems with his approach at the plate that he needed to work through. Many of those problems still remain, as Franco still has the bat speed and hand eye coordination to put the bat on the ball, but unfortunately his pitch recognition and approach make these swings ill advised. Franco still has plus or better raw power, mostly to his pull side. The swing can get a bit long at times, which forces him to have to make decisions on pitches earlier than he can recognize them. He should hit for a decent average, with a low walk rate and a fairly low strikeout rate. The real question is whether he can get the approach to a place where he makes enough quality contact to have the power show up in games. The biggest strides that Franco made in 2014 were on defense. Range is still going to be a problem for him at third, but his arm is very strong, and his actions are pretty good. With a commitment to keeping himself in shape and limber, Franco could be an average defender at third base for the foreseeable future. Franco’s game has its flaws, but very few players have his combination of power, bat speed, and hand eye coordination. He should start the year in AAA in order to get another year of team control (and allow the Phillies time to evaluate Cody Asche) but he remains the Phillies’ third baseman of the future.
What Happened in the Minors:
Stat Line: 33 G 151 PA 12 2B 1 3B 4 HR 2 SB .355/.384/.539 5.3% BB % 16.6% K%
In the minors, Maikel Franco found an approach that worked for him. That is overly simplistic to say, but it was a simple thing from the outside to see, despite it being a journey many years in the making for Franco. As I wrote back in May, Maikel Franco started using the whole field with his contact. This required Franco to both have some patience with which pitches he swung at, but more importantly he cut down on his swing with two strikes. The result was a reduction in his power numbers (and walk rate), but it was the last step in his development. Overall Franco ends his 6 minor league seasons having hit .280/.329/.456 with 70 home runs across 554 games.
What Happened in the Majors:
Stat Line: 80 G 335 PA 22 2B 1 3B 14 HR 1 SB .280/.343/.497 7.8% BB% 15.5 K%
Major League Debut: September 2, 2014
Maikel Franco just hit and hit for power and impact. His wRC+ of 128 was 13th among rookie hitters and was 8th among third baseman (minimum 300 PAs). Franco’s approach changes from AAA carried over to the majors and his 7.8% BB% was his highest walk rate since his time in Williamsport while his strikeout rate stayed close to his career trends. The Franco mania peaked his June where he hit .352/.391/.648 over 27 games, fueled in part by 3 games at Yankees stadium where he went 6 for 12 with a double and 3 home runs. After June, Franco saw the power numbers stay relatively constant (lower July, higher in limited Aug/Sept), but his batting average declined some while he saw his walk rate make good strides forward. As expected most of Franco’s power and contact was to the pull side, but he showed he has the raw power to hit the ball out to any part of the ballpark.
While he does pull a large amount of balls on the ground to the left side of the infield, he did carry over enough bat control and approach to go up the middle a decent amount of the time while occasionally line the ball the other way.
These are all encouraging signs for Franco in the future. He did struggle at times with the ball low in the zone, but he crushed fastballs and was among the league leaders in value vs fastballs on a per/pitch basis. All of that being said it is tough to know what adjustments he would have made over the end of the season or adjustments pitchers would have made against him because a Jeremy Hellickson fastball cost him a month and a half to essentially end his season (outside of one last series in October).
While his bat was promising, Franco’s glove was not good. Most advanced metrics rated him as one of the worst fielding third baseman in the game. But that does not tell the full story. To try and get a feeling for that we can Inside Edge’s fielding probability groups to see where the holes in his game are (minimum 600 innings at third base, 27 fielders qualified).
Now we don’t know exactly what type of plays fall into each bucket and whether it biases against things like Franco’s footspeed. What we do see is Franco not making routine plays at a high rate, while making harder plays at an above average rate. In terms of total plays, the average third baseman sees about .73 plays per inning in the 90-100% group, or about 880 plays a year (there is a wide variance here though), which means a shift of making 1% more plays is almost 9 more plays a year. That can be the difference between Franco being a disaster at third base and being just average there.
Maikel Franco is the Phillies third baseman of the present and the future, and there really is not much argument against that to be made. Despite the lofty expectations, his bat was better than expected, and his approach was very mature for a 22 year old who had been hacking away just a year earlier. There is still some growth that can happen at the plate as pitchers can get him out with soft stuff down out of the zone. While he has quieted some of his swing, he still has one of the fastest bats and strongest wrists in the game, which allows him to use his natural feel for contact and raw power to good effect. He doesn’t necessarily need to build a lot on top of his rookie season to have a lot of major league success, he will just need to maintain it. His biggest place for improvement is in the field where he made a lot of simple mistakes (as we discussed earlier). If he can reduce the small errors and get good at making the routine play he can carry enough value at third base to quiet those looking to move him to first base. He won’t win any Gold Gloves (or Fielding Bible Awards, or whatever your favorite defensive award is), but he has the ability to be solid at the hot corner. Phillies’ fans should be very excited to see Franco and J.P. Crawford manning the left side of the infield for many years to come.