Understanding sample sizes is a basic part of baseball statistics. It is easy to be influenced by a singular events and use them to create narrative. I find early in a player’s career that small sample sizes give us an interesting look at adjustments occurring during development. The danger of looking at these slight shifts is taking them as predictive, or that the stats in some way may translate over a larger period of time. For now let’s throw caution to the wind and look at a player I have written about in terms of adjustments more than any other, Maikel Franco. In the past I have written a lot about his approach and how it translated in terms of batted ball data in the minors (December 2013 on struggles pulling the ball and 2015 adjustments in AAA). As Franco’s approach improved he moved from a pull heavy ground ball hitter, to a hitter of hitting line drives up the middle and the other way. Right now, I am more interested in his walk rate.
Here is Maikel Franco’s walk percentages by year and level over his career:
His walk rate in the majors seems like a small sample size outlier, until you split his season apart and see that his first half walk rate was 6.4% and his second half walk rate was 11.1%. Then this offseason in his native Dominican Republic Franco walked 13 times (with 7 strikeouts) in 77 ABs. So the question becomes, what trends exist if any.
Starting with the Fangraphs plate discipline statistics we see this breakdown:
A couple of things immediately jump out to me, the first is a drop in swings on pitches outside the strikezone, the second is that his percentage of contact on swings outside the zone increased. This seems to indicate that Franco was more discerning on what pitches outside of the strikezone to swing at. The other interesting statistic is the first pitch strike percentage, which dropped quite a bit. It is unsurprising that hitters have large splits after a 1-0 and 0-1 counts, but Franco’s might be even more dramatic that most.
After a 1-0 count he posted a .331/.456/.568 line with a 16.3% BB% and 10.2% K%, however after an 0-1 count he posted a .224/.235/.361 line with a 1.3% BB% and 24.8% K%. A change of 10% of PAs starting with a ball instead of a strike is a big deal for Franco. Now what would compel this kind of change? During the 2015 season, on at bats that ended after the first pitch (42 PAs), Franco hit .350/.381/.800. Those 42 PAs also mean that Franco ended at bat after the first pitch 12.5% of the time during the 2015 season.
Before talking about conclusions, both Franco’s zone contact and overall contact rates dropped in the second half, so this may not all be rosy. Part of what has made Franco so special is his contact rate, so he will need to see those numbers rebound some during the 2016 season.
Franco has made improvements at each level he has played at. We saw this in the minor leagues as he made big adjustments in the second half of 2012 to first put himself on the prospect map and then made the changes in 2015 to have a successful major league debut. We also know that his minor league walk and strikeout rates were skewed by a great feel for contact. What I think we are seeing happen in the majors is that Franco is swinging at less undesirable pitches out of the strikezone, which has seen his number of balls go up (since the number of balls in the strikezone has remained constant). In addition to Franco adjusting to the majors, pitchers are adjusting to Franco. His aggressive nature, and ability to punish first pitch strikes has caused pitchers to try to expand the zone on the first pitch of ABs. Like many hitters, this puts Franco in a favorable hitting position, and consequently his numbers have risen.
I don’t think we are going to see Franco have a walk rate in the 11% range, at least not without more fundamental changes, but I think a walk rate in the 8% to 9% range is more likely for his future than the 5% to 7% he showed in his minor league career. He still needs to make adjustments in battling back from behind in the count, but most young hitters are still learning to make that change. It may not be smooth ascent, but his rookie season may have only been the start of what Maikel Franco is capable of.
Numbers from Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, photo by Cheryl Pursell