Why Jeff Francoeur Could (But Probably Won’t) Walk 60 TimesBy: Sabometrics
Jeff Francoeur has almost every tool that scouts look for. The ball flies off his bat, he can run and he has a cannon arm. In 2005, his rookie year, he hit .300 with 14 Home Runs, 45 RBI and scored 41 runs, at 21 years of age, while playing 70 games for his hometown Atlanta Braves. Writers and fans had him pegged for stardom. Though he hit 29 Home Runs and drove in 103 runs in his first full year as a 22 year old and continued to show promise his next two years were not quite at the same level.
Then the downturn hit. In 2008 Francoeur hit .239/.294/.359. Suddenly Braves fans were done thinking of him as their golden boy and were ready to run him out of town. Management was not far behind. They sent a message by having him spend some days in the minors. When he started the 2009 season by putting up similar numbers the Braves traded him to the New York Mets (a division rival!) for Ryan Church.
Francoeur’s biggest problem is that he rarely takes walks. When he was a rookie people assumed that he would develop the skill but his average of 32 walks per 162 games contributes heavily to his career on-base percentage woes. His career line of .271/.311/.432 is good for a below average OPS+ of 92. In seasons where he has managed to increase his walk rate (he had 42 in 2007 and 39 in 2008) he seems to lose some of his ability to hit for as much power.
So it was big news when Francoeur said recently that he wants to walk 60 times (and hit 29 Home Runs) this year. While he improved his line dramatically after being traded (hitting .311/.338/.498 for the Mets) he had about the same walk rate for both halves of the year (3.6 %.) His resurgence was aided greatly by a fluctuation in BABIP going from .276 with the Braves to .336 with the Mets. If these hitting numbers are sustainable, Francoeur can prove to be a productive member of the Mets offensive. If not then he will probably weigh them down and create a void at the bottom of the order.
If, however, Francoeur can manage to keep hitting and double or triple his walk rate, he could become the star player everyone thought he would be when he was a rookie. Whether Francoeur will be able to manage this or whether he is just talking will determine how his career plays out. It is almost impossible in the current age of On Base Percentage to be a productive player in baseball if you can’t work the strike zone and take walks. Some extremely gifted players can produce above average numbers in other ways but it doesn’t seem like Francoeur is that type of hitter.
It will be difficult for Francoeur to achieve this goal – but as you might have noticed from the headline of the article – I think it is possible. I’m not going to try to guess how likely it is but I’m going to make an argument that Francoeur’s problem is not his ability to judge the strike zone but is instead his approach to batting. Before reading the rest of the article you might want to read my article: Introduction to Batting Eye and Selectivity.
These statistics, which separate a batter’s ability to judge the strike zone from their level of selectivity on pitches, paint a very interesting story of Jeff Francoeur. In 2009 Francoeur was actually tied for 29th in the league among qualified batters in the Batting Eye measure. His score of 1.07 (about a standard deviation above the mean) is – in fact almost exactly the same as such highly productive batters as Grady Sizemore, Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez.
What separates Francoeur from these batters? His selectivity score, which comes in at -.23 (compared to .24 for A-Rod, .25 for Jorge Posada and .19 for Grady Sizemore.) This selectivity score was the third lowest among qualified batters in 2009 beating only black hole (and thankfully not our problem) Bengie Molina (-.25) and his free swinging teammate Pablo Sandoval (-.33.) For more information on Francoeur and his selectivity by pitch count click here. With only two years of pitch-by-pitch data it is very difficult to determine whether players can change intentionally improve their batting eye or selectivity. I believe, however, that batting eye will end up being more of an innate skill while selectivity will be more learnable.
The table below shows Francoeur’s batting eye rating and his selectivity level for each pitch count compared to the ratings of the average major leaguer.
We see that Francoeur consistently has a batting eye score which is near or above the average batter by count. We also see that his selectivity ratings are much lower than the average batter. Francoeur only has a positive selectivity rating in two cases: the first pitch and on a 3-0 count. While other batters allow themselves to be selective and wait for a good pitch to swing at Jeff seems to be hacking any time after the first pitch, even when it seems more likely to be a ball than a strike.
Francoeur must become more selective when determining what pitch to hit but he must also continue to be aggressive when he does get his pitch to hit. I believe that Francoeur has the potential to walk 60 times in a season while still swinging the bat with authority. In order to do this, and become the productive player all Mets fans want him to be, he must change his batting approach. He must swing at less bad pitches while maintaining the same caliber of swing. He must work the count and put himself in a position where pitchers have to throw him strikes and he must take advantage of these situations. These are big ifs but I believe he has the physical tools to make it happen. Whether he will actually be able to do all of these things is the biggest if of all and will have a huge impact on the 2010 Mets and the remainder of Jeff Francoeur’s career.