The thing that many Royals fans dreaded the most, Jeff Francoeur becoming a Royal, came true last offseason. It had been foreseen for at least two years before it actually happened. Francoeur was just Dayton Moore’s kind of guy. He’s great in the clubhouse and Moore saw him as having a chance to finally “figure it out” with batting coach Kevin Seitzer there to assist.
I scoffed. I, and many other Royals folks, were of the mind that Francoeur wouldn’t help this team or realize anything new. In the off-chance that he did, he’d be a great trade candidate. Basically, I wanted him on the team for as short a time as possible.
Well, on a team that is experiencing a few troubles with its current offensive output, Francoeur is one of the few bright lights so far. So, like I’ve done in the opposite direction with Kila Ka’aihue (here) and Mike Aviles (here), I want to see what, if any, differences there are between the Francoeur of 2011 and the Francoeur of the past. What can we expect from him going forward?
After Francoeur was announced as the greatest thing in the history of whatever back in 2005, he’s had a tumultuous career. Between saying that on-base percentage isn’t important because it isn’t on the scoreboard and being traded for Joaquin Arias, it hasn’t exactly been all roses and MVP trophies for the guy. He batted .300/.336/.549 in his rookie year and followed that up by building a .265/.307/.414 line from 2006 to 2010. Walking has never been a strength, and he has a sweet BB:K of about 0.28 throughout his pre-Royals career. He became a joke in most baseball circles and has never truly redeemed himself.
Well, that might be changing.
Through 23 games and 100 plate appearances, Francoeur has a .330/.370/.593 line with seven doubles, a triple, five home runs, and 19 RBIs. He’s one RBI out of the league lead. He’s even walked seven times, which is much higher than his 4.9 walks per 100 plate appearances in previous years. Granted, this is all with early-season data, but it’s nice to see any change at this point. Still, he’s seen 3.98 pitches per plate appearance, which is also much better than his previous rate of 3.42. He’s not noted as being a patient guy, but all of this is good to see.
Why is this happening? Since Francoeur has seen the same percentage of each type of pitch this year as his career average, there’s not much of a change to be seen there. So, let’s jump right to swing rates. His swing percentage outside the strike zone is right around his career average at 38.3%. There’s not too much to see there. However, Francoeur’s swing rate in the zone is a full 17% lower in 2011 than over his career.
Think about that for a second. Francoeur is swinging much less in the zone. This isn’t avoiding pitches outside the zone, this is being selective about which pitch to hit. As a reward, his contact rate in the strike zone has risen to above 90%, about 5% higher than his career average. He’s swinging less and hitting more. His swinging strike rate is down 4% from his career average. Selectivity is apparently the name of the game for Francoeur.
When he does put the ball in play, He’s hitting a few more liners than his career average, but the biggest difference is the groundballs and flyballs. It’s just not necessarily a good thing, depending on how you look at it. His groundball:flyball rate is a steep 1.44. The most common outcome of a Francoeur plate appearance is a groundout. Now, that can be good or bad. Francoeur has hit fewer infield flies and has doubled his career home run per fly ball rate. When he hits them in the air, he’s more likely to get a good piece of the ball. And the results have shown, as he’s been producing at an extremely high clip.
All of that is fantastic, but there are two points that don’t bode well for the rest of the season. The first is that Francoeur has retained almost the exact same strikeout rate as he has over his career. Even with the decreased swing percentage and improved contact, he’s still striking out in almost 16% of his plate appearances. That’s something that is likely to stay constant based on his playing history. And it may be something that gets really frustrating as the season goes on.
The second point is that Francoeur’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP), or the measure of how often a ball hit in play goes for a hit, is bloated at .347. When the average BABIP is somewhere around .300, that’s something of concern. It should be noted that he has had two seasons in which his BABIP was .337. That suggests that Francoeur can play a whole season with such a high rate, but it would be unwise to bank on that. It’s just something to keep in mind as they play through more of the season.
Now, Francoeur is a pretty good representation of how to think of this Royals season so far. There have been some great, exhilirating games so far. There are times where everything seems to go right. But, the sense that things may not be so wonderful all season still lingers. The best thing we can all do is try to enjoy Francoeur’s successes as they happen. You never know when things will change, so have fun with it while we have it.