A Tale of Two Players


For all the advancements in statistics and projections, baseball is never a perfect science. Players break out when they’re not expected to and others fall short of expectations. Sometimes the reasons are obvious but sometimes it’s a few small things that make the difference.

For instance, let’s look at two players:

PitchesStrikesBallsSwing %O-Swing%Contact%K%BB%
Player A2367158580355.541.279.918.85.6
Player B2388156879954.142.780.519.75.6

These two players have similar plate discipline. They walked at the exact same rate, struck out at close to the same frequency, swung at a similar percentage of pitches (and at those outside the strike zone) and even saw nearly the same number of pitches – even down to the same split of balls to strikes.

Here are their season statistics with those figures:

Player A0.2850.3290.4760.80547200.1910.32719.9
Player B0.2350.2870.3780.66526160.1430.27221.3

Pretty sharp difference between those two players. It’s night and day. One was productive with good power. The other had slight contributions but other than the homers, wasn’t very good for his team. It’s odd though. Two players with similar discipline, and the one with a worse line drive percentage had a better batting average on balls in play (usually a good LD% will lean towards a higher BABIP).

Of course, by now, you may have guessed that this is the common trick of using the same player’s numbers from different years to demonstrate the volatility of performance. You’d be guessing correctly, as Player A is Jeff Francoeur in 2011 and Player B is Francoeur in 2012 (I’m sure the photo was a nice hint).

September 04, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals right fielder Jeff Francoeur (21) breaks his bat in the second inning of the game against the Texas Rangers at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

A safe assumption would have been that Francoeur swung at more pitches and more bad pitches in 2012 and that led to his decline. That’s his reputation. The man’s favorite sport besides baseball is golf. He just loves to swing. But he swung at, basically, the same number of pitches overall and the same number of pitches outside the strikezone (according to FanGraphs).

In 2012, Francoeur hit more ground balls (45%) than in 2011 (40.2%). While he hit more line drives, the ground balls came at the expense of fly balls (40% in 2011 vs. 33.7% in 2012). There’s part of his power drop. Less fly balls result in less chances for the ball to reach (or go over) the fence. Makes sense.

It would also make sense that even if he’s swinging at about the same number of pitches, he wasn’t making as good of contact, and hit more grounders as a result. Many of those turn into outs. For a player like Francoeur, who won’t take a walk unless you force it on him, his on base percentage is going to depend on his batting average more than, say, Billy Butler or Alex Gordon, two players who walk much more often.

Here’s the big difference between Francoeur’s two seasons as a Royal: hitting left-handed pitching. When he signed, the prevailing idea was that Francoeur would at least have a platoon advantage against lefties and in 2011, that was the case. He had a .279/.318/.445 line against righties that season, but a .302/.363/.570 line against lefties. In 2012, that advantage was gone. He still hit better against left-handers, but it wasn’t by much. His 2012 batting line was .239/.278/.374 against right-handed pitching but .225/.307/.388 against lefties.

According to Texas Leaguers, he swung at about the same percentage of pitches against left-handed pitchers in 2012 as in 2011, but he swung and missed more frequently, especially against changeups. With problems hitting lefties, Francoeur turned into the disaster he was in 2012. His biggest offensive advantage vanished.

With all of that in mind, is all hope lost? Part of the despair after the Wil Myers trade came from the knowledge that it all but guaranteed that Francoeur would be the starter in right field in 2013. The thought of watching Francoeur chase all year while Myers presumably lit up Tampa is a painful one.

But hope is not lost. Francoeur probably isn’t as good as he was in 2011 and he’s probably not as bad as he was in 2012. As a Royal over the past two years, he’s been an average hitter with an OPS+ of 101. Maybe he’s not going to reach his 2011 levels, but a .261/.309/.429 line isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s not a catastrophe either. Averaging his counting stats as a Royal land right in the same neighborhood as his 162 game average throughout his career.

8 Yrs11464703537115924023137601239845.266.310.426.73594
162 Game Avg.16266576164343198534119.266.310.426.73594
ATL (5 yrs)63126333106531291278359127476.266.308.424.73289
KCR (2 yrs)30112591353037373613671242.261.309.429.738101
NYM (2 yrs)19975583185364219540122.268.311.423.73497
TEX (1 yr)15569182021115.340.357.491.848121

Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather have Myers, and I’m skeptical of Francoeur. Looking over his numbers over a full season, year by year, 2011 was unusual. It’s asking a lot for him to approach that level of production. However, if the rest of the Royals lineup is more successful than last year and Francoeur can be closer to his career averages, he could at least hold his own at the bottom of the lineup. His 2011 was particularly strong and in 2012, he regressed completely to the other side. If his performance regresses back towards his average level of performance, he may not be the disappointment he was last season.