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September 7, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Julio Franco

by Clay Davenport

So the Braves went out and got themselves a "new" first baseman last week, in the person of 40-year-old Julio Franco, who hasn't played in the majors since 1997 (well, except for one at-bat in 1999).

He comes in with sterling recent credentials, if you believe that the Mexican League is, as advertised, a Triple-A-level league. He ran away with the league's batting title, hitting an astonishing .437 (the second best was .363). He easily led the league in OBP (.497) and slugging (.678). He led the league in Equivalent Average, naturally, with an impressive .400 mark.

It is a remote possibility that Franco will hit anything like .437 in the U.S., although lots of people who you wouldn't expect to have hit .437 for a month. For one thing, the Mexican League is a high-offense league, with a league batting line of .275/.349/.398. Among Organized Baseball leagues, only the PCL had a higher batting average, and only the Pioneer had a higher OBP; a bunch had a higher slugging average. As you can see, the league's profile is similar to Franco's, with most of the offense coming from its batting average.

Now, if the Mexican League were, in fact, a Triple-A league, you'd expect Franco to lose something like 70 points of EqA when he came to the majors, and there's not a team in this or any other country that couldn't use someone who hits for a .330 EqA and .375 BA.

Unfortunately, for Mexican pride and Braves' fans hopes, the level of play in Mexico is a lot closer to the Midwest League than the Pacific Coast. That means Franco's .400 EqA should translate to about .270 or so in the National League. That's comparable to his .268 in 1997, and his estimated .256 in Japan in 1999.

If that sounds like too extreme a falloff, check out the rest of the Mexican League's top 10 EqA finishers, which is dominated by refugees from the American minors:

    Name              EqA   DT-EqA     Last U.S.  (translated EqA)
1.  Julio Franco     .400   .270    .268 in 1997
2.  Boi Rodriguez    .362   .244    .152 in 1995-96
3.  Pete Castellano  .345   .232    .253 in 1997, .256 in 1996
4.  Scott Bullett    .339   .228    .200 in 1997, .187 in 1996
5.  Sharnol Adriana  .337   .226    .218 in 1998, .169 in 1997
6.  Warren Newson    .334   .224    .202 in 1999, .247 in 1998
7.  Darrell Sherman  .334   .224    .213 in 1995
8.  Mark Whiten      .334   .224    .222 in 2000, .227 in 1999
9.  Luis Garcia      .333   .224    *
10. Joel Chimelis    .331   .223    .196 in 1995, .220 in 1994

*I'm not sure if this Luis Garcia, a first baseman, ever played in the U.S. minors. My database shows one who played outfield in Winston-Salem in 1998 and hit for a translated .200 EqA, and two others who were in the U.S. in 2001.

Using a Midwest League-level adjustment puts their 2001 performances right in line with their prior performances; using a PCL-level adjustment, they'd all be 50 points higher than that. No, the Mexican League is not a Triple-A league, not even close.

Here's what Franco's season would look like if it had happened in Atlanta instead of Mexico City:

          AB   H   DB TP  HR  BB  SB CS   EqA  EqR    BA   OBP   SLG
Mexico   407  178  34  5  18  50  15  6  .400  119  .437  .499  .678
Atlanta  425  126  25  4   9  32  10  4  .270   57  .296  .346  .438

Actually, it would probably look even worse than this. I don't have park info for the Mexican League, and assumed a neutral park factor. However, considering that Mexico City is 3,000 feet higher than Denver, and that the Tigers led the league in batting average by 18 points, in home runs by 6, in runs scored by 49, gave up the fourth-most home runs in the league, and were below average in ERA, it seems likely that they really have a park factor in the 1.1-1.2 range. Plugging in a 1.15 park factor reduces Franco to

          AB   H   DB TP  HR  BB  SB CS   EqA  EqR    BA   OBP   SLG
Atlanta  425  119  25  3   9  32   9  4  .258   52  .280  .330  .416

Compare that to Ken Caminiti's .254 EqA (.218/.318/.403), Wes Helms's .240 (.215/.286/.407), or the retired Rico Brogna's .228 (.248/.297/.335). The batting average will look a lot better, but the overall production won't be much better. For the 100 plate appearances he'll get, you can expect Franco to provide about a quarter of a run more than Caminiti would have, and about 1.5 runs more than Helms. Still, you can reasonably expect him to be better than they were, and you don't shy away from any possible improvement in a pennant race. Just don't expect any miracles: he's the same Julio Franco he was before, and his expected performance is still well below the major-league first-base average EqA of .290.

In fact, his expected value is, fittingly enough, almost exactly equal to the .257 EqA of a replacement-level first baseman.

Clay Davenport is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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