January 11, 2008
I got a great question in chat yesterday that I just couldn't answer without more thought. It appears that I can't dig it up on the site, so whoever I'm not able to credit for it, you have my thanks.
The question was about breakouts, and specifically, which players I think will take a big step forward in 2008. Now, within the chat, I wrote about Jeff Francoeur, who I think the world of heading into this season. Just 24 (this past Tuesday, actually; happy birthday, Jeff!), Francoeur comes into the season with more than 1600 career plate appearances. If I knew little else other than that, I would be optimistic, as getting that much experience prior to 24 is usually a good sign for a player's growth potential.
We know more, though. We know that Francoeur has tremendous physical skills, ones that have enabled him to hit .280 and slug .463 through his 2 ½ seasons despite being a very raw specimen at the plate. We also know that he is more than a hitter; Francoeur is a good defensive right fielder with one of the best arms in the game. He's not fast, although he runs the bases reasonably well and has decent speed. The mark against Francoeur has always been his lack of plate discipline. Even when he hit .300 and slugged .549 down the stretch for the Braves in 2005, a 58/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio-on the heels of a 90/16 at Double-A-indicated that those numbers would be dropping.
In '06, starting every Atlanta Braves game, Francoeur went into May before drawing his first walk and went on to draw just 17 on his own in 686 plate appearances, while striking out 132 times. That's an untenable combination; there are no great hitters in major league history with an 8-to-1 ratio of strikeouts to unintentional walks. There are precious few regulars with that kind of ratio. The problem was that Francoeur was being treated like a star rather than a player with a flaw in his approach. Again, he started every single game, and because of that, he drove in 103 runs despite a lousy .260/.293/.449 line. He wasn't helping the Braves, but the RBI, the physical tools, and the durability gave the impression that he was.
In 2007, however, Francoeur showed the kind of incremental development you love to see in a young player. Leveraging the development of his physical skills with the experience of a thousand MLB plate appearances, Francoeur went deeper into counts, seeing a career-high 3.44 pitches per plate appearance. His walk rate more than doubled, going from only 2.4 percent of plate appearances in his first two seasons to a little more than five percent. That's still very low, but it's also a dramatic improvement. The deeper counts didn't affect his strikeout rate, which held steady, giving him an acceptable K/BB of 3.5 to one.
What's really impressive is that while he was modifying his approach, Francoeur wasn't seeing any loss in productivity. He batted .293 last year, an improvement on his career .271 mark. While his power appeared to decline-his isolated power slipped from 189 to 151-Francoeur had essentially the same rate of groundballs to fly balls (1.16), and the same extra-base-hit rate and raw total of extra-base hits, 59, as he had in 2006. Loosely speaking, 16 triples and home runs became doubles last season. That does not indicate a drop in power; the distribution of extra-base hits is subject to fluctuations from year to year that have little to do with a player's ability. That Francoeur's total XBH and his G/F numbers remained constant while he improved the other aspects of his game is a big positive sign.
It's all of these things that have me excited about his 2008 season. Take a player who has top-tier tools (save speed), who has lots of experience at a young age, and who has clearly improved the biggest hole in his game-that's a player who projects for a significant leap forward. It Francoeur merely redistributes his XBH and adds 10 walks and five singles, you're looking at a .300/.350/.500 player with plus defense. If he takes a leap forward-which is what I can see happening-you're talking about a mid-ballot MVP candidate. Given the RBI he'll end up with as a product of batting behind Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira, and the bonus given to a player who comes out of nowhere, and he might actually be the BBWAA MVP.
So Francoeur tops my list of breakout candidates for 2008. The rest of the list? I guess I still need more time, so check back next week.