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April 12, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Fading Francisco

by Craig Brown

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While Sunday’s scheduled implosion of Texas Stadium was supposed to get the headlines, it was the unscheduled implosion of the Rangers bullpen - namely Frank Francisco - that caught the attention of fantasy owners the first week of the season.

We know closers are a volatile commodity in fantasy, but for a ninth inning man to lose his position based on his performance in less than a full week of games… That has to be some kind of record.  However in Francisco’s case, the demotion is justified, even with the small sample size.  He’s been dreadful over his last two appearances, failing to protect a lead and taking the loss in both games.  In this case, it’s best to lay the evidence out so you can see the carnage for yourself.  (Although I suspect if you have him on your fantasy team, you’re already all too familiar with the ugliness.)

4/8 - 0.2 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 1 SO, 1 HR
4/10 - 0.1 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 0 SO, 0 HR

Those are a pair of rancid box score lines.  In Texas, it’s enough for a closer to lose his job.

The early knock against Francisco is his velocity has been down this year.  A quick check of the Pitch f/x resources show his giddy-up has indeed, got up and gone.  Last year he was averaging around 94 mph on his fastball.  This year, he’s thrown a total of 64 pitches (40 fastballs) and topped the 94 mph mark just once while averaging around 92 mph.  

Francisco insists he doesn’t care about velocity, but the proof is in the radar gun.  And it’s entirely possible it’s effecting how he goes about his work on the mound.  In his first two appearances, he mixed in a healthy variety of curves and split finger pitches - about one splitter for every two fastballs while he went to the curve roughly once every four fastballs.  On Saturday though, he threw a total of 14 pitches and all 14 were fastballs.  And his velocity on those fastballs ranged from 91 to 93.7 mph.  Again, this is an alarming development for a pair of reasons:  One, he seems to have lost confidence in his secondary pitches.  And two, he didn’t touch his average fastball speed from 2009 on any of his 14 pitches.

Francisco insists he’s healthy and his confidence is fine, but something is going on here.  The Rangers agree that things aren't right with their closer, otherwise they wouldn’t have been so quick to pull the plug.

Francisco was a bit of a gamble coming into this season anyway.  He struggled in the second half of 2009, with a 5.82 ERA as his WHIP jumped from 0.94 in the first half to 1.338 in the second.  His extreme fly ball tendencies (he had a 0.43 GB/FB ratio in ’09, the third consecutive year his ratio has dropped more to the fly ball side) add to the wariness felt by many owners.  And his 2.484 WXRL ranked him 38th among relievers last year - well outside the range of top closers.

Now the Rangers will turn to phenom Neftali Feliz.  Long-term, Feliz will be in the rotation.  Short-term, he’s in a position to rack up some saves out of the bullpen.  He’s recorded seven outs in this young season - five of them via the strikeout.  He’s surrendered two hits - both in his first outing of the season - and interestingly enough, both came against right handed bats.  As Kevin Goldstein pointed out in his review of the Rangers farm system, last year Feliz allowed only four hits (all singles) in 47 at bats against right-handers.  (I bring that up, not to sound some kind of warning that he’s lost his edge against right-handed bat, but just because it’s kind of interesting.)

So what do you do?  If you have Feliz, obviously, you let it ride.  (Duh.)  Francisco is a little dicier.  Most fantasy owners didn’t trust him to start - he was the 18th most popular closer in ESPN.com live drafts- so the knee jerk reaction is to drop him and let someone else take on this headache.  However, this is a time where patience can be beneficial.   The Rangers insist Francisco’s demotion is temporary and he will get another crack at the ninth inning.  If he puts together a string of solid performances and regains his velocity, Francisco could regain the closer role just as quickly as he lost it.  This is a situation that needs to be monitored while asking the following questions: Is his velocity back above 94 mph?  Is he mixing his pitches, featuring his splitter?  And has he regained his command to where he's posting close to a 3.0 BB/9?  And remember, Feliz will be in the rotation someday, so the Rangers aren’t heavily invested in him as a closer, meaning they won’t be shy about moving him around in the bullpen.  

If you have the space, stash Francisco on your bench until the situation gains a little more clarity.

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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