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December 22, 2008

Player Profile

Jeff Francoeur

by Marc Normandin and Eric Seidman

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Jeff Francoeur's career has been a series of ups and downs, the high point coming in his first year in the majors, and his lowest occurring this past season. To avoid becoming a has-been at age-25, Francoeur will need to figure out how to harness his talent. Today we'll take a look at what went wrong in his dreadful 2008, and what we can expect from him going forward.

Jeffrey Braden Francoeur was chosen by the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the 2002 amateur draft out of Parkview High School in Lillburn, Georgia. As a high school All-American in baseball who helped Parkview High win consecutive Georgia state 5A baseball championships playing right in the Braves' backyard, he was hard to miss, and fit right in with Atlanta's strategy of drafting regional talent.

He was placed in Rookie League with the Danville Braves, where he hit .327/.395/.585 in 147 at-bats, an effort that made him the sixth-best prospect in the organization according to Baseball America, who said that Francoeur had all of the tools needed to become a legitimate baseball star, but that he would have to acquire the experience needed to learn how to utilize them. He had the arm and the instincts to be a great defensive outfielder, with a smooth, no-hitch swing. There is one comment that stands out however, which reasonably presumed that: "as he focuses on baseball, he'll understand how pitchers are trying to set him up at the plate…"

For his first full season, 19-year-old Frenchy was promoted to the Sally League, where his free-swinging tendencies were even worse than they had been the previous season, though it didn't seem hopelessly detrimental at this stage. Francoeur's .281/.325/.445 line was nothing spectacular, and his walk rate dropped from nine percent all the way down to 5.3, but he had also lowered his strikeout rate dramatically to 12 percent of his plate appearances, down from the 20.4 percent the previous year.

Baseball Prospectus 2004 offers a bit more insight:

Francoeur didn't overwhelm in his full-season debut at Rome, but for a guy who played mostly football in high school, it was an impressive start. His power and wheels are for real, and the scouting reports on his defense are better than the DT's would suggest. He'll need to learn how to handle breaking pitches and improve his approach at the plate, but he's got time.

Baseball America rated Francoeur number two in the Braves' system, naming him the best all-around athlete in the organization, and noting that he had the body and the swing to hit 30 home runs per year once he reached the majors. His strike-zone judgment needed improvement, though this was their lone issue with his performance.

The Braves promoted him to High-A for the 2004 season, and Francoeur responded by taking his offense back up a notch. His walk rate held with the previous season's at 6 percent, but his strikeout rate climbed back up to 2002 levels. He did manage to show more pop, with his Isolated Power climbing from .164 to .215, with a line of .293/.346/.508 at Myrtle Beach, and for his efforts, Frenchy was promoted to Double-A Greenville, where he immediately flopped. At this point, Baseball Prospectus 2005 advised people to take the hype down a notch:

The Braves have a habit of spending high-round picks on suburban-Atlanta prep talents. Although that sounds like an awfully circumscribed draft strategy, like almost everything else over the last decade-and-a-half, it's worked for them. Francoeur's another one. The 23rd overall pick of the 2002 draft, he's a raw and toolsy hitter with loads of ability. …he projects as a Gold Glove-caliber defender at the corners. He lacks plate discipline, but this past season he slugged .508 as a 20-year-old at High-A Myrtle Beach, which is perhaps the toughest hitting environment in the minors. Francoeur struggled badly after a promotion to Double-A Greenville, but it was only an 18-game sample. He doesn't yet merit the stratospheric prospect ranking others have given him, but he's still got the makings of a fine future.

His 2004 season was impressive, despite both the hitting environment and his missing five weeks after taking a pitch to the cheekbone, but his PECOTA projection suggested that he was not yet prepared for the majors, coming in at only .251/.291/.426 (which looks a lot like the 2006 line he would put up with the Braves). Francoeur spent half of his season at Double-A, improving on his small sample from 2004. He hit .275/.322/.487, a bit surprising for a 21-year-old who still couldn't hit breaking pitches in his first full year at Double-A.

Baseball America named Frenchy the Braves' number one prospect, pointing to his consistency in getting the barrel of the bat on the ball, his excellent bat speed, and his using the entire field, and qualified it all by noting the one significant issue that would continue to plague him-a lack of strike-zone judgment and plate discipline.

After an injury to Brian Jordan in July, Francoeur made his major league debut with the Braves. Frenchy took the National League by storm, decimating opposing pitching from his July 7 call-up through August 15, hitting .382/.394/.745 with a home run every 11 at-bats. His lack of plate discipline would ultimately catch up to him; his OBP was only 12 points higher than his batting average, and when the hits stopped coming in-Francoeur would hit just .245/.300/.419 with a home run every 31 at-bats the rest of the way-his value dropped precipitously. He continued to excel on defense though, setting a rookie record for assists.

Francoeur was struggling against right-handed pitching: though he destroyed southpaws at a .379/.408/.803 clip, he managed just .272/.310/.461 against right-handers. This problem is still with him, as Francoeur hit just .260/.301/.410 against right-handers from 2006-2008. Since he has never again hit lefties the way he did during that brief early span, his line has come nowhere close to that of his debut.

Baseball Prospectus 2006 was not quite ready to give up on him:

Cue the theme from The Natural. Number 27 on our Top 50 Prospect List a year ago, scouts raved about his five-tool talents and incredible bat speed, but we viewed his lack of plate discipline with trepidation. In the Southern League to start 2005, Francoeur showed little patience before being called to The Show just before the All-Star break. He homered in his debut and just kept hitting; by August 10 he was batting .400/.407/.767 in 91 plate appearances, but had yet to draw a walk. Not until his 139th PA, on August 24, did he finally deign to accept a free pass. Even so, Francoeur gave the Braves a literal shot in the arm with his defense in right field, making opposing third-base coaches look foolish with 13 assists in just 67 games. While his hack-n-whack approach remains problematic-when was the last time you saw an MVP candidate with anything approaching a 58/8 K/UIBB rate?-he's just 22, and there is no shortage of other reasons to be excited about him.

This apprehension was well deserved, especially once Francoeur's stat line began to deflate. The 2006 season would see him hitting .260/.293/.449, as pitchers realized that even though he had the ability to send strikes into orbit, he would also take mighty hacks at the air anytime a pitch was out of the zone. His walk rate somehow fell further-from 4.1 to 3.4 percent-and he also lost some of his power, with his ISO dipping below the .200 mark.

Baseball Prospectus 2007 knew that though Francoeur had tremendous talent and raw ability, he was also on the receiving end of some poor luck coupled with underdeveloped skills:

Francoeur is a disparate blend of tremendous strengths and equally significant weaknesses. Though he would sometimes protest that he was temperamentally unsuited to taking pitches, Frenchy promised to work on his plate discipline during the 2006 season. Maybe he was right-despite his supposed commitment, he took fewer pitches per plate appearance than in 2005, and his walk rate actually dropped. Regardless of his RBI totals, he won't have real value to a lineup until he improves his approach at the plate. His Equivalent Average was 25 points below the average for right fielders, and his 473 outs tied for third in the majors; if he had been placed higher in the lineup, Francoeur almost certainly would have led the league. The good news is that part of his performance was attributable to a low BABIP, so it's probable that he'll bounce back with better luck. If he ever does mature at the plate, he really will become the star right fielder that his [runs-batted-in] and his arm have convinced so many he already is.

He made steps toward this in 2007, at least at first glance. He jumped his line up to .293/.338/.444, which appeared to be an improvement thanks to the increased OBP (and a rise in his walk rate to 6.1 percent). Once you notice that his BABIP (.342, similar to his first season's, and above expectations generated by a line-drive rate of 19.4 percent) and ISO (down to .151, the second season in a row with a significant drop in power) were out of whack, any optimism begins to fade.

Neither of these issues were taken care of in 2008. Francoeur had the worst season of his professional career, hitting all of .239/.294/.359, with walks in 6.1 percent of his plate appearances, and a .120 ISO fit for a light-hitting middle infielder, not for a corner outfielder who's built like a home-run factory. The Braves had sent him to Double-A to work with his old hitting coach on July 4, but the Braves lost a number of players to untimely injuries, forcing his return to the majors after just three days.

The lack of plate discipline is at the root of his stagnating development. Francoeur knows and understands the problem, but the way he has gone about trying to solve it-taking pitches just because he knows he needs to, rather than learning which pitches to take and when-is keeping him from reaching his full potential, or in the case of 2008, even a sizable fraction of it. His continued struggle against right-handers also looms large, as hitters who can't deal with them aren't very valuable as everyday players.

As a 25-year-old heading into 2009, Francoeur still has time to improve his game and deliver a peak worthy of the hype surrounding his first years as a professional. As of now though, he is a disappointing player who may have his heart in the right place-he has tried to rectify the situation-but who has failed to deliver on his promise. An extended stay in the minors may be best for all involved-the Braves fancy themselves a contender for the NL East title, and if not for their injuries in 2008, would have been in the mix with the talent on hand-as Francoeur needs to learn basic strike-zone judgment before he'll be able to make it as a productive right fielder at the plate.-Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

In 2005, Jeff Francouer smashed his way into the major leagues and proceeded to knock the cover off of the ball. Nicknamed both "Frenchy" and "The Natural," Francoeur put up a .549 slugging percentage and .249 ISO in 70 games, hitting 14 balls over the fence in the process. With a .300 batting average, evident power, a dynamite arm in right field, and solid defensive skills, the sky seemed to be the limit for the then 21-year-old rookie. Frenchy lost the Rookie of the Year award to Ryan Howard that season, but many felt that he still had the brighter future. Four years later, as the months leading up to the 2009 season are unfolding, the 24-year-old Francoeur may not even be guaranteed a starting job.

Jeff's .300/.336/.549 rookie line was built largely upon a .341 BABIP, which was expected to regress moving forward. In 2006, the same metric dropped 55 points to .286., and in the process, his BA fell to .260 and his low .336 OBP from the year before fell to an ugly .293. On top of that, a decline in ISO from .249 to .189 left Francouer with a .449 slugging percentage, 100 points lower than his rookie season. In a sophomore slump to say the least, Jeff had ventured from +10 offensive runs above average one year to -13.5 runs below average in the next. After 2006, he had garnered a reputation as a free-swinger with immense power potential; he did manage to hit 29 home runs despite the falling rate stats.

The next season, Francouer's offense improved to just about four runs above average. His BABIP rose to .342, the same as his rookie season. While this might have led to his slash line returning to its 2005 form, he showed only a slight improvement on his 2006 OPS, which was well below his rookie line. Overall, Jeff hit a mediocre .293/.338/.444, and even with his above-average defense at a corner position, he still had not reached his supposed potential. For the most part, though, he was able to mask this fact, hitting plenty of doubles, almost 20 home runs, and knocking in over 100 runs. Unfortunately, he was not improving his plate discipline and continued on his power decline, posting a .151 ISO. Add in that he had just turned 23 and would be putting the finishing touches on his second straight season of perfect attendance, and it's easy to see why many still remained on the Frenchy-wagon.

After his 2008 season, however, many of those wagoneers have purchased a return ticket home. Francoeur's .239/.294/.359 line marked his worst season to date. In fact, his year was so abysmal offensively that the list of players he out-performed can be counted on a regular, non-Alfonseca hand: Michael Bourn, Willy Taveras, Bobby Crosby, Jack Hannahan, and Jason Kendall. Nor could he fall back on his defense to lay claim to more value last season, as he experienced his first down-year with the glove; prior to 2008, Frenchy had been +7 runs, +3 runs, and +2 runs above average defensively, last season, he was -7 runs below average. If his 2008 were to be examined as an isolated incident, without any indication as to whom the season belonged to, his age, or his potential, sane baseball fans would come to the conclusion that we were discussing either a pinch-runner or a minor leaguer called up to fill in for an injured regular, but as we all know, we are instead discussing a major leaguer who routinely plays over 155 games per season.

Jeff's plate discipline is a major, major concern, and unfortunately he has done literally nothing to show any hint of improvement. In his rookie season, he swung at 34.7 percent of pitches thrown out of the strike zone. In 2006, this rose to 36.7 percent, and over the last two seasons, to 36.7 and 36.3 percent. Granted, he has not gotten any worse in this regard, but maintaining the status quo in this situation is not a positive. Curiously enough, his rates of swinging at pitches in the strike zone have declined, from 85.8 percent in 2006, to 76.1 percent in 2008. Francouer still cannot lay off of pitches he shouldn't be swinging at, and is keeping the bat on his shoulder on called strikes. I don't know how anyone can truly succeed like that. Compounding the problem is that Francouer is now seeing more pitches out of the strike zone. And why not? If opposing pitchers know he can't resist them, why bother giving him anything in the zone? Even with an increasing rate of contact on balls out of the zone, his overall numbers speak volumes for the type of contact he is managing.

Frenchy's 2008 performance even earned him a demotion to Triple-A during the season. Prior to being sent down around Independence Day, he was hitting .234/.287/.374, with eight home runs. Upon returning a week later, Jeff hit .245/.303/.340. He improved his on-base percentage despite still posting a poor split-mark, but continued to exhibit less power. Francoeur is just 24 years old, but he does not walk, strikes out far too often, seems to rely on BABIP fluctuations to get him on base, and has shown very alarming signs in his fading power-hitting game. The formula for his success remains the same: he needs to lay off of outside pitches, which will cause pitchers to throw into his wheelhouse more often, giving him ample opportunity to get his bat on the ball. This will lead to an increased rate of walks, a higher OBP, and hopefully, a higher SLG. If he cannot make these adjustments, even his above-average defense will not keep him on the field for 162 games on a team seriously trying to contend.-Eric Seidman

Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.

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

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