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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.