If there is one thing the Colorado Rockies have lacked throughout most of their history, it’s been a consistent ace that they can rely on. Guys like Bill Swift, Pedro Astacio, Kevin Ritz, Armando Reynoso, and Jason Jennings have had their moments, but were never consistent enough in their performances to help the Rockies field a winner. Jeff Francis has helped the Rockies change that on the way to helping the franchise make its first World Series appearance, and the Rockies will need him in top form against the Red Sox‘s ace, Josh Beckett. How did Francis get to where he is, and what can we expect out of him in the coming games and years?

Jeffrey William Francis was born in Vancouver, British Columbia back in 1981. The lefty attended the University of British Columbia, where he was named a Summer League First-Team All-American starting pitcher in 2001, and then a Small College All-American starting pitcher the following year. Francis also was named the player of the year and top prospect in the Alaska League, and won MVP honors while pitching the Anchorage Glacier Pilots to the National Baseball Congress World Series title.

Liking what they’d seen, the Rox made Francis the ninth overall pick in the 2002 draft, when he was only 21 years old, and he would sign shortly afterwards, leading to an assignment to Low-A Tri-City in the short-season Northwest League:

Year Team            IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
2002 Tri-City(A-)   10.2  13.5   3.4    4.0    0.0    4.2   0.00
2002 Asheville(A)   20.0  10.4   1.8    5.8    0.9    7.2   2.70

Francis’ debut went well, with plenty of strikeouts against only a handful of walks. The Rockies aggressively moved him up through the system, with only a short stint at Low-A Asheville before pushing him to High-A in 2003, although the stop at Asheville would have been longer if he had not been hit in the face by an errant line drive while sitting in the dugout.

Baseball America ranked Francis No.9 in their organizational lists heading into 2003:

Francis has a solid assortment of pitches. He has a low-90s fastball, a slurvy breaking ball that is more slide than curve, and a changeup with the potential to be a plus pitch. He has an easy arm action, above-average command and a good feel for pitching. Most of all, Francis needs to mature physically. With added upper-body strength, he could pitch deeper into games and add velocity. He also must tighten his slurve. Francis returned to the mound during instructional league and showed no after-effects from the injury. He showed enough in his brief time as a pro to earn the right to start in high Class A this year.

Reading Francis’ Baseball Prospectus 2003 comment just made Jeff Francis one of my favorite players:

A physics major, Francis was the Rockies’ first-round pick in the 2002 draft. He had posted an ERA under 1.00 as a sophomore, and faced wooden bats in summer leagues in Alaska, so he was ready to adapt quickly. He already has equivalencies better than most pitchers in their system. He gets ahead quickly, and works with four finished pitches. Big body. Fast track. Think Mulder.

We can only hope that the next time the umpiring crew blows a yellow-padding homer call, Francis pulls out charts and begins to lecture them on the impossibility of what they are claiming.

Year Team           IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
2003 Visalia(A+)  160.2   8.6   2.5    3.4    0.5    7.6   3.71

Francis started off slowly in High-A, but overall that’s an impressive season. What you don’t see there is that in his last 15 starts, Francis had a 1.06 ERA. His strikeout rates were nifty, and he was walking more batters than the year before, but still not many, and hitters were having a tough time getting hits off of him. It’s a great first full professional season, and the next season would go even better.

In response to his success in the hitter-friendly Cal League, Baseball America moved Francis up to the No.3 spot in the organizational rankings:

Francis was the ninth player selected in the 2002 draft, making him the second-highest Canadian selection ever…He struggled to start the season but went 10-1, 1.06 ERA in his final 13 starts, including 15 shutout innings in two playoff wins. Francis has excellent command of a solid fastball. He pitches at 90 mph and figures to add velocity as he builds upper-body strength. His curveball is a plus pitch at times. He has fluid mechanics that allow him to advance quickly…Francis needs more consistency with his curveball. He also is working on his changeup, which will be a critical pitch as he reaches higher levels.

Our own Bryan Smith included Francis in his Top 50 Prospects list over at The Baseball Analysts at No.43:

Here’s my guarantee: you won’t find another prospect ranking in the world that has Jeff Francis in the top fifty but right here…Francis has a big body and is very durable, but needs to refine his pitches before blasting off. I’m very high on Francis, and I expect the Canadian to dominate Double-A in 2004.

Smith followed up on that entry before the season started:

I talked about Francis when I put him in my top 50, and I’ll talk about him again. He is a prospect right now, but underrated by many. I’m under the belief that Francis will be a top ten pitching prospect in baseball next year, he offered the whole package in High-A last year. Francis was 10-1, 1.06 in his last thirteen starts, and is a dominating force on the mound. His future isn’t that bright due to Coors Field, but I expect Francis to be larger than Chin-Hui Tsao at this time next year.

Baseball Prospectus 2004 was also high on Francis, and PECOTA thought he could put out a 4.66 PERA in the big leagues right then and there:

Although there’s some fretting about his stamina, he has good velocity for a lefty, sound mechanics, changes speeds effortlessly, and possesses outstanding command. If any of the young guns in the organization don’t thrive in their spots in the big league rotation-and let’s face it, they’re pitching in Coors, so some won’t-Francis should make his big league debut no later than August.

Francis didn’t disappoint any of the above authors, destroying both Double-A and Triple-A on his way to the major leagues, where he finally slowed down some:

Year Team                 IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9    RA
2004 Tulsa(AA)         113.2   11.6   1.7    6.7    0.7    5.8   2.07
2004 Col. Springs(AAA)  41.0   10.8   1.5    7.0    0.7    7.7   3.51
2004 Colorado(MLB)      36.2    7.9   3.2    2.5    2.0   10.3   5.47

The 23-year-old blew through the high minors during his first trials there, with well above-average peripherals and tough-to-hit stuff, but struggled when he got to the majors. Homers and hits were the issue, but part of that can be blamed on Coors, as well as his inexperience at the major league level. Having rocketed through the system, Francis remained the No.3 prospect in the Rox organization for Baseball America:

…Francis won BA’s Minor League Player of the Year Award last season. He led the Double-A Texas League in ERA, adjusted to thin air at Colorado Springs, and after a rocky start in the majors, won his last three decisions with Colorado. Francis is a power pitcher without power, along the lines of Sid Fernandez. He possesses pinpoint command of his 86-91 mph fastball and creates a deceptive look for hitters, in part because of the extension he gets in his delivery. He also has the best changeup in the system, and his slider is a solid third pitch. As good as his changeup and slider are, Francis has to be careful to not use them too much. He must remember that his success stems from pitching off his fastball…He’s a classic example of a pitcher who’s much better than his radar-gun readings.

Baseball Prospectus 2005

Highly touted, Grade-A prospect. Francis throws hard, has good command and control, big K rates, nothing here not to like. He had a couple of rough outings in his call-up, but even then, his peripheral numbers were very good. He’s ready to be a #1 starter larva in the bigs, but he is facing a serious mountain climb because of the organization he’s in. Looking through the history of the Rockies, one is not exactly overwhelmed with their ability to draft and develop pitchers that lead rotations. Still, he’d been handled well until last year, when the Rockies could have cut him off before 30 starts (over three levels). It’s not as if Francis was the difference between the wild card and an early end to the season.

Year Team             IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9     H/9   BABIP QERA
2005 Colorado(MLB)  183.2   6.3   3.4    1.8    1.3    11.2   .341  5.05

Overall his first full major league season looked like a solid Colorado campaign. He struck out some guys, didn’t walk too many, but gave up a ton of hits and homers. However, his year featured an odd split, one you wouldn’t expect from a Coors starter, which was noted in Baseball Prospectus 2006:

One of the best pitching prospects in the game before the season, Francis’ smooth mechanics and impeccable command were all the rage, but like all before him, he bowed down before the thin air of Colorado. Or did he? Francis has a career 4.61 ERA at Coors, against an ugly 6.38 on the road with equally nasty peripherals to boot; he wasn’t unlucky, he just wasn’t as good away from Colorado. His major league BABIP is a healthy .347 in Coors and .341 on the road; combine that with the natural improvement that’s expected from a young pitcher, and Francis should be better in 2006.

Perhaps pitching in Colorado Springs and coming all the way up through the organization probably helped prepare Francis for the horrors that were Coors Field. His 2006 season looked similar in some regards, but with marked improvement in his hit rate:

Year Team             IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9     H/9   BABIP QERA
2006 Colorado(MLB)  199.0   5.3   3.1    1.7    0.8     8.5   .276  5.02

Since Francis’ peripherals didn’t improve that much outside of his homer rate, his QERA stayed about the same. The drop in hit rate and homer rate was a huge positive for Francis, though with Colorado pitchers you’re never sure how long those trends are going to last. That was a source of worry, noted in Baseball Prospectus 2007:

As in 2005, Francis pitched well at Coors Field (4.05 ERA), but this time around he was equally good on the road (4.30 ERA). Francis saw a marked reduction in BABIP while decreasing his strikeout rate, which raises the question of whether he’ll be able to repeat his 2006 performance. It’s almost certain he’s going to give back some of the progress he made this year.

Francis would indeed give back some of the progress on his hit rate, but he also managed to throw more innings, strand significantly more baserunners, and improve his strikeout and walk rates. Add that all up, and he posted one of the better pitching seasons in Rockies history:

Year Team             IP    K/9  BB/9   K/BB   HR/9    H/9   BABIP QERA
2007 Colorado(MLB)  215.1   6.9   2.6    2.6    1.0    9.8   .321  4.21

His actual ERA was 0.01 away from his QERA, and 0.04 away from his 75th-percentile PECOTA-forecasted PERA, which is both neat and scary. The fact that Francis was able to succeed in spite of the Coors effect on balls in play is a testament to how good a pitcher he really is, and you have to love that he’s been able to reconcile his earlier solid strikeout numbers with his later work in reducing hits on balls in play.

It’s easy to see why Francis has had the success he’s had when you look at his batted-ball data. The big lefty, along with his excellent command and pitching repertoire, has consistently kept his line drive rates below the league averages while forcing guys to pop up on a lot of their flyballs:

Year P/PA    FB%    LD%    GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP   Diff.
2005  3.8   38.4%  23.8%  37.7%  13.4%  11.2%  .341   .358   +.017
2006  3.8   36.4%  18.9%  44.7%  14.0%   7.9%  .276   .309   +.033
2007  3.8   37.2%  18.4%  44.4%   7.2%  10.0%  .321   .304   -.017

He doesn’t give up a significant number of grounders, but the combination of grounders, infield popups, and his low liner rates all combine to make Francis a more effective kind of Coors pitcher. Throw in the Rockies’ excellent defense this year-their rank of seventh in Defensive Efficiency is the highest in franchise history-and it’s easy to see how Francis and some of the other young pitchers have been able to succeed where others could not.

Granted, his 4.21 QERA this year doesn’t peg him in the same class as the guy he’ll be squaring off against on Wednesday night-Josh Beckett posted a 3.12 QERA and 3.27 ERA this year-but he gives the Rockies arguably the best chance of any starter in their history to win night after night, and with that offense and defense behind him, that’s all you can ask for. Starting off with the matchup of the two teams’ young aces, this could turn out to be a World Series we remember, and the Francis starts will more than likely be critical to the Rockies’ success or failure in securing their first World Championship.

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