About three weeks ago, I asked how you felt about Frank Francisco. The comments ranged from “CRINGE” to “nervous” to “HORRIBLE.” Since then he’s pitched in eight games, has an 0-2 record with 5 Saves and an 8.10 ERA. Yet I actually feel better about Francisco now then I did when I wrote the earlier piece.
Francisco allowed runs in each of his first three outings after the first article and allowed 6 ER in 1.2 IP. That three-game stretch saw bad pitching, poor luck ( a .700 BABIP) and shoddy umpiring. Francisco was criticized for his reactions to bad ball/strike calls but the bottom line is that they were, indeed, bad calls that contributed to his poor pitching. The result was a predictably ugly 32.40 ERA. I think it is fair to say that Francisco was hanging by a thread at that point in his role as the team’s closer.
But then lady luck smiled on Francisco in a rather odd way. The Mets went five games in a row without needing their closer to come on and finish the game. Francisco got in one game in that stretch and pitched a scoreless ninth inning in a 9-4 win after having two days off. After two more off days, Francisco got his first save chance and it came against his former team, the Blue Jays.
The Mets had lost the first two games in the Interleague series against Toronto but jumped out to a 6-2 lead in the final game. The Blue Jays chipped away with one run in the seventh and two runs in the eighth, setting up Francisco to enter the ninth with a one-run lead.
Things looked bleak, both for the Mets and Francisco, when he allowed the first two runners to reach base. But Francisco proceeded to strike out the side, including a lefty (his own personal Kryptonite) for the final out.
In a season where at least half of the expected closers in MLB have lost their job, either through injury or ineffectiveness, no one would have blamed Terry Collins for yanking Francisco from the role after his ugly three-game stretch. No one would have blamed Collins if he came out with the hook after Francisco opened up the ninth against the Blue Jays by allowing two baserunners and with the cleanup hitter coming to the plate. But Collins displayed patience and looks brilliant for having done so.
Starting with Toronto’s number-four hitter, Francisco has faced 12 batters, has not allowed a runner to reach base and has six strikeouts. Even more impressive is that seven of the 12 batters he squared off against were lefties. Before the streak started, LHB had a .361 AVG versus Francisco, with seven of their 13 hits going for extra bases, including three triples.
Last year was the first time in his career that Francisco had trouble with lefties. In 133 PA last year, LHB posted a .292/.361/.458 line against him. That .819 OPS was 88 points higher than lefties had hit against him in any other season in his career. And his previous high came during his rookie season in 2004. Part of it could be explained by a .349 BABIP and the rest could be explained by 5 HR in 120 ABs. In the previous five seasons, Francisco had allowed 5 HR to LHB in 400 ABs.
Last year was Francisco’s first year with the Blue Jays and six of the seven home runs he allowed came in his home ballpark. Toronto pitchers allowed 95 HR in the Rogers Centre last year and it was reasonable to think that not only was it a good-hitters’ park but that it was particularly ill-suited to Francisco. Remove him from Toronto and hopefully the homers would go down. And with some better fortune with BABIP, perhaps the trouble against lefties would disappear.
But instead Francisco got off to a horrible start against the batters who plagued him last year. Before his recent hot streak, LHB had a .423 BABIP with 2 HR in 36 ABs against Francisco in 2012. Now, the BABIP is down to .333 but the OPS still stands at .997 versus lefties. Recall that last year Francisco established a career high with an .819 OPS allowed to LHB.
So, do you think that Francisco is going to establish a personal-worst in OPS allowed to lefties in back-to-back years, breaking last year’s record by 178 points? Or do you think regression will continue to happen and that Francisco will deliver more of what he has in the past four games? Put me in the latter camp.
It should also be noted that despite some terrible numbers over the first six weeks of the season, Francisco has converted 13 of his 15 save chances, an 87% conversion rate. When the Mets traded Francisco Rodriguez last year, he saved 23 of 26 games for an 88% conversion rate. Sandy Alderson viewed the troubles of the bullpen after the Rodriguez deal last year as one of the biggest weak spots for the team.
If Francisco, during a poor stretch, is 99 percent as good as Rodriguez – and replacing Rodriguez was one of the key goals for Alderson during the offseason – shouldn’t we consider his signing an unqualified success to this point? Especially since he is making less than half of what Rodriguez did last year?
Of course, managing for saves is most likely not the best way to run a bullpen. But the reality is that’s how the game is played in 2012, and it shows no signs of changing in the immediate future, either. Francisco was signed to get outs in the ninth inning and preserve the win. And despite some shaky numbers overall up until this point, he has been very good at that particular job.
Plus, I believe there’s good reason to expect Francisco’s numbers to improve over the rest of the season. I expect his numbers against LHB to continue to go down the rest of the season. There’s no reason to expect an OPS near 1.000 for Francisco in any split. And we haven’t even touched on his .407 BABIP to RHB, another number that should significantly regress going forward.
The bottom line is I’m glad that Francisco is the Mets’ closer. And I think Collins deserves credit for sticking with Francisco when things got hairy earlier in May. Managers all around are panicking and removing their closer at the first sign of trouble. Dusty Baker pulled his closer despite a 6.0 K/BB ratio. The overwhelming majority of closers are going to blow games during the season. It’s no fun ever, especially when the blown saves are bunched together. But Collins remained calm and hopefully Francisco will reward him with continued strong pitching the rest of the season.