It is hard to find a more polarizing figure in baseball than Jeff Francoeur. One group thinks Francoeur is great because he gives 100 percent all of the time, looks great in a uniform, gets a lot of RBIs, has a cannon for an arm, plays like he really loves the game, is a positive influence in the locker room, gives great quotes to the media and brings a hundred other intangibles to the plate.
And there are those of us who acknowledge that Francoeur does indeed have all of the attributes listed above. But this second group also sees that Francoeur makes a ton of outs, needs an abnormally high BABIP to be moderately useful for his position, that outside of his arm he is a mediocre defensive outfielder – and come to the conclusion that he is an overrated player.
This year Francoeur got off to a very good start at the plate. After his first 10 games, he had a .457/.535/.857 line and from a subjective point of view looked like a different hitter at the plate. He looked much more willing to take a pitch and did not have at-bats where it seemed like he made up his mind to swing no matter what.
The pro-Francoeur crowd was living large. An article on Newsday ran with the headline: “Francoeur to Moneyball gurus: How ya like me now?”
Now, I am not a “Moneyball guru” but I am clearly among those who felt that Francoeur was overrated. And as a Mets fan, I was thrilled that he started the year with a 1.392 OPS. Despite what some might think, I much prefer the guys on the team that I root for to do well.
Furthermore, the fact that Francoeur was not making outs is exactly what we wanted all along. Who can argue with a .535 OBP? Some people believed that the anti-Francoeur (for lack of a better phrase) crowd wanted him to fail. On the contrary, this is what we wanted him, and every other player on the team, to do. An .857 SLG with seven walks in 10 games – yes please!
Unfortunately, or inevitably, Francoeur has slumped since then. In his last five games, he is 0-22 with just one walk. The RBI machine has just one run batted in and has left 19 runners on base in that stretch.
It is a slump, something that happens to every batter in baseball, whether the name is Albert Pujols or Jeff Francoeur. The fact that he is mired in a slump is hardly noteworthy. But what is deserving of some further investigation is how it is that Francoeur went from red-hot to ice-cold in the blink of an eye.
In those five games, Francoeur has had 24 plate appearances and has seen 67 pitches, for an average of 2.79 pitches per PA. Overall this season, Francoeur has seen 206 pitches. So, in his first 10 games, he was averaging 3.23 pitches per PA. Not that 3.23 pitches per PA is a lot, but he was swinging at pitches he could drive and laying off ones (as indicated by the abnormally high walk totals) that he could not. Certainly, we can agree that 2.79 pitches per PA is too few, especially for a batter in a slump.
Now, there is no prize to the batter who sees the most pitches. If a pitcher grooves a first-pitch fastball down Broadway, the batter should hack away. The whole point of taking pitches is to get a pitch you like and to turn on it. But rarely is the best pitch to hit the first one thrown by the pitcher.
One of the by-products of taking pitches is walks. Note the phrase “by-product” and not “goal.” The goal is to get a pitch you can drive for extra bases. In the first 10 games, Francoeur was doing both. He was driving the ball for extra bases (7 in 35 ABs) and drawing walks (7). In the last five games he has zero extra-base hits and one walk.
So after 15 games, Francoeur has had an extended hot streak followed up with a sizeable cold streak. The overall results are a .281/.358/.526 line. I would be thrilled if Francoeur ended the season with those numbers. Last year with the Mets, his AVG was 30 points higher, but his OBP was 20 points lower and his SLG was 28 points lower.
It almost seems like we are at a fork in the road for Francoeur. Is he going to embark on the path where he takes more pitches and winds up with extra-base hits and walks? Or will he choose the road where he swings at everything, and maybe puts up a pretty AVG if the hits fall in (like ’09 with the Mets when he had a .336 BABIP and a .311 AVG) but comes up short in the categories of OBP and SLG, which is what really helps win games?
As first and foremost a Mets fan, I want the answer to be the first path. As someone who has watched him since he first came to the majors, that is not the one I expect him to end up taking.