Joc Pederson and Kris Bryant are ahead of the pack when it comes to the National League Rookie of the year race, but perhaps lost among many other intriguing promotions, Maikel Franco is having himself a solid rookie season in Philadelphia. Franco has been up just over a month and received 150 plate appearances, but he has already hit nine home runs after two more cleared the fences against the Yankees last night. The 22-year-old does come with some questions, particularly with regard to his plate discipline, but his power is clearly major league-ready. His line on the season is an impressive .312/.353/.574 with a 154 wRC+ that outpaces Bryant thus far, and he provides some hope for the future in a dismal season for the Phillies.
Franco signed out of the Dominican Republic for $100,000 in 2010 without a lot of bulk, but he has beefed up considerably since that time and made a power bat his ticket to the majors. He was noticed as a prospect in 2013 when the 20-year-old Franco tore up High-A and Double-A pitching, hitting 31 home runs with an on-base percentage above .350 despite taking very few walks. Baseball America put Franco at No. 17 on its prospect list entering 2014. Franco was young for the level and struggled with the transition to Triple-A hitting just .209/.267/.318 the first three months of the season before posting excellent numbers in July and August and earning a promotion to Philadelphia in September.
With Ryan Howard entrenched at first base and Cody Asche getting the starting job at third base, Franco was without a position on the major league team to start the season. FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections for Franco were modest, expecting a .252/.283/.429 season, roughly equivalent offensive numbers to Howard. After Asche struggled to begin the season and a month had passed, guaranteeing another season of control before free agency for Franco, the Phillies called up the 22-year-old and demoted Asche.
Since his call-up, Franco has continued to reinforce his minor league profile. The Phillies third baseman hits for power without striking out, but also draws very few walks. Franco’s 25% HR/FB rate is high as only Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Abreu exceeded that number over the course of the 2014 season, although Ryan Howard has exceeded 30% in four seasons playing in the same home park. Franco does not send the ball the other way very often, but has managed to hit more than one-third of his batted balls to the middle of the field.
Franco is known as a free-swinger, but his 31.4% swing rate on pitches out of the zone is essentially average as is 48% swing rate overall. Franco makes contact on 80% of his swings, and as might be expected from a player with his reputation, Franco is seeing just 44% of pitches in the strike zone, a bit below the 48% league average. Pitchers are choosing to go low in the zone to Franco as seen in his zone profile from Brooks Baseball.
Like most hitters, Franco does the most damage when the ball is in the middle of the plate, but even against Aroldis Chapman, Franco can get to the low ball and do some damage.
Despite the strong start, some skepticism is justified given Franco’s lack of walks. In Kiley McDaniel’s write-up on Phillies prospects before the season began, he noted the questions that come with Franco’s approach, but felt strongly enough about Franco to rank him the No. 38 prospect in baseball.
Franco’s raw power is plus and should play up in Philly’s stadium, but Franco;s ultimate projection comes down to what kind of hitter he wants to be. Franco has the plus bat control and bat speed to square up a lot of pitches and he hasn’t struck out in over 15% of his plate appearances at any full-season level. That said, his plate discipline is a little suspect and his swing can get out of control at times. There’s always a question as to whether this type of hitter will just keep succeeding in the big leagues or be forced to make some adjustments when reaching for that curveball turns from a bloop hit into a swinging strikeout a couple too many times. The tools are here for a 50+ bat with 60 game power, which would fit everyday at third base or first base.
The impatient power hitter who does not strike out or draw walks is somewhat rare at the major league level, but it is not completely unique. Looking across current leaderboards, we see veterans like Adam Jones and young players like Nolan Arenado and Kolten Wong succeeding in the same way. Adrian Beltre has made a career out of hitting like Franco did in the minors. While Franco will never be confused with Beltre in the field, and despite Beltre going through some ups and downs offensively in his career, Franco can look to Beltre’s overall body of work as a hitter as an example of success with an aggressive, powerful approach.
Looking back at rookie seasons from the last 20 years, we can see how unique Franco’s approach is at the major league level. Franco’s current walk rate is at just over 5% and his strikeout rate is at just under 15% to go along with a .262 ISO, but using his projections for the rest of the season can provide a slightly better idea of where Franco is likely to end up as the season moves along. The rest of the season projections show a slight drop in walk rate, a small increase in strikeout rate and expect the ISO to drop just a bit below .200 going forward.
Using Fangraphs Leaderboards and filtering rookie seasons with at least a .200 ISO and a strikeout rate below 17%, we find several really good seasons, but players like Albert Pujols, James Loney, and Carlos Santana all walked more than Franco. Adding a filter to find players with a walk rate lower than 6%, the only player with even 200 plate appearances that meets that criteria is David Wright’s 2004 season and he showed considerably more patience in every season after his rookie year. The last player to qualify for the batting title and put up those numbers was Nomar Garciaparra in his excellent 1997 rookie season.
Maikel Franco is already the Phillies best hitter, and depending on the uniform Cole Hamels wears in another month, he might soon be the team’s best player. He trails Pederson and Bryant for Rookie of the Year, but he is younger than both players and his rookie season should not be overlooked amidst a poor season in Philadelphia. Franco’s approach is not one that a lot of players have success with in the majors, but Adrian Beltre and Adam Jones have shown that players can be very productive offensively with an impatient power bat as long as they can make contact.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.