This is Alex Stumpf’s fifth piece as part of his May residency at FanGraphs. Stumpf covers the Pirates and also Duquesne basketball for The Point of Pittsburgh. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read the work of previous residents here.
On the whole, the Phillies’ offense appears to be taking a big step forward in 2017. Entering play Sunday, their combined wRC+ was 14 points higher than it was the previous year and the highest it’s been since 2011. The team’s batting average, slugging, and on-base percentages are all up, putting them on pace to score 113 more runs than last season.
But they’ve been doing it without much help from Maikel Franco.
After a strong rookie campaign and then slump in his sophomore season, Franco has taken another step back in 2017. His wRC+ has dropped from 129 two years ago to 74 today — the second lowest out of Philadelphia’s regulars and 25th out of 27 qualified third basemen.
The results he’s had don’t reflect the positive steps he’s taken this season, however. He vowed at the end of last year to be more patient at the plate. So far he says he’s done that, which is why his walk rate has crept up and his strikeout rate is going down. He is able to get those better numbers because is he is chasing out of the zone a lot less, dropping his chase percentage 7.2 points from a year ago. According to PITCHf/x, he was swinging at 26.5% out of the zone entering play Sunday. And while his output is down, his average exit velocity is holding steady with last year, which is still up from 2015.
Getting a couple breaks to raise his .222 BABIP average would help, too, but he isn’t worried about that at the moment. “I have to not think about that stuff,” Franco said. “…I have to do everything that I can control.”
But the good has been outweighed by one major problem. If you’ve seen the title of this post, you probably know what that problem is: he’s struggling against the slider.
According to Baseball Savant, of the 145 sliders he faced before Sunday’s game, 23 were whiffs. The PITCHf/x values paint a more pessimistic view. In 2015, he was 2.2 runs above average against the slider. Last season, he was worth 0.2 runs. In his first 39 games played, that mark stood at -8.7. That’s the lowest value of any qualified batter against the pitch. It’s the lowest value of any qualified batter against any pitch, actually. His closest competition for sliders is Tim Anderson (-5.5) — and Melky Cabrera and Adam Duvall in general (both -6.9 on fastballs).
He’s a combined 2.8 runs above average on every other pitch, but he is predictably seeing a lot more snappers — just about one out of every four pitches. It’s a flaw worth exploiting, like what happened in Pittsburgh on Sunday. With the game-tying run on base in the seventh inning, the Pirates brought in Juan Nicasio to feed him sliders. He laid off the first three — all balls — but popped up the fourth.
But things are finally starting to look like Franco is turning a corner. He’s currently working on an eight-game hitting streak, over the course of which he’s batting .300, having clubbed three doubles and a home run along the way. Two of those hits even came from sliders: a single on May 17 and a double May 21.
This hot streak is coming on the heels of having been benched for a couple days and also dropped in the order. In that time he took his own advice and focused on what he could control. Mechanically, he lowered his hands after hitting coach Matt Stairs said they were too close to his face. Stairs also said his hands were too high above his head, but now he expects Franco to attack the ball at a better angle and get through the zone quicker.
Stairs is hopeful that, like the other Phillies who lowered their hands — Aaron Altherr and Tommy Joseph — the new positioning would show results within the first month. One week in, the first-year coach has observed improvement from Franco both in batting practice and during games.
There was also a mental adjustment: stop trying to do too much.
“I told him, ‘If you don’t have your home-run swing or you can’t hit a home run, then don’t try to hit a home run,’” Stairs said. “Just try to hit the ball hard up the middle.”
While Franco is pulling the ball at the lowest rate since his brief cameo in 2014, most of those redirected batted balls are going to right instead of center. Again, Stairs views that as trying to force too much. He doesn’t want Franco to be an opposite-field hitter, but instead just to aim for the gaps. It’s a simple approach, but that’s the goal when trying to simplify.
Franco’s home run this past week — which was off a curve, another pitch against which Franco has recorded a negative value — was to center. That same night he hit a 405-foot sacrifice fly that was center cut. His two hits against sliders last week were also up the middle. All four at-bats got Stairs’ seal of approval. It’s a start.
Franco’s job in the lineup appears to be safe for the foreseeable future since the Phillies are still rebuilding. They are doing better offensively even though the team is not trying to force their player’s development.
Franco just needs to keep doing the same.