Not long ago, we had a little company trip to New York, and while we were there we swung through the MLBAM offices. As part of that visit, we had a chance to go on the Statcast Podcast with Mike Petriello and Matt Meyers. At one point, in talking with them, I blurted out Jeff Francoeur as a player comp for Yasiel Puig. I hadn’t thought about it much, in the way I usually don’t think about the things I’m saying out loud too much, but I remember a weird and uncomfortable silence. It hasn’t been a great season for Puig, and we all know what Francoeur became. The link between the two isn’t something one should want to face.
But let’s face it, and let’s face it together! When I mentioned Francoeur, I didn’t really know the statistics. Now I’ve gone to the trouble of pulling up the statistics, so what follows is a quiz, I guess. You’ll be presented with 12 prompts, each of which cites one statistic. And you’re asked to pick which player is responsible for the statistic: this year’s Yasiel Puig, or Jeff Francoeur in his 20s. (Francoeur played in his 20s between 2005 and 2013.) There are no benefits to a right answer, and there are no consequences to a wrong answer. There are only numbers and answers. Truth is its own benefit, or consequence.
Godspeed and good luck and I’m sorry?
This wouldn’t be any fun without an answer key. So:
(1) The correct answer is Francoeur. Francoeur is responsible for the 89 wRC+. Puig is sitting at 82.
(2) The correct answer is Francoeur. Francoeur is responsible for the .297 BABIP. Puig is sitting at .294.
(3) The correct answer is Puig. Puig is responsible for the 4.15% unintentional walk rate. Francoeur sat at 4.11%.
(4) The correct answer is Puig. Puig is responsible for the 21.2% strikeout rate. Francoeur sat at 18.4%. That’s a difference of just about three percentage points. Of course, the league-average strikeout rate now is higher than it was when Francoeur was in his 20s, by just about three percentage points.
(5) The correct answer is Puig. Puig is responsible for the 10.0% HR/FB rate. Francoeur sat at 9.8%.
(6) The correct answer is Francoeur. Francoeur is responsible for the 1.1 grounder/fly-ball ratio. Puig is sitting at 1.2.
(7) The correct answer is Puig. Puig has a difference between his hard-hit rate and his soft-hit rate of 12.6%. Francoeur sat at 10.8%.
(8) The correct answer is Francoeur. Francoeur is responsible for the 56.9% swing rate. Puig is sitting at 55.5%.
(9) The correct answer is Puig. Puig has a difference between his in-zone swing rate and out-of-zone swing rate of 40.9%. Francoeur sat at 40.2%.
(10) The correct answer is Puig. Puig has put 32.1% of all strikes in play. Francoeur sat at 32.0%.
(11) The correct answer is Francoeur. Francoeur is responsible for the 43.5% first-pitch-swing rate. Puig is sitting at 47.5%.
(12) The correct answer is Francoeur. Francoeur is responsible for the +4.7 UZR/150 in right field. Puig is sitting at +15.4.
That last one is the difference, basically. That last one is why Puig is on pace for a WAR/600 of 1.4, while Francoeur in his 20s averaged a WAR/600 mark of 0.7. Neither player, statistically, is much of a hitter, but while Puig gets a very slight edge on the bases, it’s the defense that sets him apart. It’s the defense that’s kept Puig playable, and the Dodgers have been thrilled with his work in the outfield. Of course, he’s probably not quite this good, if you want to talk about his true-talent ability, but anyway. And as long as we’re on the subject of parallels:
Puig’s throwing arm is absurdly strong. We can confirm that with some Statcast data. There was no such thing as Statcast data when Francoeur was a younger player, but we know his arm was fantastic. We know that just from observation, we know that from his league-leading UZR Arm rating, and we know that from the Fan Scouting Report. Through 2013, the fans gave two outfielders 90 ratings for arm strength: Francoeur and Bryce Harper. And Francoeur got the edge in perceived arm accuracy. Puig seems better than Francoeur at actually tracking balls down, but Francoeur’s arm was virtually peerless. Puig’s arm is presumably no better.
All of which is to say: It’s eerie how similar this year’s Puig is to a younger Jeff Francoeur. I’m not the first to want to draw the link, but this is the first time the numbers have really lined up. Puig arrived with considerable hype. Francoeur arrived with considerable hype. Both were effective rookies, but Francoeur started to struggle as a sophomore. Puig was excellent as a sophomore, and even last season, he was above-average. Now his numbers have dipped significantly, with his walks cut in half and his power mostly absent. It’s still in there, but it was in there for Francoeur, too. Good hitters are able to tap into it. That’s one of the differences between a good player and a skilled player.
Specifically because of Puig’s track record, I don’t think we should assume this is what he is, now. He deserves more time to come out of this, because he is terrifically gifted. That being said, Jeff Francoeur was also terrifically gifted, in many similar ways. He and Puig have employed a similar approach, and Francoeur’s productivity with it was unsustainable. I’m not sure what Puig’s future holds, but it’s pretty obvious one way he could go.
It is too soon to say Yasiel Puig is another Jeff Francoeur. It’s not too soon to say Yasiel Puig, this year, has looked like another Jeff Francoeur. And, you know, it’s 2016, and Francoeur is still playing. There are worse careers to have. But the Dodgers are largely depending on Puig making the necessary adjustments so he can leave this level behind. Everybody in baseball loves Francoeur, but they wouldn’t wish for that career path. Yasiel Puig needs to pick the path he wants to follow. And I’m going to hazard a guess he doesn’t get the Jeff Francoeur clubhouse bump.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.