It’s always frustrating watching a spring training darling smack headlong into reality when the regular season starts. Last year, it was Kyle Kendrick, who spent February and March under the tutelage of Roy Halladay, honing his sinker, adding a pitch (supposedly), and growing a beard that was, frankly, a fringy Major League offering. We know how that turned out. Kendrick posted another poor set of peripherals, turning out 180 and 2/3rds innings of 88 ERA+ performance (recall that 100 is league average). The curtain was lifted, the hype swept away, and he was still the same Kyle Kendrick. Fortunately for him, that’s enough to earn over $2 million in arbitration, and high leverage duties in Charlie Manuel’s bullpen, but that’s another story.
This year, the candidate for this brand of disappointment seems to be Ben Francisco. Ben was regarded as a solid throw-in to the 2009 trade that brought Cliff Lee to the Phillies, but he hadn’t exactly blown anyone away in his first four seasons. From 2007-2010, he hit .263/.329/.446, good for a 105 OPS+ and wRC+. Both numbers indicate he was about league average over that period. This would be fine if Francisco were a center fielder, but his glove doesn’t hold up at that position. Ben is restricted either to left or right field, and from a corner outfielder, you want more offense than that; the league OPS+ at the right and left field positions in 2010 was 115 and 111, respectively, and that’s the average. This is all a long way of saying that Francisco is, at best, a 4th outfielder. With Jayson Werth (who posted a 145 OPS+ in 2010) departing for the Nationals, and Domonic Brown sidelined indefinitely by a fractured hamate bone in early March, the bottom line was that the Phillies needed more out of Francisco than they could possibly get.
As they often do, the gears of media hype and spring hopefulness ground away to fill the gap. Francisco did have a great spring, hitting .361/.439/.667 in 72 at bats. It so happens, though, that he always has great springs — he hasn’t posted a spring OPS below .900 since 2007. And I don’t have to recount all of the usual reasons why spring training performances should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, by and large, his production escaped the usual skepticism that should be applied to spring training results. Particularly when Francisco got off to a blazing start in the first ten games of the regular season, hitting .308/.386/.513, a lot of fans and writers were unable to properly manage expectations for Francisco.
Now, 49 games into the 2011 season, the results are disappointing, even for those who expected no great improvement from Francisco. He’s hitting .215/.325/.375, good for a 93 OPS+, and only the recent return of Domonic Brown has eased the fears that Ben’s struggles will be representative of the Phillies’ offense as a whole. Under the surface, though, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, as long as you don’t hold him to his spring training standards. For one thing, he is striking out less, and walking more, at least at the moment. He is striking out in 13.5% of his plate appearances, compared to a career mark of 17.7% (17.8% in 2010). His 11.2% walk rate is up about 4 points from last year, and 3 points above his career rate. Strikeout and walk rate for hitters stabilize at about 150 plate appearances and 200 plate appearances respectively. Francisco has accrued 170 plate appearances in 2011, so it’s starting to get to the point where we can legitimately wonder whether he has made a sustainable improvement in his plate discipline.
More noticeably, though, Francisco is having a lot of rotten luck with his batted ball outcomes. His BABIP sits at .216 currently. Hitters, of course, have a lot more control over their BABIP than pitchers, so this doesn’t necessarily indicate that luck is to blame. But .216 is a huge departure from his .287 career BABIP, and his batted ball profile has not diverged substantially from his career figures — his line drive rate, for example, exactly matches his career mark. In fact, when you break his BABIP down by batted ball type, the source of his misfortune becomes obvious. Francisco’s success on ground balls and flyballs is commensurate with the league average values. On line drives, though, he has just a .909 OPS, compared to a league mark of 1.696. This is entirely attributable to his .455 BABIP on line drives. Only 45.5% of Francisco’s hardest hit balls are falling for hits, which is well out of line with both league averages and his own career figures. Check out this graph:
I’ve included league figures for years prior to the start of Francisco’s career just to illustrate how stable line drive BABIP is. This should make sense; the only real way to make an out on a line drive is to hit it directly at (or within a few steps of) a fielder. You can generally expect around 72% of them to become hits, and this goes for slugger and Bruntlett alike, from year to year. Ben’s 2011 is clearly anomalous. His line drives (and he’s hitting a decent amount of them) will not continue to be outs 54.5% of the time. Over his next 200-300 plate appearances, or however many he manages to log this season, his line drives will find the grass the usual 70% or more of the time, and his line drive OPS will recover to something resembling normal. This will combine with his plate discipline improvements (if he can sustain them) to do wonders for his on-base average and slugging percentage.
It’s important to stress, though, that while he’s better than his current .700 OPS, he will not recover to anything much better than what he always has been — about a league average hitter. Then again, he’s been a league average hitter from 2007-2010. In 2011, the standards for “average,” at least thus far, have relaxed a bit. The league OPS sits at .707, which is the lowest it has been since 1992. If this trend persists, perhaps Francisco’s value, at least relative to the rest of the league, could be on the rise. The uptick in walk rate may allow his on-base percentage to creep closer to .340 (his career figure is .329), which would be helpful in a lineup that is currently making quite a lot of outs.
All of this makes him a very useful fourth outfielder, much more so than John Mayberry Jr., who has compiled an 88 OPS+ over 93 plate appearances with much better luck than Francisco has had. The “fourth” bit there is important, because, as I’ve written, there is no reason for any of Francisco, Mayberry Jr., or Gload to be taking away plate appearances from Domonic Brown. Francisco probably merits consideration as a platoon partner for Raul Ibanez, but that won’t happen so long as Ibanez continues his present hot streak (which he likely will not; even so, it’s clear that it would take a lot for him to lose his starting job). With Brown and Utley returned to the lineup, the Phillies’ offense will likely make some progress in moving up the OPS and runs per game leaderboards, hopefully taking some pressure off of the pitching staff (though they’ve been more than up to the task), and taking the spotlight off of Francisco. Ben’s luck is bound to improve, and he will be able to stake his claim on the Phillies roster as more-than-adequate bench bat.
* A particularly observant reader might note that I’ve ripped off Bill Baer’s graph format of choice. I’m no Crossing Broad, so I just want to note that it is one of the best options offered by Excel for displaying the maximum amount of data, and yes, its usefulness did occur to me while reading Crashburn Alley.