Phillies’ Franco Powerful, Surprisingly Polished

maikel franco phillies

It can’t get much uglier for the 2015 Philadelphia Phillies. The Phightins carry an MLB-worst 25-47 record into play on Tuesday, and judging by their run differential (-119), they’re actually lucky to have that many W’s. The empire that produced five straight NL East titles and a 2008 World Series trophy has long since decayed. Aside from ace Cole Hamels, holdovers from those glory days — Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard — are reminders that flags fly forever, but careers are ephemeral.

At least the Phillies’ long-maligned farm system is finally showing a pulse. Since being recalled from Triple-A Lehigh Valley in Mid-May, third baseman Maikel Franco has done his best Adrian Beltre impression. In 145 plate appearances, Franco is batting .294, getting on base at a .338 clip, and slugging .522. With a 135 OPS+, Franco ranks sixth among players at his position and is they only Phillie except for Ryan Howard to post an above-average offensive line. Perhaps most promisingly, the typically free-swinging 22-year-old is taking a decidedly veteran approach to the plate.

Few have ever doubted Franco’s power potential. The 6-foot-1, 215 pound righty batter swatted a combined 31 home runs and slugged .569 between High-A and Double-A in 2013, earning him top-30 prospect honors from prior to last season. But in 2014, Franco’s lack of plate discipline started to look like a potentially fatal flaw. He posted a .299 OBP at Triple-A and got carved up in his first MLB action (.179/.190/.214 in 58 plate appearances), thanks in large part to a gargantuan strike zone (Franco swung at 38% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, compared to the 29% MLB average).

In 2015, though, Franco is taking smarter hacks. While he’s still not drawing lots of walks (5.3% of his plate appearances at Triple-A, 5.5% in the majors), that’s mostly because he’s working himself into favorable counts and doing damage before he reaches ball four. Franco has cut his chase rate to 29% this year, while slightly increasing his swing rate versus in-zone pitches (66% in 2014, 68% in 2015). In particular, he’s doing a much better job of laying off curveballs (47% chase rate in 2014, 30% in ’15) and changeups (40% in ’14, 27% in ’15).

Franco’s swing rate by pitch location, 2014

Franco’s swing rate by pitch location, 2015

Franco’s two homer performance against the Yankees last night was a prime example of his new-found offensive maturity. In the first inning, Franco took a first-pitch, front-door slider from Michael Pineda that was below the knees before hammering a middle-of-the-plate cutter over the left-center field fence later in the at-bat. In the sixth frame vs. Chris Capuano, he kept the bat on his shoulder against a borderline changeup, an errant slider, and an even wilder changeup and then mashed a middle-in, 3-0 sinker to left-center. Last season, Franco might have gotten himself out before he ever had the chance to take advantage of a pitcher missing his spot within the strike zone. It’s going to be a long march back to mediocrity, much less contention for the Phillies, but a more polished Franco looks capable of leading that journey.