Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Francoeur not too sure about this OBP thing

Jeff Francoeur is a decent major league hitter. He's not bad, and he's not great either. In three seasons and parts of two others, including this one, Francoeur has hit at a .269/.312/.435 clip with 76 home runs.

He's not very fast; in fact, he's been caught stealing 11 times while stealing only 9 bases -- so he doesn't help in that phase of the game. In right field, he is solid and possesses a very strong arm, so that's a bonus.

But anyway, back to his performance at the plate. Francoeur is strong and can hit the ball to all fields, yet he strikes out too much and doesn't walk enough (0.27 career BB/K ratio), and both obviously contribute to his low on-base percentage.

Unfortunately for the Braves, Francoeur doesn't see anything wrong with his approach at the plate:

For Atlanta outfielder Jeff Francoeur, the search for a more disciplined approach is elusive and the source of occasional torment. Francoeur began this season with loose goals of 80 strikeouts and 50 to 60 walks. But he's always been an aggressive player, and he's wary of becoming too passive in the quest for a higher OBP.

"If on-base percentage is so important, then why don't they put it up on the scoreboard?" Francoeur says.

I'd say that someone has been getting in touch with his inner Joe Morgan.

Not that it really matters, but many stadiums actually do put on-base percentage on the scoreboard now; I've seen it up at Camden Yards and Nationals Park. But again, that's not the point. The point, though, is that getting on base is the most important thing a batter can do. And, for the most part, Francoeur still has to improve at this task.

Jerry Crasnick, who wrote the article linked above, delves into the subject of plate discipline by talking to scouts, baseball executives, and other players. Eventually he gets back to the topic of Francoeur's struggles:

Since his arrival in the majors in 2005, Francoeur has struggled to find an identity. He hit 29 homers in his first full season, but posted a .293 on-base percentage. Then he improved his OBP at the expense of his power. Last year he bulked up with an NFL-style conditioning program in an effort to hit more home runs, and everything unraveled.

One scout called him "the most confused hitter in the game" -- a label that Francoeur doesn't dispute. He's sensitive to the criticism of his free-swinging approach, and at times he's put excessive pressure on himself to remake himself as a hitter.

"People forget that I just turned 25," Francoeur says. "I've been up since I was 21, and a lot of people come up when they're 24 or 25. I have 3.5 years in the big leagues, but I'm still learning how to hit."

Yes, he is still just 25 years old, but his solution is in that first paragraph. In that second full season when Francoeur "improved his OBP at the expense of his power," he actually had the best season of his young career. He posted a career-best .338 OBP, which led to a career-best OPS of .782 (not counting his first half season). And even though he hit 10 fewer home runs (19) than the year before (29), he only lost five points on his slugging percentage because he made more contact, collected more hits, and hit more doubles. He even knocked in two more runs without those extra home runs.

And while he posted a slightly better walk-to-strikeout ratio the next season, he posted career lows in batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage, probably because he did bulk up and tried to hit for more power instead of refining his approach from the previous season.

The good news is that through 25 games so far this season, Francoeur appears to be on the right track. He's hitting .283/.305/.444 with 13 runs, 3 homers, and 17 RBI. But more importantly, he has only struck out 9 times while walking 4 times. He'll probably never be a guy who walks a ton, but if he decreases his strikeouts and makes more contact, he'll be much better at the plate.

There's nothing wrong with being selective at the plate; not everyone can be the next Vladimir Guerrero.

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