Saturday, January 24, 2009

TPC Prospect in Retrospect: Jeff Francoeur

After Jeff Francoeur burst onto the scene a few years back, Braves fans and just about everyone else was convinced he was headed for Super Stardom.  But when Francoeur's stats took a nose dive in 2008, fans found very to like about Frenchy.  Now that Francoeur is headed for arbitration, I decided to start digging around his minor league numbers to see if there were any indicators in his past that might have been overlooked in his rise to stardom and might be able to account for his sudden demise.  In the end, the only conclusion I could come to was that Francoeur has one and only one natural talent at the plate: power.  And while 2008 may have been a horrible year for Frenchy, the best is yet to come.

Before I explain myself, the first thing I want to do is to find some comparables for Francoeur, and here's what I came up with (all numbers are averages from each player's entire minor league career).

(*Dale Murphy skipped AA ball and went straight to AAA ball)

It turns out Francoeur's minor league stats were pretty good, and as a whole his closest comp was Corey Hart, followed by Dale Murphy, who both had similar plate discipline and power production in the minors.  I also added Chipper Jones to the list to illustrate the fact that while guys like Francoeur have similar power potential to hitters like Jones, there are very few similarities otherwise.  As evidence, here are Chipper's stats from his first 7 years in the majors compared to Murphy's first 7 years.

At 23, Jones and Murphy were pretty close in terms of plate discipline, but after that Murphy's strikeout rate and walk rate didn't improve much, while Jones continued to improve for the next several years.  Basically, great hitters like Jones display great discipline at an early age to go along with their power, while guys like Murphy never develop better than average plate discipline.  As one more piece of evidence, here are Jeff Francoeur and Corey Hart's stats from the last several years.

While there's evidence of improvement, neither Murphy, Hart, or Francoeur is anywhere near Jones in terms of plate discipline, and they never will be.  It's just a fact.  Plate discipline is not one of their natural God-given gifts, and no matter how much Francoeur or the Braves try to improve on it, it just isn't going to happen.  That's not to say that they shouldn't try, but everyone involved needs to realize that there's only so much that they can do before it's time to let it go and move on.  Like it or not, in terms of plate discipline, Francoeur is not a great hitter.  

The good news is that Francoeur is improving bit by bit, but the bad news is that even though Francoeur's K% and BB% have improved every year, his OBP and batting average do not reflect the difference. At 24, Francoeur struck out less and walked more than he did at 22, but it was the 100 point drop in his slugging that destroyed his production. Had he slugged somewhere around .450, he probably would have ended the year with an average well over .250 and an OBP of .330 or more.  

Luckily however, the one skill that Francoeur, Hart, and Murphy have in common with hitters like Chipper that is not absolutely dictated by plate discipline is power.  And if there's one skill to be born with, power is definitely one of the more valuable skills.  If we use a guy like Ron Gant as a floor, and Murphy as a ceiling for Francoeur,  I think we can determine a realistic power projection for Francoeur based solely off of his minor league stats. Gant was a year behind Francoeur in terms of age and never quite demonstrated the same power potential as Frenchy, so Gant's 321 career home runs seem like a reasonable baseline. Murphy was about a year ahead of Francoeur, so his minor league power numbers can be adjusted upwards to compensate for the difference. With 398 home runs (couldn't Murphy have hit just 2 more before retiring?), he serves as a reasonable ceiling for Francoeur. So, that puts us somewhere in the 325 to 400 home run range.  

I know a lot of Braves fans are concerned that Frenchy's numbers are just going to get worse, but despite his power dropoff in 2008, I'm certain that Francoeur's power will soon return, and his best years are yet to come. In case you don't believe me, check out Dale Murphy's 1981 season, during which at age 25 he posted a slugging percentage of just .390, down from .510 the year before.  Over the next six years, Muphy posted a slugging percentage greater than .500 fivetimes.   In case that doesn't convince you, take a look at Ron Gant's 1989 season, when as a 24 year old he saw his slugging percentage drop from .439 to .335.  Like Murphy, Gant went on to post a slugging percentage close to or above .500 five times over the next six years.

I'm not guaranteeing that Francoeur will actually perform like Dale Murphy or Ron Gant over the next five or six years.  But consider this: at 24 years of age, Francoeur has a .268 lifetime average, an OPS of .746, and has averaged about 18 home runs per full season, which compares well to Corey Hart's .277 career average, an OPS of .808, and an average of about 22 home runs per full season. Both Hart and Francoeur will no doubt raise those numbers over the next 10 years, and could both end up with career totals similar to Murphy, who retired with a .265 career batting average, with an OPS of .815 while hitting about 28 home runs per season.  Those numbers are very attainable given Francoeur's skill set, and 2008 will probably be remembered as one the worst seasons in his career.

So, what can we expect from Francoeur in 2009?  Below are the projections for Frenchy from CHONE, Bill James, and Marcel:

CHONE: .276 average, .445 slugging, 20 home runs, 93 RBI
Bill James: .272 average, .435 slugging, 16 home runs, 76 RBI
Marcel: .268 average, .417 slugging, 16 home runs, 79 RBI

Those numbers look adequate, but seem to be extremely conservative.  If history is any indicator of the future, I think Francoeur could post the following line in '09:

TPC Jeff Francoeur Projection for 2009:  .285 average, .505 slugging, 27 home runs, 90 RBI
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