The 2017 season was not supposed to be a successful one for the Philadelphia Phillies, at least in terms of the NL East standings. As a rebuilding team, the Phillies are to measure success or failure by the development, or lack thereof, of players who could potentially become core members of their next contending team. On that front, the results thus far have been mixed. Phillies fans have seen Cesar Hernandez continue his strong 2016 into the current year, and they’ve witnessed Aaron Altherr ascend from relatively unexemplary fifth outfielder to regular cleanup hitter. On the other hand, a number of key Phillies have scuffled terribly this season, but none more so, at least from the hitter’s side, than third baseman Maikel Franco.
As the Phillies’ slow and painful descent from 2008 glory was reaching its nadir in the early-to-mid 2010s, Franco was often touted as the Phillies prospect who’d become the first player to reach the majors of the next contending Phillies team. MLB.com ranked him in 2014 as the fourth-best third base prospect leaguewide, and second-best Phillies prospect (although prospect rankings should be taken with a grain of salt; Jesse Biddle, now a Braves Double-A pitcher, was ranked first). Franco’s rookie season, though, was more than strong enough to justify his high ranking, as he hit for 14 home runs, an .840 OPS, and a 129 wRC+. When the Phillies’ third baseman took a notable step back last season, dropping over a hundred points in OPS and nearly forty points in wRC+, fans and media members became concerned that Franco’s 2016, rather than 2015, reflected his true talent. As many noted, at the end of the last season the Phillies still didn’t know whether Franco was a player the team could build around.
Now, ten weeks into the 2017 season, Franco’s struggles at the plate have led many to doubt the third baseman’s potential as a legitimate “building block.” Some have even suggested that the 24 year-old isn’t even cut out to be a starter at the major league level; one Philadelphia Daily News writer recently proposed sending Franco down for a spell in Lehigh Valley until he refines his approach. Through June 7, Franco has slashed just .215/.269/.355 with a wRC+ of 63, and his -0.4 WAR ties him for eighth worst in the majors.
As a Phillies fan who regularly watches the team, it’s not difficult to subscribe to the pessimism of the aforementioned Daily News article. Fortunately, however, there’s more than enough reason for optimism, instead – Franco’s true performance far surpasses the dreadful performance his statistics suggest. Perhaps most importantly, even though his numbers don’t currently reflect it, Franco’s been making some of the best contact of his career. His 32% hard-hit percentage is his best of any year since reaching the majors, and is 3.5% above his hard-hit rate during his impressive rookie season. Likewise, his 17.4% soft-hit percentage is lower than his 2015 rate by approximately the same amount. In addition, Franco’s bloated xwOBA-wOBA statistic of 0.056 (0.330-0.274), as well as his .218 BABIP, further confirm that much of his disappointing performance has simply been due to bad luck, although his 30-grade speed certainly isn’t doing him any favors. He hasn’t been running a particularly high K% or low BB%, either – in fact, Franco’s strikeout and walk rates, 14.2% and 6.8%, respectively – have never been better. To be fair, none of Franco’s above statistics are considered “elite” – or are even all that impressive, for that matter – but they do place Franco somewhere in the middle of the pack of major league hitters, which should certainly put to bed any notion of Franco requiring a demotion to the minors.
If the last ten weeks reflects Maikel Franco’s current true status as a hitter, I’d have to imagine the Phillies would be satisfied, albeit a bit underwhelmed, with their third baseman. A .330 wOBA is nothing to write home about, but Franco is still just 24, and he isn’t blocking any up-and-coming prospects, so the team has more than enough time to tinker with his swing, and to wait out his ongoing streak of bad luck. If they choose to do so, who knows, maybe the Phillies will eventually find they have their building block after all.