In “Ask Bill” this week — always a great read — someone asks Bill James if it is true that the breaks even out in baseball. This is something people around baseball say all the time — that for every screaming line drive that is caught, there’s a blooper that lands between three fielders, for every home run stolen by a leaping center fielder, there’s is a gust of wind that blows an otherwise routine fly ball just over the wall. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
“Well, of course it is not true,” Bill James answers.
Well, of course not. So much of the narrative in sports takes on our own hopes and daydreams and what we wish would be true. We want, so many of us, to think that a player can get a hit in a key situation through sheer will. We want to believe, many of us, that a winning play does not only reflect talent and practice and fortune but also a deeper resolve. We want to believe, many of us, that the team with character will carry the day, and the team with jerks will lose in the end, and that, like in the movies, the good guy gets the girl and the money to save the orphanage somehow surfaces.
Well, of course it’s not true.
In the end, the Kansas City Royals HAD to designate Jeff Francoeur for assignment like they did on Saturday. That ending was written three years ago. The only question was when it would happen.
Jeff Francoeur is one of the greatest guys in baseball. Everybody thinks so. He’s always smiling. He’s always friendly. On the field, he always tries. Lord, he tries. Runs out those grounders. Throws home with gusto. Off the field he’s always doing something cool like signing an autograph or chatting up a kid or appearing at a charity event or helping a teammate or talking to a young reporter who was nervously looking for someone to talk with. When you’re a kid, you might imagine how you would act as a big league ballplayer — and you would probably be imagining the life of Jeff Francoeur.
Well, you probably would imagine yourself a better hitter — which is the real life part of the story. Jeff Francoeur is not a good enough hitter to be an every day player in the major leagues. This has been obvious for at least five years, maybe longer. He has too long a swing, and he cannot recognize pitches well enough, and pitchers have him figured out, and — though he’s 6-food-4 and more than 210 pounds — the ball does not jump off his bat. He has worked at it and worked at it — reshaping his swing, reshaping it again, studying film, getting into better shape, getting into better shape still — but as a friend of mine once said, a toaster is a toaster, no matter how many adjustments you make it can’t fix your car.
I didn’t understand what he meant by that either.
Oh, Francoeur has weeks of brilliance. That was what got him noticed in the first place. He came up at 21 and for a month nobody could get him out. He hit .432 with eight homers in that first month — his first 23 games. He was a phenomenon. “Can anyone be this good?” the regrettable Sports Illustrated cover asked. Of course the answer was no — even in that first month, there were bad signs. For instance, he did not walk even a single time in that first month. But nobody was looking for bad signs. Here was a likable Georgia kid crushing the ball for the hometown Braves, rifling throws from the outfield, playing with spirit and gusto, it was a story to be enjoyed as long as possible.
He hit .256 the rest of the year, but hey he had to cool off, right? He had a .293 on-base percentage the next year, but hey he hit 29 homers, right? At 23, he hit .293 with 40 doubles and 105 RBIs, he won a Gold Glove, and it could have been a step up toward stardom. It was, instead, the beginning of the end.
At 24, Francoeur was one of the worst every day players in baseball. It happened that fast — from promising 23-year-old to huge liability in one off-season. Why did it happen? There is a side of our brain that says there might be a reason, that somehow Francoeur brought this fate upon himself. That’s what Job’s friends thought too. Francoeur didn’t do anything wrong. He tried excessively hard. He stayed absurdly positive. His karma had to be as high as anybody’s in baseball for all the little things he did for people. “Best leader in baseball,” someone told me that year — but you can’t lead when you’re hitting .239, and you can’t play everyday even for the hometown team when you have a minus-1.7 WAR. The Braves — regretfully but firmly — dumped Francoeur in the middle of the next season.
And then, he was at the mercy of the kindness of strangers. He rocketed the ball for the last 50 or so games with the New York Mets, encouraging them to bring him back for $5 million. He was nuclear hot the first 10 games of the season, and I remember my buddy Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post texting me with, “He’s figured it out! He’s turned the corner!” Vac wanted to believe it. Everyone has always wanted to believe in Jeff Francoeur. On April 17, he went zero-for-seven, which began a slump for the ages — he hit .136 in his next 117 at-bats. He had a couple of good weeks then, more bad weeks, and the Mets dumped him on Texas for the last month of the season. He hit the ball pretty hard for Texas but, as I’ve written before, the Rangers are a smart franchise. They passed on Francoeur for the 2011 season.
And Royals GM Dayton Moore jumped in. Everyone knew he would — people had been talking about the Royals getting Francoeur for two years. Moore was in Atlanta when Francoeur came up and like everyone else, he loved Francoeur … only more so. I guess he thought Francoeur, with the right kind of coaching, in the right kind of environment, could still be the player that made the Sports Illustrated cover. I can only guess that — like Vin Scully once said of fans watching Sandy Koufax pitch — Moore was seeing it with his heart. Beyond that, he thought Francoeur could reshape the Royals with his attitude, with his enthusiasm for the game, with his professionalism on and off the field.
Yes. Well. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
On the day the Kansas City Royals signed Jeff Francoeur, I had a classic email exchange with Bill James about it — I won’t print the whole thing, but it’s fair to say we were not dazzled by the signing, and I will include this little gem from Bill … and remember this was written THE DAY HE SIGNED: “Jeff Francoeur is going to hit .285 with 14 homers and 42 RBIs at the All-Star Break, and the Royals are going to sign him to a three-year contract.”
On August 18, Jeff Francoeur was hitting .275 with 15 homers and 66 RBIs. And the Royals signed him to a two-year contract.
Ah those Royals — while they may be predictable they’re also unsurprising. The day that contract was signed, the Royals might as well have included: “And on June 29, 2013, we plan on designating Jeff for assignment.” How else could it have ended?
Francoeur did everything he could to repay the Royals for their faith. I remember watching him one day at spring training and just being moved by how hard he tried in every drill, how much he joked with his teammates, how friendly he was to everyone watching. Of course I rooted for him. I have written again and again that he’s not a every day Major Leaguer — he’s been a Charo-like special guest star in this blog for years — but I always rooted for him to prove me wrong. I would have loved to be proven wrong by Frenchy. If anyone ever DESERVED to be a star in the Major Leagues, it was Jeff Francoeur.
But, you know, it just doesn’t work like that — not as long as pitchers throw sliders that break out of the strike zone and fastballs over the corners of the plate.
Last year he made his case as the worst every day day player in baseball with a minus-2.3 WAR.
This year, before the Royals finally stopped the bleeding, he was even worse.
He will find another job, I’m sure. People do try to find the good in him. I’ve said before that if teams would use him almost exclusively against lefties, he’d have a shot. He’s hitting a decent .287/.339/.471 against lefties in his career. But I’m not sure that’s an actual job for a corner outfielder with a strong arm but not much speed. I hear the Giants might have some interest. That might be good.
And the Royals will move on … another well-intentioned but obvious blunder on the books. “He’s a winner,” Moore said at the final announcement, and while you could point to Jeff Francoeur’s teams and hitting through the years as a counterargument, well, let’s not. After all: Isn’t it pretty to think so?