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Saying Goodbye To Jeff Francoeur

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?

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54 Responses to Saying Goodbye To Jeff Francoeur

  1. spencersteel says:

    I have a theory that toolsy guys or high draft picks get a much longer look than other players who have shown over an extended period of time that they are defective, or just not very good. In different ways Francoeur and Delmon Young are very similar; one guy has a rocket arm but neither is actually a good defender. One guy carries himself wonderfully, while the other . . . doesn’t. One guy looks like a ballplayer if you squint real hard and think of 2006; the other was the first pick in the draft – both seem to attract GMs who think these guys just need the right situation to fulfill their “potential” even though they already have and 2006 and 2003 is an eternity ago.

    There’s probably a role for both Francoeur and Young in MLB, flawed as they are. They can play the role of 5th OF, DH versus LHP. That’d play to their strengths, rather than expose their weaknesses. We had a guy here in Detroit a few years back named Marcus Thames. Thames had none of the flash or pedigree of Francoeur or Young, and so when it was finally figured out that he was useless against right-handed pitching, he was easily moved to the short end of a platoon role. He was hardly a star, but used properly he had value for a couple of years and for a reasonable price. Some reasonably intelligent GM will maybe figure that out with Frenchy, and then maybe he can hang around for a few years helping, instead of killing his teams by being an everyday out machine.

    • James says:

      Great comparison. And both have these incredible periods of success. Remember mid-2010 young, with a 0.971 OPS in May-July, despite walking 10 times (3 IBB)? That stretch will keep him employed for a while.

    • Dinky says:

      In 2003, the Dodgers had a 30 year old RHB named Mike Kincade who played corner outfield and first base. That season, on the right side of his platoon, he had an OPS of 1.155, including an OBP of .507, in 69 at bats. That was his last season in the majors. This was not obviously a fluke; his career OPS versus LHP was .948.

      The Dodgers also had an aging Fred McGriff as their regular first baseman, who OPSed .617 versus left handed pitching, barely half of Kincade. The Dodgers were also a strongly LHB team, with all three regular outfielders and the right side of the infield being LHB and a switch hitting shortstop. Only the catcher and third baseman were RHB.

      McGriff had 96 PA versus LHP. Kincade only had 69. Kincade had 122 PA versus RHP with an OPS of .444. Jermony Burnitz had 147 PA against LHB with an OPS of .748, for example. Shawn Green had 238 with an OPS of .778. You would think that on that team you could have found a way to get Kincade 120 or more PA versus LHP. After all, they found a way to get Kindcade 122 PA versus RHP. Since they came in 65 games, a chunk of them had to be as starts. In fact, he only started 15 games versus LHP, 21 versus RHP.

      This was an platoon OPS split of over 600 points, and he was anti-platooned. The next year, he was out of baseball. Yes, a BABIP of .435 is kind of flukey, but I don’t have access to line drive percentages. Over his short his career his BABIP was .359 versus LHP, .248 vs. RHP. I suspect he just hit the ball a lot harder against southpaws.

      The point is, as recently as 2003, a major league pennant contender had no idea how to properly use an obvious platooner. The next year nobody picked him up. You’d think some AL team might have looked at Kincade as a platoon DH. And yet game after game I had to hear Burnitz and McGriff starting against LHP.

      Now I’m not inside baseball. Maybe Kincade was a problem in the clubhouse. Maybe his lack of speed and defense meant he needed to hit better. But still, his career OPS versus LHP was .957. Francouer’s is .809. Kincade versus LHP is an All-Star. Francouer is not. I suspect a Billy Beane team would have found a way to get good value out of Mike Kincade.

      There is a lot of luck in baseball, and sometimes the luck comes from having a manager or a GM who uses you properly.

    • irishguy says:

      Can somebody explain to me why a kid hitting .432 with eight home runs in his first month should have been looking to walk more?

    • joKa says:

      Irish- even when hitting at the rate, you should have an a bat there you just don’t have a pitch worth swinging at. Hidden in the great start was the fact that he was swing (and hitting hard) pitches that were not in the strike zone. Once people learned strikes were not needed to get swings… the end started.

    • Ross Safko says:

      More to the point, if you look at his swing % numbers in his first 23 games, they were extreme.

      In his first 23 games of the season:

      His O-swing% (swings at pitches outside of strike zone) was 41.31% which would place him in the top 5 in baseball just about any year (qualified plate appearances).
      His Z-swing% (swings at pitches inside strike zone) was 77.80%, also placing him in the top 5.
      His swing% (total percent of swings) was a whopping 60.55%. Since 2005, only Johnny Estrada had a higher swing%.

      The fact is that he swung the bat. A lot. He also made really good contact, but his impatience at the plate was pretty evident.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I understood the “see ball, hit ball” approach, since that’s the way I approached it myself when I played. But you have to think a major leaguer would be able to figure out that low and away sliders were not pitches to swing at…. and pitchers threw them to him over and over and over. Since he couldn’t seem to make that one adjustment, it’s amazing he stayed in the big leagues as long as he did.

  2. Fantastic piece Joe. Thanks. As a Braves fan that really came on the scene when Francoeur and McCann did as well, this hits home.

  3. JenL says:

    Such a nice guy that we all hoped would be able to make it as a Major Leaguer. While he was with the Braves, I saw him a number of times at spring training and while I am not a Braves fan, I certainly rooted for Jeff to be great. He plays with the enthusiasm and spirit that as a teacher and a coach, I encourage my kids to find in their game. Other and far better Major Leaguers could learn a thing or two from Frenchy when it comes to character.

  4. Scott says:

    I remember Frenchy buying food for the fans in the Oakland stands. Who else does that? I can’t logically defend his skills, but I’ll always root for him.

  5. Ozsportsdude says:

    That description of his first month reads like current descriptions of Puig

    • Dinky says:

      Two major differences. Puig has four walks, not zero walks, which really does matter. Puig also has speed, two for two in steals, covers a ground in the outfield.

      The big thing about Francouer is that he never improved. His best WAR year was age 23, of 3.3. He had one more season in the rest of his career reaching half that WAR, the year the Royals gave him his last contract. By the age of 23, Frenchy had set his career highs in HR, R, RBI, OBP, and SP. That’s very rare. Usually players get better at taking their walks, better at converting good pitches into singles, better at recognizing the pitches they can drive. The crime dog, since I’ve mentioned him above, set or tied season highs in different things at age 29, age 30, even age 36.

      Nobody expects Puig to maintain his current numbers. But if he drops 150 points in BA, 300 in OPS, and then shows the normal improvement with age, he’ll be a far better player than Francouer.

    • First of all, there’s hot, and then there’s nuclear—Puig has gotten off to the second best start of anybody in the history of baseball, behind Joe DiMaggio. In his first 101 at bats, his line is an absurd .436/.467/.713. He hits all kinds of pitching—lefty, righty, slow, fast, up, down, in, and out—to all fields with power. He makes a lot of contact for a guy who swings so hard—many of his at bats last only one pitch—because if you throw a strike he’ll put it in play. It will be interesting to see what will happen when he starts getting the Barry Bonds treatment, and nobody throws him a pitch near the plate. Bonds took his walks, but Puig loves to swing. Right now, the most important thing for Puig and the Dodgers is to keep Hanley Ramirez healthy, so he can provide protection for Puig in the lineup. The other question mark is whether Puig can stay healthy, playing as he does like his pants are on fire. One too many headfirst slides or crashes into the wall can knock him on to the DL for a long time. But for now, holey moley, what an unbelievable player. I’m a lot more worried that Matt Kemp is headed for Francoeur territory than Puig.

    • Rob Smith says:

      People forget, but Francoeur once was pretty fast… at least when he first came up. He was recruited as a safety and wide receiver by Clemson. I don’t know where the speed went, but he was noticeably slower after bulking up in year 3 to try to hit more HRs. BTW: 4 walks a month translates into 24 walks a year…. so I don’t see any real difference between Puig’s inability to walk and Francoeur’s. I also have seen Puig strike out numerous times on the low outside slider. Possibly the one difference is that Puig seems to get hold of some bad sliders and hit them…. a la Manny Sanguillen…. and if you get too much of the plate with the slider, he will hit it. So, maybe that will save him, but I’m not convinced that Puig won’t see his numbers crash down significantly as teams pitch him more carefully. As they start to get him out, and they will, the question will be whether Puig can adjust and not lose confidence. Will his first big slump last 10 days or two months. We’ll see.

  6. Daniel Rose says:

    As a lifelong Royals fan, I will root for Frenchy forever, even though I recognize that his baseball skills are exactly what Poz has written about above. When Frenchy’s playing days are over, I hope the Royals (or the Braves) hire him back in some kind of front office PR-capacity. The guy oozes honesty and love of the game and could become one of baseball’s best ambassadors. Good baseball move by the Royals today, but also a sad one for Francoeur’s fans.

  7. Drew Stearns says:

    I’ll miss his goofy overbite. Godspeed, Jeff.

  8. “He’s hitting a decent .287/.339/.471 against lefties in his career.”

    Earl Weaver could use him to win games. Maybe the A’s could use him.

    I haven’t spent much time watching or thinking about Jeff Francoeur, but looking at that stat, it seems like he’s being asked to do what he can’t do, rather than what he can.

  9. He should think about going to Japan.

  10. Jason says:

    Nice reference to The Sun Also Rises. Well placed, too.

  11. I heard the arguments against him, and was disappointed when the Royals signed him. I was even more disappointed when I went to Fan Fest and he was one of the Royals signing autographs while I was there. But when I got to the front of the line, he thanked me with a smile. A Major League player thanking a fan for the opportunity to sign an autograph? I was hooked. While most of his at bats made me cringe, I always rooted for him a little more than other Royals.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Yeah, it’s kind of sad. He had a great attitude, and was a local kid from Atlanta…. actually a legendary High School football and baseball player who was getting sports airtime locally when he was 16… and won two football state championships as an all state safety & wide receiver (had a full ride offer to Clemson) and a baseball state championship in which he not only hit towering homeruns, but also was the closer who brought 95 MPH heat (yes, in HS). Unfortunately he was so bad in Atlanta that the fans started to boo him…. and Atlanta fans don’t boo that many people. I wished better for him, but it was all a mirage. It was never going to happen. I do wonder what happened to his speed though, because he looked awfully fast scoring touchdowns and intercepting passes in high school…. and he was playing against top notch competition too.

  12. zack Thomas says:

    And now the Royals have solved all of their problems. They will win out and sweep their way to a World Series championship…Oh wait, the best the fans can hope for with this franchise is a winning season once every decade. Yay

  13. Great piece, Joe. Best of luck to are right, not a better guy in baseball. In this world of Aaron Hernandez’s, guys like Frenchy give you faith that some guys “get it” off the field. Jeff is an example of someone who works his a$$ off but just have it against the pitchers and the books they have on hitters.

  14. Will H. says:

    This is the best KC Royals blog ever.

  15. NMark W says:

    I believe that current Pirate management is now smart enough to stay away from “Frenchy” even though they are looking for more offense from a righthanded hitting rightfielder. Previous front offices of Pirates stretching back 15-18 years would have been on the phone with the Royals trying to make a trade!

    • Rob Smith says:

      I don’t know. The Pirates have always found a way to lose. I wouldn’t assume anything’s changed until they actually have a playoff spot after all 162.

  16. Unknown says:

    Any theory as to why he got off to strong starts with each of his 4 teams? So much so that Bill James called it the 4th time? Just coincidence / small sample size / lucky call?

  17. Rob Smith says:

    Based on what I’ve seen of Yasiel Puig, he’s Jeff Francoeur II. Loves to swing at that low outside slider…. but boy did he get off to a great start. Maybe he can make an 8-10 career out of it, like Francoeur.

  18. jamesa says:

    Love your writing, Joe. I didn’t quite connect with the first part about “if the breaks even out.” If the breaks, as you describe them, are essentially random (they sound like things beyond the player’s control), then by definition they “even out” over a long enough time frame. You often warn us about small sample sizes, but given time, the breaks for or against, if the are random, will even out. I think perhaps I understand what you are saying about Jeff’s career, but this wasn’t quite the right lead in possible? Well, thanks for all you do–I always look for your latest posts–thanks, Joe.

  19. jamesa says:

    Love your writing, Joe. I didn’t quite connect with the first part about “if the breaks even out.” If the breaks, as you describe them, are essentially random (they sound like things beyond the player’s control), then by definition they “even out” over a long enough time frame. You often warn us about small sample sizes, but given time, the breaks for or against, if the are random, will even out. I think perhaps I understand what you are saying about Jeff’s career, but this wasn’t quite the right lead in possible? Well, thanks for all you do–I always look for your latest posts–thanks, Joe.

    • Wilbur says:

      For expertise on The Breaks, we must consult Kurtis Blow.

    • Rob Smith says:

      It would have been nice also, in another piece, to describe why breaks don’t even out. I don’t have hard numbers, but when I played, sometimes the breaks went for me…. bloop hits, ground ball hits the base or a rock, the wind blows a flyball out of the park… etc. And they go against you too, getting robbed of a grand slam (that really happened. Ouch.), line drive up the middle that the pitcher defensively somehow catches, etc. I’m not sure what was meant by “breaks” and how they don’t even out like heads or tails on a coin flip. And, I agree, it was pretty randomly inserted into this particular piece.

  20. Mark says:

    Hey, at least the Royals have Wil Myers waiting to step in….oh, sorry about that.

    How many disastrous moves does Dayton Moore have to make before they show him the door? I would never say it’s not important to have good character on a baseball team but there are thousand of guys out there who have great character and only a few who can hit a major league fastball so who are you going to take?

    Joe is always telling us how passionate Moore is about baseball and I don’t doubt that for a second. Of course, anyone who reads this blog is passionate about baseball and none of us are competent to run a major league teams. And neither is Moore.

  21. Bryant says:

    Great insight into Frenchy. He’s a year younger than me and I went up against him a bit in his time in high school because we played in the same county… it didn’t end too well for us back then. I agree that he’s a great guy and I have always pulled for him even when he left Atlanta.

    I’ve wondered though, does anyone think it would be possible to kind of pull an opposite Rick Ankiel? Everyone knows about the arm and I know I got K’d up a time or two back in the day – seems like it would be worth a look to have a hard throwing guy out of the bullpen, which everyone seems to need these days. If he doesn’t clear waivers, why not take a lark and pay the guy the league minimum and give him a test run as a mop up man? I know I may be stuck in little league where a good athlete can play pretty much any position on the field, but if nothing else it would be an interesting story.

    • clashfan says:

      I’ve heard about one or two position players trying to make a late comeback via the knuckleball. I don’t think any of them had more than a cup of coffee in MLB, though.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I think Bryant is harkening back to the days at Parkview HS when Francoeur would pitch, sometimes as closer, and throw 95 MPH heat. The one thing Francoeur could always do is throw strong and accurate. It’s possible it could work.

  22. bobulated says:

    He’s the Joe Shlabotnik of the 21st century, no doubt he’s Charlie Brown’s favorite player right now.

  23. Richard S. says:

    There might also be an organization that could use a manager or coach down in AA that can help train those players in how to behave like a Major League ballplayer…

  24. Richard S. says:

    There might also be an organization that could use a manager or coach down in AA that can help train those players in how to behave like a Major League ballplayer…

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