There are two things to understand about Jeff Francoeur, two contrasting things that constantly have head-on collisions, two things that have made him one of the more talked about players in baseball the last five years.
First thing: He is the most joyous guy out there. He is the guy who is running hard during base running drills and slapping guys on the butt as they get to home plate and bringing energy to a lazy Arizona morning. He is the guy smiling during batting practice as he tries to steal an extra swing or two, the one talking up teammates as they take their swings, the one sprinting from field to field to get to the next drill. He is the guy kidding one television reporter about his golf game, the guy asking the kid who wants his autograph his name and age, the guy who lost 25 pounds so that once again at the start of spring he would be in the best shape of his life.
It is impossible -- utterly impossible -- not to root for this Jeff Francoeur.
Second thing: He is a corner outfielder who has proven -- unquestionably and repeatedly -- that he cannot hit well enough to be a regular in the Major Leagues.
Like they did on the old show "21," we should probably take the second part first. Jeff Francoeur has been a regular since 2006, when he was an overhyped 22-year old player who had gotten off to a spectacular and unsustainable start. The overhyped part, I'm sad to say, was headlined by Sports Illustrated's regrettable decision to put him on the cover shortly after he arrived in the big leagues. In truth, the decision to put him on the cover was questionable but understandable -- Francoeur had come up to Atlanta as a 21-year-old in July, and in his first 19 starts he was hitting .432 and slugging better than .800. He was a local kid, he was photogenic, he was full of energy, he was exceedingly likable, and people all around baseball were talking about him. There are few things that get baseball people going like a phenom, and for a short while Jeff Francoeur was a phenom.
No, the cover decision was not entirely unreasonable. It was the wording that was egregious.
Atlanta Rookie JEFF FRANCOEUR Is Off To An Impossibly Hot Start.
CAN ANYONE BE THIS GOOD?
Sigh. I'm never a fan of headlines in newspapers or magazines that have questions that can be answered with one word. "No," would be the one-word answer to the question at the bottom of the Francoeur SI cover. Francoeur hit .239/.292/.420 after his impossibly hot 19 game start, and the Sports Illustrated jinx had nothing to do with the collapse. There simply was no question he wasn't that good or anything close to that good. You could see it in his minor-league numbers -- Francoeur was only hitting .275/.322/.487 in Class AA when he was called up. You could see it in his peripheral numbers -- he did not walk A SINGLE TIME before the Sports Illustrated story was written.*
*Francoeur's streak of 29 consecutive starts at the beginning of a career without a walk is one of the longest in baseball history, though the longest belongs to the remarkable Alejandro Sanchez who sporadically started 44 games between 1982 and 1986 and did not walk. He only walked once in his entire career, that was May 1 at Yankee Stadium. Dennis Rasmussen, after striking Sanchez out the first two times, walked him in the sixth inning. Rasmussen was immediately and understandably pulled from the game.
But even the question is not the part that makes this cover regrettable -- that was just overeagerness, I think. No. The big problem was calling Francoeur "The Natural." Because that was just wrong. Francoeur, even at his best, was anything but a natural. He was strong-armed and athletic but awkward and stiff -- he was a football player in high school -- and he had a long swing, and he struck out three times as often as he walked in the minors, and he was always going to have to make up for some things with effort and enthusiasm and attitude. He was in many ways the anti-natural. His future was going to be as a self-made player. Nothing was going to come easy for him.
And then at 21, he was on the cover of SI with "The Natural" stamped on his chest, and it was a really striking cover, a bold cover, a difficult to forget cover, and it's hard to change that sort of narrative. But he was no natural. Frenchy was going to struggle mightily to turn himself into a big league player, nothing was going to prevent that. But now he would have to turn himself into that player under the glow of disappointment.
It's impossible to continue at this point without at least mentioning Clint Hurdle. In 1978, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline "This Year's Phenom." This was based on a fabulous year Hurdle had in Class AAA Omaha in '77 and, probably even more, a massive home run he hit in his very first game in the big leagues. He hit the 425-foot homer in his second at-bat* ... and afterward the stories were about how he was a little bit disappointed that he did not hit one in his FIRST at-bat. He hit another long home run on the day the Royals won their 100th game -- I've been told by Royals players that was actually the home run that first inspired George Brett to say something along the lines of the Bull Durham quote, "Anything that travels that far ought to have a stewardess on it," though I have since seen that quote credited to pitcher Larry Andersen.
*It was called a 425-foot homer in the paper the next day. By the time the Sports Illustrated story came out it was 450 feet. In later quotes, it became 500 feet.
Promising young players simply turn baseball people gooey. Royals director of scouting at the time said of Hurdle, "I bubble when I think about his potential." Legendary hitting coach Charlie Lau said, "From the time he took his first swing there was no doubt in my mind." George Brett predicted he would hit .300, which at the time was about the best thing you could say about a hitter. But the most telling quote of all was probably from manager Whitey Herzog who after gushing about his brilliant young prospect said: "Hurdle has to prove to me he CAN'T play."
Well, Hurdle then went about proving it to Herzog. He actually hit a pretty decent .264 with some walks as a 20-year-old in '78. Well, it was pretty decent for a regular 20-year-old. But of course it was viewed as a massive disappointment for Clint Hurdle, SI cover man, this year's phenom. He did hit better two years later -- .294/.349/.458 in 438 plate appearances -- but already the narrative had changed, and he had become "This Year's Bust," and he had the inevitable injuries, and he never again played regularly, and he ended his career as a 29-year-old New York Met who pinch hit in three games.
Francoeur's path was different because he was different. Unlike Hurdle who lost favor fast, people wanted so desperately to love Francoeur. They were always willing to see the best in him. For instance as a 22-year-old Francoeur hit well at home and managed 29 home runs and 103 RBIs for the season. His 87 OPS+ was second-worst in the league for corner outfielders -- behind only Randy Winn -- and his .293 on-base percentage was the worst for all corner outfielder in baseball. But those 29 home runs and his .315 home batting average, and his fun-to-watch arm and enthusiasm kept the faith high. Francoeur was going to be a big star. People had to believe.
Francoeur had his best year in 2007 -- he played all 162 games, hit .293, walked a bit more than he had in the past, won a Gold Glove, drove in 105 RBIs which always gets people excited -- but so much of it was illusion. His line drive percentage was still low, his home run power was draining, he swung and missed a lot. The higher batting average was mainly due to to his unnaturally high .337 batting average on balls hit in play. This meant a lot of ground balls were bleeding through. That, like the performance of his his first 19 games, was almost certainly unsustainable.
Here was the biggest problem about Francoeur's 2007 season: In context, it wasn't a particularly good season. Jeff Francoeur is a corner outfielder, and corner outfielders and first basemen are paid to hit big. That's the job of the power positions. Francoeur did not hit big. Forty-eight corner outfielders and first-baseman in 2007 got enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Forty-two of them had higher OPS+ than Francoeur's 102. The only ones who did not:
-- Delmon Young (91 OPS+), a hyped 21-year-old who got traded after the year.
-- Jason Bay (94 OPS+), who had a huge down year during another miserable Pittsburgh season.
-- Shane Victorino (95 OPS+), who moved to centerfield the next year.
-- Shannon Stewart (100 OPS+), who would only get 200 more plate appearances in his career.
-- Mark Teahen (101 OPS+), who was really a third baseman and who in many ways has had a Francoeur-like career -- people (including me) always want to see the best in him because he's such a great guy.
In context -- considering what you need from a corner outfielder -- Francoeur's very best season was not good enough to make him an everyday player. And he could not be that player for very long. In 2008, his luck turned and he hit .239/.294/.359 -- his 72 OPS+ was the worst by far among corner outfielder, and his -3.0 WAR ranked him as the worst player in baseball. Midway through the 2009 season, his numbers were even worse and the Braves finally and regretfully traded him to the New York Mets.
There is one thing that Francoeur has managed to do pretty consistently and that is get off to hot starts in new places. You already know about the hot start that landed him on the cover of SI. Well, he went to the Mets and he hit .311 and slugged almost .500 in 75 games, perhaps his best sustained stretch of hitting as a big leaguers. The Mets rather excitedly brought him back for the 2010 season, and there was some hope that he had figured things out -- and he hit .457 and was slugging .857 after 10 games. Thankfully, we didn't put him on the cover of SI again. He went zero-for-seven on April 17, and he hit .136 over his next 35 games. On August 31, the Mets finally and regretfully traded him to the Texas Rangers.
Over his 15 games with the Rangers, he hit .340.
The numbers are stark. His career OPS+ is 91. The only player in the last 50 years at a power position -- left field, right field, first base -- to get more plate appearances than Francoeur with an OPS+ that low is Vince Coleman. And Coleman stole one hundred bases three times. The plain fact is that Jeff Francoeur has been given an almost unprecedented number of opportunities to prove himself in the big leagues. And, in 2011, he will start for the Kansas City Royals. Another chance.
And this takes us back to our first point: It is impossible -- utterly impossible -- to watch Jeff Francoeur, to talk with him, and not to root for him. He plays the game with the enthusiasm of a child who loves baseball. He treats everyone, from the most to least important people in his life, with respect and curiosity. My friend Vac, who will readily admit to having a serious strain of New York cynicism, would text me daily during Francoeur's brief but glorious hot streaks. "He's figured it out," Vac wrote, or "He's turned the corner."
This is what I mean when I say that the two big points about Jeff Francoeur crash. His performance demands negativity. His attitude demands hope. The last few springs, you could count on a flurry of stories -- from Atlanta, from New York, from a wandering national reporter -- about how Jeff Francoeur has made an adjustment, how he has become more patient, how he has shortened his stride, how he has gotten into better shape, anything at all to offer the possibility that Francoeur would turn things around and once again be filled with the promise of photograph on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
On Tuesday, my young friend Sam Mellinger wrote the first (but undoubtedly not the last) of these stories for 2011, referencing all the old standbys -- Francoeur's maturity, his newfound patience, his simpler approach, his determination to swing easier and so on. Sam even brings up Jayson Werth as a comp, though Werth's issue to overcome as a young player was not 3,500 plate appearances with a 91 OPS+, but an injury that bothered him throughout 2005 and kept him out in 2006.
I went to see the Royals in Surprise for an upcoming SI story, and I made a special effort to watch Francoeur. I saw just what I expected to see. He was bursting with life. He was hustling like mad. He was talking constantly, and making everyone around him feel a little better, work a little harder, smile a little more. And then I watched him take batting practice, and I locked in, and I'll be darned if I didn't see what looked to be a more direct swing than I had seen before. Sure, I told myself, everyone looks good in batting practice. But he hit a another line drive, and the sun was shining, and everybody in camp was happy, and he another line drive, and I'm pretty sure I saw Hall of Famer George Brett nod, and I'm pretty sure I heard batting coach Kevin Seitzer shout "atta baby," and the day had warmed enough to take off my jacket, and I looked up Francoeur's numbers again and saw that he and I share a birthday (17 years apart) and Frenchy hit another line drive, and his swing definitely looked more fluid and more powerful and the stark numbers of the last five years began to fade and ...
And I had to remind myself that this is spring training, and this is baseball, and it wouldn't be quite as much fun if you couldn't at least root for Jeff Francoeur.