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Ground balls large reason for Maikel Franco's disappointing 2017

Maikel franco spring

Maikel Franco has had a disappointing first half of the 2017 season.  (Frank Klose/SportsTalkPhilly)

By: Jason Ferrie, Sports Talk Philly Columnist 

Much of the 2017 Philadelphia Phillies season is about finding which players currently on the major league roster are part of the team's future. It seems that there are several options on the mound with young arms like Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, but the position players remain a giant question mark. Some players are still developing while at the major league level. One player that has been at the center of this issue is third baseman Maikel Franco.

For a year and a half, we've watched Franco's performance fall short of his potential. Earlier this year, we looked at how teams are attacking Franco, and what adjustments he should make to his approach. But with the All-Star Break coming shortly, it may be time for another change.

If you have read my writing before, and generally read anything on FanGraphs in the last year, you’d see baseball has turned toward an anti-groundball society. No one is saying you can’t get hits on ground balls and they’re most certainly going to happen, but they should not be the goal—especially if you’re a slow-footed third baseman.

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Franco is a 6’1, 215 pound third baseman that displayed enough power in the minors and his early time in the majors for some to think that he could be a 30 home run per season player. But that doesn’t seem likely if you’re putting the ball on the ground over half the time, right? Since 2010 there have been 148 individual seasons where a player hit 30 or more home runs, with just one player hitting ground balls over 50-percent of the time. At this point in his season, Maikel Franco is putting the ball on the ground 50.2-percent of his balls in play. Even if the criteria changes to greater than 45-percent of balls on the ground—it still is just 17 of 148 seasons.

When things are going well for Franco, he's driving the ball into the gaps or over the fence entirely. Right now, he's not doing either of those consistently. This season, Franco’s fly ball rate has dropped from 35.5-percent to 30.1-percent while ground balls are up from 44-percent to 50.2-percent. One should believe that an increase in ground balls would mean a decline in production—which it has. 

The decline comes along with Franco already being a below-average offensive third baseman, if we use FanGraphs wRC+ metric. Per FanGraphs, Franco had a 92 wRC+ last season, with 100 being league-average. This season that total has dropped to 70, which ranks 23rd of 24 qualified players, leading just Jose Reyes.

I’m not saying that ground balls are the worst, but they’re close. Here are Franco’s numbers by batted ball type this season:

Batted Balls

AB

H

1B

2B

3B

HR

RBI

SF

AVG

OBP

SLG

wRC+

Grounders

120

17

16

1

0

0

9

0

0.142

0.142

0.150

-31

Flies

69

17

4

4

0

9

20

3

0.246

0.236

0.696

125

Liners

47

28

19

8

0

1

9

0

0.596

0.596

0.830

283

The proof is here and it clearly shows that Franco needs to worry about lifting the ball at a higher rate. As common sense as it is, Franco cannot hit home runs on ground balls. He certainly isn’t creating any runs on the ground, as his -31 wRC+ shows. To an extent, one could argue that Franco has been unlucky on ground balls because of his .142 BABIP. The league has a .245 BABIP on ground balls this season. But Franco also ranks 118th in exit velocity on ground balls this season, with his average exit velocity from 87.6 mph to 85.1 in 2017.

There is a lot that goes into the data and applying the data, which can’t be overlooked. Franco is still human, so the data can tell him that he needs to put the ball in the air more often, but he needs to make the adjustments to do so and it may be difficult to do that in between games. That said, I hope the Phillies and hitting coach Matt Stairs are using batted ball data to see how Franco can improve. The All-Star Break is just about here and that could be a great time to reset, look over both data and video and lock in for what will hopefully be a strong second half of 2017. 

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