Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Throw Frenchy from the 7 train
By Matt Meyers ESPN The Magazine
In a surprising display of savvy for an organization that has long-favored "veteran presence" over subtle skills when making lineup decisions, the New York Mets have told Jeff Francoeur that he and Angel Pagan will platoon in right field when center fielder Carlos Beltran returns from the disabled list on Thursday. Because Pagan is the left-handed part of the platoon, he'll see the bulk of the playing time, which is the way it should be.
The fact this was even up for discussion is silly in its own right. Pagan has proven himself to be a far superior player. In addition to being an excellent defender, he leads the team in batting average (.315), and is second to David Wright in both OBP (.372) and slugging (.473). And it's not a fluke either -- Pagan put up comparable numbers last year. But still, he has had a hard time getting a fair shake in this organization. Even after his impressive 2009 campaign, he began this season behind Gary Matthews Jr. on the depth chart.
So the Mets appear to be making the right choice, and will be a better team for it. But here's the question they should really be asking: Does Francoeur deserve a roster spot at all?
Jeff Francoeur hustles, he dives for balls and he's a stand-up guy, but the numbers tell the tale.
Not only has he proven himself unworthy of a starting job, but he also profiles poorly as a reserve. He can't play center field, so he has no versatility on defense. And he's not fast, so he has no value as a pinch-runner. You'd like your pinch hitters to either be able to hit one out, or be a tough out. But Francoeur doesn't hit for power, and his OBP is consistently among the lowest in the league. So what does he do well? He's got a great arm, but so do any number of guys in Triple-A who can't hit. Other than that, his most discernible skill is an ability to hit left-handed pitching, which is where the platoon comes in. Yes, it's true that Frenchy is hitting .348 against lefties this year. But let's look a little more closely at that number.
We're only talking about 77 plate appearances, a ridiculously small sample. And of his 24 hits against southpaws, just five have gone for extra bases, including only one that went over the wall. So even though he's hitting left-handers pretty well, he's only hitting singles off of them. Additionally, his batting average on balls in play against lefties this season is an absurd .397. For his career, his BABIP against lefties is .328, which suggests he's over his head this year.
In fairness, Francoeur owns a .302/.345/.484 line versus lefties for his career, but that's a pretty pedestrian slugging percentage for a corner outfielder who supposedly crushes lefties. He isn't so good when facing southpaws that you absolutely HAVE TO have him in the lineup against them. And he's useless when facing righties, posting a .703 OPS against them for his career, and .646 this year. So even if a lefty starts, Francoeur should be pinch hit for as soon a right-handed reliever is summoned. Pagan, who's a switch-hitter, is mediocre from the right side (.711 career OPS), but the edge he provides on defense and the bases makes a platoon seem unnecessary.
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And once you realize that there's no need to go out of the way to shoehorn Francoeur into a platoon, then why is he on the team? Fernando Tatis is currently on the disabled list, but has no pronounced platoon split (.777 career OPS against righties, .804 against lefties) and can fill in at all four corner positions, plus second base in a pinch, making him a better use of a roster spot. Ditto Nick Evans (.970 career OPS against southpaws in the minors, .855 in the majors), who mashes southpaws at least as well as Francoeur, and can fill in at first base, left and even third if David Wright comes down with food poisoning or some other 24-hour malady. Jesus Feliciano is a not a "proven major leaguer," but he has hit above .300 for four straight years at Triple-A, including .385 this year, can play all three outfield spots, and would probably be the fastest guy on the bench. All of these guys would make better reserves than Francoeur.
The Mets need to forget everything they know about Jeff Francoeur. Forget that he's making $5 million, that money is already spent. Forget that he was branded "The Natural" on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2005. Forget that he is an affable guy who is loved by the local media. (The club already has Alex Cora fulfilling the "great guy, awful hitter" quota on the roster.)
Instead, they need to consider the data that matter most. Since 2005, Francoeur has a .308 OBP in almost 3,000 plate appearances. Among right fielders who qualify for the batting title this year, he has the lowest OBP and the second-lowest slugging percentage. Earlier this season, there was a glimmer of hope that he was finally learning the strike zone when he walked eight times in his first 12 games. But since then, he's gone back to his hacking ways, swinging at everything this side of Montauk.
Francoeur is still running on the fumes of his former potential, but it's time to realize that he is what he is: A 26-year-old plodding outfielder with a great arm who is capable of hitting some singles when a lefty is on the mound. Does that sound like a player who can help a team in the midst of a nip-and-tuck playoff race? The Mets' margin of error for making the postseason is already small. Giving playing time to Francoeur only makes it smaller.
Matt Meyers is an associate editor for ESPN The Magazine.