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Maikel Franco’s off to an encouraging start at the plate for Orioles

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The new third baseman, a late addition to the roster, has had an impact so far and is looking like a decent fit for the team.

Baltimore Orioles v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Maikel Franco wasn’t the most coveted player among Orioles fans when his name and the team first started showing up in the same sentences this March.

There was talk out there of him being superfluous, just another decent-at-best bat who plays little defense, and there were discussions not about how big a help he would be, but whether he would be a help at all.

So far, it looks like the Franco addition — extra innings baserunning aside — is providing some early reward.

Franco’s stats aren’t eye-popping. He went into Tuesday with a .254 batting average in 59 at-bats, including two home runs, but he sports a .333 on-base percentage (his career high of .343 came in 2015) and 14 RBI. The RBI is the weird stat; he’s tied for sixth (or, was, entering Tuesday) in Major League Baseball, playing for a team that has had trouble all season getting people on base, and is on pace for 142 RBI.

Obviously this is early to be playing the wacky projections game (the last to reach that many RBI was Ryan Howard in 2008, in case you were curious), and RBI are not valued as their batter-independent statistical brethren, but they are a reflection of a hitter’s ability to step up and knock in guys that are on base.

And in that category, Franco has been great so far. He’s had 15 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, and has batted .417 (5-for-12) with a home run and 12 RBI. He’s actually been impressive in the early going in a few clutch stats; he’s batting .429 (9-for-21) with men on, and he’s hitting .304 (7-for-23) with two outs.

This isn’t out of the ordinary for him. Franco is a career .253 hitter with runners in scoring position, but he has an .800 OPS in those spots. He’s gotten better as his career has progressed, batting .275 over the last four seasons, a stretch that includes a .323 average (20-for-62) last season.

Most encouraging to the Orioles, though, is that he’s shown signs that the improvement last season on some disappointing lows in Philadelphia (a .230 average in 2017 and .234 figure in ’19) will continue in Baltimore. According to the Baseball Info Solutions figure listed on Fangraphs, his hard-hit percentage of 38.3 percent is higher than it was when he batted .278 as a Royal last season (32.8), and is the highest of his career to this point.

These aren’t the stats and measurements of a star, but they imply that, as best as can be implied after 16 games, the Orioles got the Franco they were hoping to get.

He’s gone about a familiar start while showing some differences in either his plate discipline or his fortunes in the box. While strikeouts have been on the rise throughout the sport, Franco’s totals — he’s only exceeded 100 strikeouts once, when he fanned 106 times in 2016 — have looked like a throwback to a previous wave of players.

So far this season, Franco has been more susceptible to the so-called “true” outcomes. With 12 strikeouts in 16 games he’s on pace for 122 for the season, and his strikeout rate of 18.2 percent is the highest it’s been since his rookie season. Meanwhile, with seven walks he’s been more disciplined, walking at a rate of 10.6 percent that beats his previous high of 8.4 in 2019. This isn’t a fickle figure; in four of the previous five seasons, his number has been between 6.2 and 6.6. It’s been established, he doesn’t walk. So either he does now, or he’s just stumbled into some wild pitchers.

Either way, he’s done a good job of fulfilling that part from the start of the story — his need. At the time of those articles, the Orioles didn’t need Franco. They had Yolmer Sanchez, a Gold Glove winner, at second base, and Rio Ruiz at third. Pat Valaika was in the mix, and so were Ramon Urias and Jahmai Jones. There wasn’t a logjam, but there wasn’t a gaping hole, particularly for a team that wasn’t planning on being competitive.

As the season’s gone on, however, Franco’s become a solid fit for a hole that ended up forming. Sanchez’s awful spring prompted his departure and threw the infield into potential disarray. Like on a football team when one player’s removal from the offense or defense forces several others to move into more awkward-fitting roles, the Orioles would have been left without an arrangement that checked all the boxes. There would have been a light bat somewhere, or an inadequate glove.

Franco has provided that stability the Orioles ended up needing, and his stats have reflected it. Hopefully the months to come either continue, or even improve, the narrative.