I think it’s fair to say that no Royal was as much a roller coaster for Royals fan-opinion in 2020 than Maikel Franco. The initial signing was met with a collective, “Meh.” Entering his age-27 season the Dominican Republic native had failed to meet expectations so thoroughly in Philadelphia that they found themselves unable to trade him and unwilling to offer him arbitration after he had made a little over five million dollars in 2019. So they cut him and in swooped Dayton Moore.
Franco did not start the season well. Through the first two games he failed to record a hit, striking out four times, and looked entirely lost at the plate. It didn’t help that he also looked terrible defensively. Then over the next two games he collected five hits including a double and a pair of home runs. Royals fans wondered, which Maikel Franco would they get? I’m not sure they ever got an answer to that question.
At one point, fairly early in the season, Franco was leading all of baseball in doubles and extra-base hits. He finished the year seventh in doubles and twenty-ninth in extra-base hits with 24 doubles and home runs combined. That doesn’t seem bad and, indeed, it isn’t. However, the difference between him and leader Freddie Freeman is also the difference between him and Jurickson Profar, who placed at 126 out of 142 qualified hitters. Which is a long way of saying he was only one or two doubles from settling in far lower in the list.
To be entirely frank, that more or less defines Maikel Franco’s entire season with the Royals: above-average, but just barely. He had a 106 wRC+ and OPS+ which means that both FanGraphs’ and Baseball Reference’s formulae rated him as slightly above average. He even had a 106 split-OPS+ among all third-basemen, which meant he was slightly above-average hitter when compared to just other players at the hot corner. There’s value in that! They don’t call it above-average for nothing. Ideally you want someone who hits more above average at third base, but even slightly-above-average is an upgrade for the Royals at that position and constitutes a bounce-back season to relevancy for Franco.
The first question we must ask when a player bounces back is, “Why?” and the second is, “Is it likely to be sustainable?” And in the case of Franco the answer to both is the same.
I have no idea.
As a baseball writer I’ve looked at a lot of statistics and spent a lot of time trying to answer those two questions for a number of players and I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything quite like Franco. All of his batted ball statistics, the first stop when trying to figure out the why of a batter’s changes, are almost exactly in line with his career averages. He hit almost as exactly as many groundballs, flyballs, and line drives as ever. He struck out at a similar rate. His hard-hit rate went up a couple percentage points but his soft-hit rate also went up a point. Even his ISO remained stable. His walk rate did go down and according to Baseball Savant so did his barrel percentage, his average exit velocity, and his launch angle.
In fact the only peripheral statistic that appears to have significantly increased above his career average was his BABIP. It was up more than 60 points from 2019 and more than 30 points over his career average. Ordinarily I’d be tempted to just call that luck - especially without any other kind of noticeable difference - and declare that it cannot be maintained. But I decided to check his splits and found something interesting. He hits a lot better at Kauffman Stadium than he does at Citizen’s Bank Park. He hits 17% better in KC than his career averages but 5% below in Philadelphia. It could be that his swing just works better for the dimensions and atmosphere in Kansas City than it did in Philadelphia. That doesn’t feel likely to me but I can’t entirely dismiss it.
Franco is still under club control for one more season. There’s a saying in baseball that there’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract. Maikel Franco would seem to fit that bill. If he plays next season for the Royals at age 28 and hits slightly above average he’s probably not hurting them. No one should expect him to get them over the hump into becoming a competitive team but it’s not like he’ll be holding back any prospects that are ready to hit and somebody has to play third base until Bobby Witt Jr. is ready.
Given what Franco achieved and how little he cost the Royals in terms of both money and opportunity cost I’ll give him a C+ for this season. The Royals’ best hope is that he has a hot first half next year and they can flip him for some more lottery tickets at the deadline.
How do you grade Maikel Franco’s season?
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