Maikel Franco's Monstrous Spring Signals MLB's Next Big Hitting Star Has Arrived

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 25, 2016

Mar 2, 2016; Dunedin, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies infielder Maikel Franco (7) hits a ground ball in the first inning of the spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Florida Auto Exchange Park. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Maikel Franco has apparently decided on the Kris Bryant route to stardom: hit a whole bunch of dingers in spring training, and then keep right on slugging in the regular season.

A fine choice, indeed. And one that could pay off just as well for Franco as it did for Bryant.

The Philadelphia Phillies' young third baseman has the first part down for now. Fresh off a rookie season that featured 14 home runs in only 80 games, Franco has slugged seven home runs in 17 games this spring. That's the most of any other player this spring, and just two fewer than Bryant hit in his Rookie of the Year preamble last spring.

All rise for a moving-pictures demonstration of Franco's power display:

Franco, 23, isn't skimping on other numbers either. He's also racked up a .300/.340/.720 slash line. And next to a slugging percentage that high, that Franco has only struck out nine times in 50 at-bats comes dangerously close to being an earth-shattering paradox.

Now, this is where we're obligated to mention this is only spring training. Weird things happen in spring training. WeirdThings. Because of that, the spring exhibition season isn't quite the equal of Nostradamus, or even Paul the Octopus, when it comes to predictive powers.

However, there are cases when spring training isn't completely useless. As Neil Paine wrote at FiveThirtyEight in 2014, spring numbers should affect our outlook on a player so long as they're "particularly strong or weak." Franco's certainly qualify as the former.

And it's not like they've come out of nowhere. Franco was considered one of the game's top young players going into the 2015 season, as he was ranked as a top-100 prospect by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and others.

The general agreement was that Franco's bat was his primary calling card. He made good on that by putting up an .840 OPS to go with his 14 dingers, and those numbers pass the smell test.

Top 2015 Rookies by OPS (min. 300 PA)
1Miguel SanoTwins335.916
2Randal GrichukCardinals350.877
3Kris BryantCubs650.858
4Carlos CorreaAstros432.857
5Maikel FrancoPhillies335.840

Craig Edwards of FanGraphs saw an offensive profile similar to that of Adrian Beltre, in that Franco was an aggressive swinger but in enough control to make plenty of contact. His power was also legit, as Mike Petriello of MLB.com notes that Franco was among baseball's best at hitting the ball hard when he got it airborne. It's no wonder he didn't need to rely on Citizens Bank Park to boost his power.

Had Franco not been sidelined by a broken wrist, he might have made a run at 25 or even 30 home runs. As such, good health was arguably the only thing he needed to emerge as a top power hitter in 2016.

But apart from good health, Franco has offered a couple of explanations for what's different this spring. One is that, as he told Rob Maaddi of the Associated Press (via the Washington Times), he's simply "more comfortable" knowing that he's going to come to the ballpark and see his name in Pete Mackanin's lineup every day.

As for why this comfort has translated to so much power, well, that's supposedly the whole idea. As he told Todd Zolecki of MLB.com, hitting for more power is "what I've been working on."

Franco didn't elaborate exactly what he's been working on, but there's nothing that can't be solved with a Sherlock Holmes mindset and a willingness to scour the Internet for clues.

To that end, it's not surprising that a good but not quite elite prospect like Franco entered the big leagues with some notable weaknesses. One that Baseball America pointed out was that Franco's swing "can get long" and leave him "vulnerable to velocity on his hands."

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, this leads us to a plot of Franco's power production in 2015:

Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

The catch is that 80 games isn't a huge sample size, but it makes sense that Franco tended to drive pitches out over the plate. As a guy with a long swing, he would drive the ball best when he could get his arms extended. And when the focus is narrowed to fastballs only, the effect is even more pronounced.

But if you watched the above video closely, you might have noticed the location of the two Jordan Zimmermann fastballs that Franco sent into orbit. The first was here:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

And the second was here:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Though neither fastball was quite in Franco's kitchen, both appear to be on the inner half of the plate. The same goes for his second home run of the spring and—though the camera angles are less than ideal—seemingly his first, fifth and sixth home runs as well.

Admittedly, it's hard to tell the exact location of each of the pitches Franco took for a ride without the help of PITCHf/x. But to the naked eye, it sure seems like he's upped his power potential against inside pitches from "very little" to "a whole lot."

And our eyes may not be deceiving us. August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs took a closer look at one of Franco's dingers off Zimmermann and noticed a slight difference in his swing. Relative to a swing at a similar pitch in 2015, Franco did a better job of keeping his hands tucked to his body, effectively shortening his swing.

That is, Franco may now be doing a thing that will help him do a thing that he wasn't so good at before. This is what us baseball folk call an "adjustment," and they sometimes lead to greatness.

Just what kind of greatness could we see from Franco in 2016? Let's allow Jayson Stark of ESPN.com to give us an idea.

"I had a scout predict to me that if he plays 130 games this year, he will hit 35 home runs," Stark said on a recent podcast (via Joe Giglio of NJ Advance Media).

That would be a case of Franco drastically outplaying his projections for 2016. At FanGraphs, neither Steamer nor ZiPS sees more than 25 home runs in Franco's immediate future. At Baseball Prospectus, PECOTA thinks the same.

But the scout who Stark spoke to isn't off his rocker. Franco teased 25-30 home run potential in 2015 even despite the sizable hole in his power stroke. If he has indeed closed that hole, an extra five to 10 home runs sound about right.

And if Franco can manage that, we're going to be looking at quite the hitter.

There aren't many hitters who can regularly put the ball in play and whack the daylights out of the ball. The members of that club are hitters like Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, David Ortiz, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rizzo and Albert Pujols. Franco appears to have what he needs to gain entry in 2016.

When it happens, we won't be able to say we didn't see it coming. When a guy is having the kind of spring Franco is having, it's hard to miss.

Regular-season stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. Spring training stats courtesy of MLB.com.

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