With the Royals designating Jeff Francoeur for assignment, there have been all sorts of retrospectives and reevaluations. One of the best comes from Joe Posnanski, who reminds us how ridiculous it was that the Royals were the team mesmerized with Jeff Francoeur's latent potential. Just a perfect match. And all across Royals land, there was much rejoicing.
But it's worth remembering just how we got here, and why teams kept giving chances to Francoeur, why they thought he could help. And before you respond with some variation of "lol Royals", remember that the 2010 Rangers had Francoeur on their roster. That was a smart team. It doesn't take a front office filled with dummies to give Francoeur a chance. A three-year contract? Yeah, that's probably what it takes. But a tools bucket like Francoeur will always get a chance.
It's not just the tools that everyone's remembering. Francoeur used to be a huge deal when he was a rookie. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting despite playing in only 70 games. Here's what he did in his first 23 games in the majors:
Let's compare that with Yasiel Puig's first 23 games:
You might not remember Francoeur being as exciting or electric or scintillating as Puig, but that's a bit of revisionist history. Francoeur was every bit the big deal that Puig is now.
He looked the part. He was a seven-tool player, in which the last two tools were gregariousness and paying for other people's pizza. He had a ridiculous arm. He could run a lot better back then. And he made hard contact with everything he saw. Now, the point of this isn't just to rip Puigmania in a subtle, backhanded fashion …
… I mean, not entirely. It's to remind everyone that Francoeur at-bats used to be event at-bats. He used to be someone you'd turn on a highlights show just to see. And while it might seem like he slunk into his Royals-fated shell right away, that's not entirely true. He had an OBP under .300 in his first full season, but he was still just 22 and hit 29 homers. Check out the list of players who hit more than 25 homers before turning 23. There are some cautionary tales in there (Wily Mo Pena!), but there are also a ton of Hall of Famers and Hall of Nearly Greaters on the list.
In Francoeur's second full season, his average came back up, and his walk rate was his best yet. He was 23. If WAR's your thing, he was worth three wins. He won a Gold Glove.
Here's where we get to the moral of the story. Player with tools comes up and flashes early greatness, but eventually fails because of poor plate discipline, and here's what you're thinking:
Jeff Francoeur could have been great if he paid more attention to his plate discipline.
Makes sense. It's also the wrong moral of the story. Because Francoeur did pay attention to his plate discipline. A great deal of it, actually.
One scout called him "the most confused hitter in the game" -- a label that Francoeur doesn't dispute. He's sensitive to the criticism of his free-swinging approach, and at times he's put excessive pressure on himself to remake himself as a hitter.
"People forget that I just turned 25," Francoeur says. "I've been up since I was 21, and a lot of people come up when they're 24 or 25. I have 3½ years in the big leagues, but I'm still learning how to hit."
I remember another quote -- possibly apocryphal, because I can't find it now -- that described Francoeur as teary-eyed when it came to the subject of his poor plate discipline. He wanted to hit .350 with a .450 OBP. He wanted to hit .450 with an .800 OBP. But instead of that moral of the story up there, use this one:
Plate discipline is hard to develop if you're not born with it.
And "born with it" is obviously ambiguous and oversimplifying. But what Francoeur represents to me is the manifestation of this idea: Plate discipline isn't about going up to the plate and thinking, "Don't swing don't swing don't swing." It's about the millisecond between swing and take. Some players have neurons that fire quickly enough to make that millisecond count. Some don't.
Some players have that electrical flash when their muscles start to contort in response to a slider that has a chance to bounce in the other batter's box. If you entered the chemical reaction into Google Translate, it would translate into "No." Jeff Francoeur didn't have that flash, that chemical reaction. There was nothing stopping the chain reaction of muscular activity that happened between initial pitch recognition and the decision to swing. Nothing will ever stop it. And when reaction time slows with age, it gets worse.
It's not because of a lack of desire or a stupid approach, though. Jeff Francoeur had five tools, but he lacked the sixth one. And while you (maybe) can lift weights to get more power and (possibly) work on swing mechanics to produce more contact, that split second of yes/no will forever be elusive. It's still possible that Francoeur can help a big-league team in some capacity. But it won't be because of a new, patient approach. Guys like him remind us that it's not always a matter of practicing hard and doing the right thing.