Jeff Francoeur, once regarded as the player of the future, has become one of baseball's laughingstocks. But as we laugh, he moves on to Kansas City, and one of baseball's strangest careers continues to defy reason.
Jeff Francoeur has the Brett Favre Problem. Favre has watched some fellow named "Brett Farve" accrue about 10 percent of the Google search results for his name. Francoeur, similarly, is only Googling about ten times as strong as "Jeff Francouer." This Francouer gentleman may be an incompetent plumber or prison inmate or divorce lawyer; whatever he is, his craft is almost certainly not as ridiculed as Francoeur's.
The contingent of baseball fans who appreciate meaningful statistics, a large and growing contingent of which I am a part, loves to snark about Francoeur. You see, relative to the average baseball player, Francoeur is not very good at baseball. At the plate, where position players demonstrate most of their worth, he looks how we look when we're trying to chase a hornet out of the house with a tube of wrapping paper.
Statistics neatly bear out the fact that Francoeur is kind of sucky. He doesn't set himself up for enough chances to see quality pitches, he doesn't draw nearly enough walks, and unlike the Rob Deer and Dave Kingmen who preceded him, he fails to hit very many home runs. A lot of baseball fans regard him as a toxic asset. Every winter, including this winter, we tell nervous jokes in which our general managers decide to offer him a contract.
The nervous, cynical laughter cascaded into relieved, cynical laughter on Wednesday afternoon, as rumors spread that Francoeur was signing with the Royals. I'm taking these from Twitter's #francoeur trending topic:
Maybe the #Royals will still have the worst outfield in baseball. But at least they won't have the least expensive #Francoeur
Fans of other 29 teams breathe sigh of relief. #MLB #Royals #Francoeur
Hopefully #francoeur will go somewhere and become the top level athlete that he and only he believes he is #stillcanthit #delusional #MLB
I'll stop here to be polite, but this is what I'm talking about. We've seen the same sentiments expressed by sportswriters -- on Monday, Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra titled a piece with the amusing headline, "More than zero teams are interested in Jeff Francoeur." And as Francoeur completes his journey from my favorite team, the Braves, to my other favorite team, the Royals, I'm beginning to suspect that I'm the only fan he has left.
Months ago, when it was first rumored that Francoeur might be headed for Kansas City, I remarked that it would make perfect sense. I felt, and still feel, as though Jeff Francoeur was the most Royals player ever to play baseball, even before he was a Royal. If baseball is Middle-earth, the Kansas City Royals are Tol Eressëa, where hobbits set sail in the twilights of their lives.
If that was too nerdy, think instead of, I don't know, the evangelical film industry where Mr. T retreats after his career has died.
Mr. T, like Francoeur, is kind of a running Internet gag, complete with a pictorial meme. Haha, hey you guys, remember when he was on The A-Team?
Upon entering the major leagues, Francoeur enjoyed one of the best first months that any player has ever had. In 2005, from July 7th to August 9th, he hit eight home runs in 23 games, hit .432, knocked in 22 RBI, and put up an OPS of 1.266. He was 21 years old, and he was making a mockery of National League pitching. The Sports Illustrated cover that followed somehow did not strike us as premature. His rookie season prompted the following quotes:
"He’s going to be a superstar, no doubt in my mind. He’s going to be the next Dale Murphy in this city. If he continues to hit and play the outfield like he has so far, we may be talking about even more than that.’’
- Chipper Jones
"He's only going to get better. He's only going to get stronger. He's got a bright future."
- John Smoltz
"This kid has a chance to be the next face of the franchise. He’s been remarkable since the day he was drafted out of high school."
- Braves general manager John Schuerholz
"He’s still not walking, but he is giving you a great at-bat every time and that is fine. It doesn’t matter if he ever walks. It doesn’t bother me one bit.’’
- Bobby Cox
Bobby Cox said that! Even Cox, the pragmatic grouch, gave way to irresponsible optimism, even in defiance of the no-s*** logic that dictates that drawing two walks a month is not a good sign. His production was so astronomical that we actually allowed ourselves to believe that, unlike the thousands upon thousands of hitters that came before him, Francoeur somehow figured out that swinging at every pitch was the answer.
Most of us are familiar with his tumble into oblivion, so I think it's safe to sum up the five years that followed in a single sentence: his numbers grew worse and worse until the Braves probably shocked themselves by sending him down to a stint in the minors, he was dealt to the rival Mets in mid-2009, and it finally became clear to the final hold-outs from reality that Jeff Francoeur was a below-average baseball player.
And now, after a short stint with the Rangers last season, he's headed to the Royals, following the path tunneled by, in the last five years alone, ex-Braves Kyle Farnsworth, Kyle Davies, Tony Pena, Jr., Wilson Betemit, Brayan Pena, Bruce Chen, and Horacio Ramirez. He's the latest of many once-household names to end up in Kansas City after regressing into mediocrity, joining the likes of Vince Coleman, Juan Gonzalez, Jason Kendall, Hideo Nomo, and Rick Ankiel.
Francoeur's journey is consistent with modern baseball lore, but his age is unusual. He's only 26; he doesn't turn 27 until January. His age indicates that he has plenty of time to turn things around (after all, Ryan Howard didn't play a full season until he was 26). What we know about him, though, indicates that he never will.
I kind of write a lot of these "here's this stupid thing, you should like it" articles, and this is generally the point at which I explain why. My original intent was to argue that, statistically, Francoeur is not as bad as we might think. It would be a fool's errand, I'm afraid: Francoeur is one of 41 players to play at least 500 games in the outfield since 2005, and only three -- Corey Patterson, Garret Anderson, and Scott Podsednik -- have fewer total Wins Above Replacement than Francoeur does. Strictly in terms of batting, here are the batting runs above replacement of the seven men who have played at least 800 games as an outfielder since 2005:
Francoeur stands at negative-51, which means that he has scored 51 fewer runs at the plate than could be expected of a replacement-level player. Most players don't stay in the league for long enough to post such a terrible number. It suggests to me that were it not for one great month that happened over five years ago, Jeff Francoeur would not be a starter.
But I'm glad that he is. I mean that sincerely for a couple of reasons, one being that Francoeur possesses some terrific skills in the field. Here are those seven players' calculated defensive runs saved over a replacement player:
Strictly in terms of winning, it's far more important for a position player to be a good hitter than a good fielder. As a fan, however, would you rather watch a home run or a great defensive play? I would prefer the latter -- perhaps because I am such a crappy Royals fan who is both a) fully content with them losing and b) prepared to hop on the bandwagon at a moment's notice if they ever start winning -- and Francoeur has supplied plenty of it throughout his career. There are few things in baseball more entertaining than seeing a runner tossed out with a great throw, and Francoeur is responsible for a couple of the most powerful, accurate throws I've ever seen.
That is a Hell of a toss-out, and it isn't even one of the throws I was talking about:
In 2005, I was allowed to live out my lifelong sports nerd fantasy by writing the blurbs on the back of a couple of Topps cards, including this one. Francoeur's rookie season had just ended, and all I could think about was the idea of writing the rookie card of a future Hall of Famer, which he would certainly be. He failed me, leaving me to live as a common man rather than swim in a sea of royalty checks. It's all right, Jeff, those throws were ridiculous.
It's really something to see him field, and it's also really been something to see him devolve from The Natural to Worse Ryan Church, but to discuss the foremost reason I am still a fan, I must return to his hitting. Hitting coaches have badgered him into making adjustments, but his approach always seems to snap back to its original form. He doesn't record an egregious number of strikeouts; the problem has been his inability to induce a quality pitch. He doesn't work the count, and he swings at everything -- including, nearly half the time, the first pitch.
He approaches each at-bat like a happy drunk at a carnival game, and every time he steps into the box, he takes on the appearance of a man who is trying to figure it out for the first time. "Let's see," you can almost hear him saying. "I'd like to hit that ball a long way... they're giving me this stick to hit it with... I reckon if I can swing it around hard enough, the ball ought to go a long way."
It's certainly worth laughing at, and this is why I'm glad he's still around. He seems like a normal enough person, but he's one of the most bizarre baseball players in the game today. I don't know how the Hell he gets away with it, and yet there he is, too weird to be good, but forever clinging to the margins.