"There are no second acts in American lives," said F. Scott Fitzgerald, a guy who needed to justify burning out at 29. Had he been a ballplayer, he might have been able to blow off the lack of production in his 30s by saying, "Hey, a lot of players have slipped by 29," and he would have been telling the truth: David Wright and Robinson Cano turned 29 last year with their stardom undiminished, but so did Grady Sizemore, Rickie Weeks, Jorge Cantu, Conor Jackson, Francisco Rodriguez, Dontrelle Willis, and Jeremy Bonderman. The game is relentless and requires no excuses.
That said, relentless isn't the same as inevitable. Players reinvent themselves all the time, discarding approaches that don't work and sometimes finding one that does. This is particularly true of pitchers, who can go from punching bag to ace by changing their mechanics, learning a new pitch, or being put in a new role. One of my favorite examples of this is pitcher Mike Morgan, a first-round draft pick who was rushed directly to the majors out of high school by a desperate A's team in 1978. For years, Morgan wandered from team to team, getting lit up wherever he went. By 1988, he had been sent back to the minors several times, having gone 34-68 with a career 4.89 ERA (87 ERA+) and a strikeout-walk ratio perilously close to even.
That would probably have been the end of Morgan's story, but at that point he was traded to the Dodgers, a team that had a long institutional history of developing pitchers. Pitching coach Ron Perranoski looked at the way Morgan stood on the rubber and observed that given his initial position, his pitches were breaking outside the strike zone, whereas if he just moved over a little bit, those pitches would be strikes. Morgan was a changed man; in three of the next four seasons, he posted ERAs well below league average (123+ from 1989-1992) and was able to hold a job in the majors until he was 42.
A more recent example, one still with us, is lefty reliever Darren Oliver of the Blue Jays. For years, teams tried to make Oliver a starter, but despite some early success it was something he really wasn't capable of doing. After seven changes of team and a year in which he was released three times without getting a sniff of the majors, he signed with the Mets and moved to the bullpen. His career ERA as a starter for his 11 years as a starter was 5.13. His ERA for the 410 games he's pitched since turning to relief work is 2.86. As with Morgan, Oliver has pitched into his 40s, and the thought that he might retire after last season was the subject of much offseason consternation in Toronto.
Position players have a harder time evolving because so much of what they do is a matter of skill -- or is it? One question I've often asked hitters and hitting coaches is, "How much of patience and selectivity is a matter of talent, and how much is a choice?" In 2006, the YES network sent me to Trenton to cover a Robinson Cano rehab game. In his first plate appearance, Cano walked on four pitches, a rare event given his tendency to swing early and often. After the game, I asked Cano what was up with the uncharacteristic patience. "I don't know," he laughed. "I never see pitches like that in the major leagues."
My response: "How would you know?"
That exchange was brought to mind by Tyler Kepner's Sunday New York Times profile of Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis. Last season, Ellis saw 4.42 pitches per plate appearance, essentially tying for the major-league lead in that category (Adam Dunn of the White Sox saw 4.43 pitches per PA). Ellis's approach was not intuitive, an inborn skill, but calculated:
"It's funny, I spoke to the minor league players the other day, and they were asking about my approach," Ellis said. "Half-joking and half-serious, I said: ‘The reason I took so many pitches back when I was younger was because I stunk. I knew I couldn't hit.' I tried to be very patient and get in predictable fastball counts because that was my best chance."
By seeing so many pitches, Ellis said, he learned the strike zone and sharpened his pitch recognition.
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The foregoing represents an intelligent and self-aware approach. It is the rare player who can, like Cano or Vladimir Guerrero, who sometimes hit balls in the dirt for home runs, succeed by swinging at whatever the pitcher puts up there. Indeed, it doesn't always work for Cano, who goes through occasional cold streaks in which his aggressive approach results in a deluge of weak first-pitch pop-ups. Pulling the camera back a bit, in 2012, major league batters hit .300/.467/.507 when ahead in the count, .204/.211/.303 when behind in the count. Basically, the average player is an MVP-quality hitter when working the count, and something like a pitcher hitting when he doesn't or can't.
The gap between these two numbers is the story of the Royals' Jeff Francoeur, a player in need of a second act. Last season, the wins above replacement systems of both Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus found Francoeur, who hit .235/.287/.378 as a right fielder, to be the worst player in the major leagues (Fangraphs considered him the third-worst player, coming in ahead of Brennan Boesch and Michael Young). Francoeur is like every other hitter in that he does well when ahead in the count and he's helpless when behind. Last season he hit .285/.430/.467 when ahead in the count, .198/.209/.322 when behind. The difference is that whereas the average hitter will get ahead more often than he is behind -- in the American League last year, plate appearances were resolved with the batter behind 32.2 percent of the time, the count even 33.5 percent of the time, and ahead 34 percent of the time -- Francoeur is always behind. Last season he had a plate appearance resolve when behind 34.2 percent of the time, versus swinging when even 37.3 percent of the time and when ahead just 28.5 percent of the time.
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Francouer has been good in the past at reviving his career just when he seemed certain to settle into a platoon role or lose his grip on the major leagues altogether. He hacked his way out of Atlanta's plans in 2009, but he got hot after a mid-season trade to the Mets. He regressed in 2010, was traded to the Rangers, and looked good enough in a small sample that the feckless Royals gave him a free agent contract. To their credit, Francoeur played as well for them in 2011 as he had in any season of his career, hitting .285/.329/.476 with his usual good defense. They then signed him to a two-year extension, hence the use of the word "feckless," and watched as he gave it all back, including the defense.
With Francoeur, we come full circle to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the question of second acts. Francoeur is in his age-29 season. There is understandable speculation that the Royals would like to move him. The perception of defensive excellence may keep him in the lineup for another year or so, as will the memory of his positive performances at the plate, but that will only last so long if he continues to hit as he did last year. Francoeur's percentage of plate appearances ahead and behind in the count were not vastly different in the good year of 2011 versus 2012, suggesting that he was simply luckier in the former season. More damning, though Francoeur walked only 34 times in 603 plate appearances last year, he actually did try to work the count, seeing 3.9 pitches per plate appearance, a fractionally above-average number, and yet he was still too often behind in the count. In other words, he took pitches, but wasn't good at distinguishing the balls from the strikes.
So, here is the question, and the challenge: Can Jeff Francoeur turn his career around without resorting to good luck on balls in play? Can he improve his pitch recognition? Can he be like Ellis, and recognize that he must improve it to survive? In short, can he be the master of his own destiny? Well, Jeff? Can you?