Farewell to Arm

“The TV highlights roll on, showcasing Francoeur’s typically sublime game against the Los Angeles Dodgers the previous night. He went 2 for 5, lifting his average to .373, and hit his 10th home run, a 407-foot parabola that landed midway up the leftfield stands. He saw a total of 16 pitches, on par with his economical average of 3.34 pitches per plate appearance.”

– Michael Farber, Sports Illustrated; August 29, 2005

Jeff Francoeur appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August of 2005, smiling under a caption that read: “The Natural.” This is now laughable. The cover story has become a pot of gold, and we are all leprechauns. I highly recommend it for all the unintended-but-now-hilarious foreshadowing to his career . . . Also for the part where he hates on books.

Anyway, Francoeur batted .300, hit 14 home runs, doubled 20 times, drove in 45 runs, and walked 11 times in 70 games that season. This might have been the worst thing that happened to him as a baseball player. He found success with a bad approach, good results with a faulty process, and wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

As should be expected, it didn’t last. Francoeur left Atlanta a disappointment, with a career .266 batting average and .309 on-base percentage as a Brave.

Francoeur then came to New York, to the 2009 Mets. Same song, second verse: He batted .311, hit 10 home runs, doubled 20 times, drove in 41 runs, and walked just 11 times in 75 games last season, an almost identical line to his first months with Atlanta. Actually, this might have been the worst thing that ever happened to him as a player, as he again found success with a bad approach. Something that shouldn’t have worked, did, for a second time, making it even less likely that he would change his ways and find sustained success.

Sustained success was not to be. Francoeur swung his way to being second-to-last in batting and last in on-base percentage among National League hitters this season before being traded to the Texas Rangers. He leaves New York a disappointment again . . . actually, no, that’s not correct. I assume that most fans and press will refer to Francoeur and his tenure with the Mets as “a disappointment,” like I just did there. The way I see it, that’s not right. At least, that is to say it’s not fair to Francoeur to call his Mets tenure a disappointment. We may feel disappointed, but Jeff Francoeur himself is not a disappointment — he’s not.

Now, on one hand, the departure of Francoeur certainly feels like a relief at this point . . . just, oh man, he was so bad. You can find his name in the bottom ten for just about every meaningful NL offensive category. Average, on-base, slugging, OPS+, wOBA, runs created, his name is there, somewhere, probably close to the bottom of the list. He was an inspirational kind of bad, the sort of bad few of us can even dare to dream about becoming. His leaving comes a relief because of that. At the very least, it’s nice to know I won’t need to listen to the announcers discuss how “the quality of his at-bats” are improving anymore as he grounds out to third.

But I think you’re lying to yourself if you didn’t, at some point, believe in Jeff Francoeur. I know I did. I managed to remain skeptical all last season, only to finally give in at the very beginning of this 2010 season. I willingly admit it: I believed in Jeff Francoeur. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I am slightly disappointed things didn’t work out here.

But you know whose fault that is? It’s not Jeff Francoeur’s fault; it’s my fault. It’s my own fault that I’m disappointed in Jeff Francoeur, because, of course, what did he ever do? He hit well for two months last season and the first two weeks of this season? As the saying goes, even blind squirrels sometimes find acorns and base hits. It’s my own fault for believing that the clearly blind squirrel was going to continue to stumble upon acorns. Francoeur was only disappointing to me because I decided he was something more than the evidence said he was. His disappointment exists entirely as my own construct. I am the architect of his failure.

He can’t be disappointing because the warning signs were always there. 21-year-olds hitting .275/.322/.487 for AA-Mississippi don’t suddenly turn into .300/.336/.549 hitters in the major leagues, at least not without a whole lot of luck. Now, I’ll grant that he was a big prospect for Atlanta, and because of that their fans have more right to genuine disappointment . . . but even in the SI article, there are red flags all over. And as for coming to New York, well, career .266/.308/.424 hitters don’t suddenly turn into .311/.338/.498 hitters because the scenery changes around them. He was a bad hitter with an arm when the Mets acquired him; he’s still a bad hitter with an arm. Nothing about changed except for how we feel about him.

So when people say that Jeff Francoeur is a disappointment, particularly those in New York, I’m not sure that’s fair to him. It implies the failure to live up to expectations is on his part — but we created the expectations. It’s not like Jason Bay, a player with a sustained record of success, coming to New York and having the season he’s had; it’s not like David Wright’s 2009 season when he hit 10 home runs. Those were good players having bad years, which is and should be disappointing. Jeff Francoeur is having a bad year, but he should have been expected to have a bad year. Outside of a few stretches here and there, he’s always been bad. He’s had the same bad approach at the plate from his first game in the majors to this season; his batting line as a Met is almost identical to his batting line as a Brave. His failure should in no way come as a surprise to anyone. He remains exactly who he was — how can that be disappointing? The disappointment wasn’t created by him as much as it was by us.

But because Francoeur comes across as such a nice guy, because he’s got that goofy “aw, shucks” thing going on, it was easier to fool myself about him. As a human being, I want to see other decent human beings succeed in their endeavors, and Frenchy seems like a decent human being. There’s nothing wrong with wishing Jeff Francoeur success.

But expecting him to be successful, believing that he would be successful . . . well, that didn’t make any sense. Any disappointment I feel, I know it’s my own fault. I’m not going to blame him for it.

Of course, he also moved from just “disappointing” to “apocalyptic nightmare” about a month ago. That I blame on the Mets running him out there over and over.

Francoeur is taking his cowboy boots — and, yes, he owns cowboy boots — to Texas now. Supposedly he’s only going to face lefthanded pitching, and hitting in that bandbox . . . well, Texas fans, enjoy it while it lasts.

But don’t believe it.

He doesn’t have a strike zone, he has a zip code. In his first 131 plate appearances Francoeur  had no walks, the longest such streak at the start of a career for a position player since 1984. Of the 437 big league pitches that Francoeur  had seen through Sunday, only nine were delivered with three balls in the count. He has swung at the first pitch 47% of the time; the major league average was 28%. He occasionally frets about selectivity and actually once watched video of his at bats until McCann sauntered by and said, “That’s not you. That’s not what got you here.” Francoeur agrees. “When I don’t think,” he says, “I do well.”


Image via slgckgc’s Flickr. CC 2.0

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2 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

2 responses to “Farewell to Arm

  1. Hey, nice post! The start of his career is even more dramatic than what you write, IMO. His .300 avg over 70 games as a rookie was really .439 (and .827 slugging and with no walks) in his first 23 games, and then a .239 average in the remaining 46 games. I completely agree with your point. In high school I had a friend who played poker one night and won money. We all knew that was the worst thing that could happen to him, and we were right. Frenchy never recovered from that tiny sample set of 23 awesome games before pitchers adjusted to him and he never adjusted back.

    • Patrick Flood

      I knew he started off hot, but I didn’t realize he started off THAT hot. It is just like your friend who won poker: Beginners luck that Frenchy never recognized as luck.

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