This week Dan Szymborski had a piece at ESPN.com (Insider Only) in which he told about just how close the AL East is now expected to be, based on the ZiPS projection system. As of yesterday morning, he explained, “ZiPS projects four of the five teams in the AL East to have a mean projection of finishing at 83 wins, with Toronto only a couple of games back.”
“Now,” he continued, “that doesn’t mean that 84 wins will win the AL East; it just means that, according to the projections, no single team in the division is more likely to finish with more than 84 games than not. In other words, the AL East isn’t likely to come down to who has the most talented team, but simply luck and which of the very evenly matched teams play above their expectations.”
So how can a team do that? There are all kinds of variables at play in this, but on a very basic level, one way for a team to play above what the projection system can register is to have a players come out of nowhere, to make a change, or to simply have something click in a way that it couldn’t be foreseen by any mere assessment of his track record — and in case you haven’t noticed, the Jays may genuinely have some of those.
Without a doubt, Drew Hutchison could be one, but 2014 has also been going swimmingly so far for a player whose grip on a contributing role may loosen this week — provided Adam Lind comes back on Thursday, as expected, and Brett Lawrie doesn’t wind up on the shelf — and that, of course, is Juan Francisco.
And Francisco really could play above the expectations/projections if he continues taking walks at the highest rate of his career, I think.
But can he?
Well, his swing rate at pitches outside the strike zone is way down from any other point in his career, which might suggest he’s legitimately doing something different with his approach, but while I know that overall swing rate stabilizes fairly early, I can’t find anything that says that particular split does, and I don’t have much reason to believe it would. A much-cited 2007 study from Russell Carlton that’s now available at FanGraphs says that walk rate itself stabilizes around 200 plate appearances. However, an updated version in 2011, from Derrick Carty of Baseball Prospectus, suggested it’s actually around 170 PA.
Francisco is at 64 PA for the season so far — he’ll need to get regular at-bats for a month to get to that 170 PA mark where his walk rate will be stable enough to start believing in. To understand how much it can fluctuate still, Francisco failed to draw a walk in five plate appearances on Tuesday night, dropping his rate for the year from 13.6% to 12.5% — a still-impressive number, and well above his 7.5% rate over 830 career plate appearances in the bigs. Is it for real? I wish I could say yes, but obviously we need more data.
Still, though, just for fun let’s experiment with some quick and dirty math:
Based on 687 PA in the majors from 2011 to 2013, I think you could argue — or at least conservatively estimate — that we have a fairly good idea of who the 26-year-old Francisco is. In each of the separate season samples within that span his ISO, BABIP, and slash stats are reasonably close. They’re not perfectly aligned, and there are variations in things like his batted ball data and aspects of his plate discipline. No, we’re not talking about a whole lot of plate appearances, either, I know, but that’s why this is quick and dirty (well, that plus the absence of platoon splits, too, among other reasons).
This year his BABIP and ISO are well above where he was at in those years, and Carleton’s study indicates they’re still way unstable — we can definitely expect regression there (or at least in terms of BABIP, because there’s definitely big power in his bat) — so I don’t think we can look at those as newfound skills. However, if we just do something that’s practically conservative and simply apply the “new” walk rate to the guy he was before — as represented by the 2013 season, in which he hit .227/.296/.422 with 18 home runs over 385 PA — we see why it might be reasonable that the Jays are high on him beyond their simply riding the hot hand.
Francisco walked 32 times over 385 PA last year (8.3%), but if you change that rate to the current 12.5% (which, of course, you totally can’t do — but, damn it, we’re doing it anyway!) that would make 48 walks. That would move his .296 OBP up to a much more respectable .324. It would take his utterly average wOBA from .313 (league average in 2013 was .314) up to .344 — a rate that would have ranked him among the top 55 of 140 qualified hitters, had he maintained it for enough plate appearances to be eligible for the batting title.
For perspective, that’s even with Jay Bruce and Starling Marte — both of whom actually provide defensive value, let’s not forget — and ahead of guys like Kendrys Morales, Victor Martinez, Chris Carter, Nick Swisher, Ben Zobrist, Ian Kinsler, Pablo Sandoval, Anthony Rizzo, and Mark Trumbo. Adam Lind’s mark was .368 — though, let’s also not forget that wOBA isn’t park adjusted.
Is my putting Francisco’s name in this kind of company based on a gigantic leap powered by seriously fuzzy math? Entirely! But does it also highlight what the Jays might have here if he can continue to show the kind of plate discipline he’s displayed so far? I think it might.
Thing is, not only does he need to keep showing he’s figured out how to take a walk before we can feel like he’s proving his worth, he’s got to get the opportunities to show it. Those may be few and far between for a while, but maybe that’s alright. He hasn’t shown enough at the plate to play ahead of Adam Lind, and thoughts of his defence at third base — especially on turf — are scary indeed. But he’s shown enough this month, and in the preceding years, that the Jays really ought to keep him around and get him as much playing time as they reasonably can, with a view to a possible future with the club, provided he can keep it up.
OK, so approaching it that way wouldn’t necessarily make for some kind of monstrous projection-busting season, but he’ll get at least some chances, and the more he shows that he can keep taking a walk — assuming, y’know, that he can — the more frequently those should come.
I can admit that, while I originally scoffed — mostly because of all the talk of Francisco being a potential Bautista- or Encarnacion-like diamond in the rough — at the idea of expecting anything more than the league-average, no defence, high power, high strikeout guy his track record has shown him to be (not to mention his redundancy on this roster), the Jays probably really do need to see where this goes. Of course, with the way this club struggles to stay healthy sometimes, and Brett Lawrie still ailing, they’re not necessarily going to have a choice to do otherwise.