Monday, August 22, 2011

Francoeur Forever.

We can argue the merits of the deal all day long. But I think we can all agree one thing: it was inevitable.

Having landed his white whale last winter, Dayton Moore wasn’t about to let Jeff Francoeur go. One year turned into three; after paying just $2.5 million (with some incentives) to secure Francoeur’s services for 2011, the Royals will be paying him $13.5 million to keep him in town for 2012 and 2013.

And like almost every move Moore makes, I’m deeply ambivalent about the signing. In the first 24 hours after the deal, I probably changed my position a half-dozen times. Ultimately, though, I have decided I am against the extension. I’m not vociferously against it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it works out, but I think the odds are against it. But the reasons why I’m against the extension are probably not what you think.

There are two questions that have to be asked of the extension:

1) Is Jeff Francoeur worth $13.5 million over the next two years?
2) Is Jeff Francoeur a good fit for the Kansas City Royals over the next two years?

My answer to the first question is decidedly more neutral than most members of the sabermetric community. But then, I’ve been out of lock-step with the sabermetric community on Francoeur for over two years now, ever since I advocated that the Royals acquire him. Francoeur is a flashpoint in the still-simmering battle between scouts and stats. He is a player with undeniable skills – he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 21 for a reason – and equally undeniable flaws.

From 2008 to 2010, from the ages of 24 to 26, Francoeur hit .256/.301/.389 and was one of the worst everyday players in baseball. His 2008 season, when he hit .239/.294/.359 with bad defense in right field, ranks (according to Baseball Reference) as one of the ten worst seasons by any hitter in the last 50 years. It was worse than Neifi Perez’s 2002 season, which seems hard to believe.

Nonetheless, Francoeur has been an everyday player for virtually his entire career, in part because teams still see his underlying tools, and in part because of his vivacious personality. Francoeur clearly got more opportunities than his performance has warranted – but just as clearly, the sabermetric establishment has tried to overcorrect for his reputation. I have no argument with the way analysts have consistently portrayed his performance over the last five years as beyond wretched – I agree with it.

But it’s one thing to say Francoeur is wretched – it’s another to say he is beyond redemption. Players aren’t static creatures, and they are capable of improvement, particularly when they are still in their mid-20s. Francoeur is no exception to that rule, but at times he has been treated that way, as when the Royals signed him this winter. Most – certainly not all – analysts thought it was a terrible move for the Royals, even though it was just a one-year commitment, and it wasn’t a lot of money, and the Royals had no better internal options.

Even when Francoeur got off to a great start this season, it was written off as typical Frenchy, always hitting well in his first month with his new team before reverting back to form. (Which is true, but in lieu of an actual explanation for why he would choose to suck after his first month, I failed to see why we should assume Francoeur was just baiting us.) And when Francoeur slumped in May and June, the conventional wisdom was that he was returning to his true talent level.

But since July 1st, Francoeur has disrupted the narrative. Here’s his monthly splits:

April: .314/.357/.569
May: .233/.287/.388
June: .235/.280/.367
July: .306/.377/.531
August: .306/.351/.458

For the season, he’s hitting .277/.330/.463, good for an OPS+ of 119, in a non-trivial sample size of 123 games. And I would submit that if someone named “Jeff Spainoeur” were a 27-year-old rightfielder with a cannon arm, and was hitting .277/.330/.463, and was an impending free agent, and his team signed him to a 2-year, $13.5 million extension…the reaction from most analysts wouldn’t be nearly so negative. It might, in fact, be positive.

That’s a red herring of sorts, because Jeff Spainoeur wasn’t one of the worst players in the game from 2008 to 2010, and Jeff Francoeur was, and past performance matters. By giving him a two-year extension, the Royals are basically gambling $13.5 million that, in this case, past performance doesn’t matter.

And that’s really the question here. If Francoeur plays as well in 2012 and 2013 as he has in 2011 – no better – he will justify this contract and then some. If he regresses even a little towards his performance the last three years, he’ll be an overpriced albatross.

So let’s break down his performance this year. What stands out to me is that – with the notable exception of his steals (he has 19 already, after having never stolen more than eight in any previous season) – Francoeur isn’t doing anything that out of character for him. He’s hitting .277; his career average is .269. He’s on pace for 19 homers, matching the number he hit as a 23-year-old in 2007; as a 22-year-old, he hit 29 homers. He’s hit 37 doubles and is on pace for about 45, which would be a career high; on the other hand, he’s hit over 30 doubles in three of the last four years.

He is on pace for 45 walks – breaking his career high of 42 – and 124 strikeouts, close to his career high of 132. He hasn’t struck out over 100 times in a season since 2008. If anything, it appears Francoeur made too much contact the last few years, or at least too much weak contact. His strikeout rate is back where it was from 2005 to 2007, when he was a decent player. Overall, he has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career, but it’s not dramatically out of line with his past.

Aside from his steals, there’s nothing in Francoeur’s performance that seems unsustainable – and the Royals aren’t paying him $13.5 million because of his ability to steal bases. His improvements are subtle, but they’re across-the-board, and they’re made more impressive by the fact we’ve entered a low-offense era. Consider this:

2007: .293/.338/.444, 102 OPS+
2011: .277/.330/.463, 119 OPS+

In terms of raw offensive numbers, Francoeur is hitting almost exactly the same this year as he did four years ago – he’s traded eight points of OBP for 19 points of slugging. But the value of his performance is dramatically different – in 2007 he was essentially a league-average hitter, while in 2011 the same numbers are well above-average.

If you’re looking for numbers that will support the conclusion that he’s having a fluke season, your best bet is to look at his platoon splits. Most of the improvement Francoeur has shown this season has come against left-handed pitching – he is crushing them to the tune of .315/.378/.604. His OPS against southpaws this season is 141 points higher than his career numbers of .300/.347/.494. Against right-handed pitching, he’s only slightly better this season (.265/.314/.420) than his career line (.257/.299/.405).

On the other hand, hits against left-handed pitchers still count on the scoreboard. I’d be more concerned if his numbers this year were skewed by facing more left-handed pitchers than he normally does, but he’s actually faced left-handed pitching slightly less often (24% of the time) in 2011 than for his career (28%) as a whole. Basically, Francoeur is a league-average hitter against right-handed pitching, and an All-Star against left-handers.

Looking at Fangraphs’ pitch data, one thing stands out about Francoeur’s performance this season. While he swings at pitches outside the strike zone as much as always – he’s taken a hack at 40% of pitches outside the zone, a little higher than his career average of 38% – he has swung at pitches inside the strike zone at the lowest rate of his career. Francoeur has tried his luck against just 72% of pitches inside the zone, compared to a career average of 80%.

He’s still more aggressive than the average hitter – the typical batter swings at only 65% of pitches in the strike zone. But this fits with the theory that Francoeur isn’t succeeding by making more contact – he’s succeeding by making better contact, or more precisely, by not swinging at pitches that he can’t do anything with other than pop up or ground out weakly.

I don’t know if his performance is sustainable – but there is nothing about his performance that suggests it isn’t. And, again: he’s 27 years old. Alex Gordon is 27 years old, and he’s having a season that’s more out of character with his previous career than Francoeur is. (Last year, both Gordon and Francoeur had an OPS+ of 84 – but this year, Gordon’s OPS+ is 139.) Few people think Gordon’s improvement is a fluke. Sure, that’s because Gordon was a stud in the minor leagues – but it was just one season, and if we’re going to talk about just one season, then Francoeur was a stud in the major leagues at an age when Gordon was still a college junior. Gordon showed promise as a sophomore in the majors – but there’s hardly any difference between Gordon’s 2008 and Francoeur’s 2007.

The main reason people take Gordon’s performance more seriously than Francoeur’s is because Gordon knows the strike zone. That’s a valuable skill, but there are players who can succeed without plate discipline, and we shouldn’t discount Francoeur’s performance simply because he’s swing-happy. And the other reason why we take Gordon’s performance more seriously is that it’s coming on the heels of only two bad seasons, while Francoeur has had three in a row. But again: they’re both 27 years old. I don’t think it’s fair to penalize Francoeur because he was an above-average player in the majors at a younger age than Gordon was.

With all that said, I think the Royals overpaid a little. Francoeur’s having a good season at the plate, but he’s a rightfielder; most of them have. Of the 30 rightfielders in baseball who have played in 80 or more games, Francoeur ranks just 12th in OPS+. His defense is good but overrated – his arm, which is legitimately great, is not matched by his range, which is average or maybe a tick below.

He gets points for his durability; I don’t think Francoeur has ever been on the DL. Add it all up, though, and I thought Francoeur was likely to earn somewhere between $10 and $12 million over the next two years. He got $13.5 million instead. That’s not a huge overpay, but the Royals didn’t get any kind of Dayton Moore discount either. If Francoeur continues to play at the level he has sustained over the last four months, he’ll earn his money and more. But at this salary, I think the upside is limited. The downside, given Francoeur’s history, is considerable.

The downside is limited by one thing: it’s only a two-year deal. Francoeur will not have turned 30 by the time he’s a free agent. It’s nearly impossible to hand out a bad one-year deal, and even with a two-year contract it’s pretty difficult. The most overpriced part of any contract is the final year of the deal. I was worried that Moore would go three years or even longer in order to keep Francoeur in tow, particularly with Wil Myers struggling in Double-A. By signing Francoeur for just two years, Moore keeps the Royals from paying for his decline, and sets up a graceful transition to Wil Myers in late 2013 or at the beginning of 2014.

Add up all the pros and cons, and I come to the conclusion that it’s a fair deal for both sides. The Royals paid Francoeur his market value, more or less.

And with all that, I don’t like the deal.

The first reason for my skepticism is this: why now? Why hand out a multi-year deal in the middle of the season? This wouldn’t bother me so much if the Royals didn’t have an official policy of not negotiating contracts during the season. I mean, just last week we heard the happy news that the Royals had expressed to Alex Gordon their interest in discussing a long-term contract after the season, and he had expressed an interest to reciprocate. That’s terrific news – a long-term contract for Gordon should be the Royals’ #1 priority this off-season – but it raises the question: why did the Royals make Francoeur’s contract extension a higher priority than Gordon’s?

There are two possibilities. One is that Francoeur came to the Royals with an interest to sign a contract, which is the exception to the team’s policy, as they also did an in-season deal with Joakim Soria. But Soria’s contract, as everyone in baseball knows, was a very club-friendly deal. This contract isn’t. Francoeur got market value.

The other possibility is that the Royals were just so freaked out about Francoeur reaching free agency this winter that they were determined to sign him before he could test the market. If that’s the case – I mean, come on. Francoeur’s having a nice comeback season, but it’s not like he’s hitting like an All-Star. Factor in the possibility that he could go back to being the hitter that got chased out of Atlanta by a pitchfork-wielding mob, and a 2-year, $13.5 million contract was probably about as well as he could do.

This looks like a bit of a desperation move to me, in which the Royals decided to get a deal done just so they could cross it off their to-do list. What worries me is that the last time the Royals made a big transaction that appeared to be a bit premature, it was the David DeJesus trade. As they did last November, the Royals emphasized expediency over actually getting the best deal done.

If Francoeur continues to hit well the rest of the season, it won’t matter much. But by signing him in mid-August instead of after the season, the Royals are running the risk that he tanks over the last six weeks, in which case he’s signed to a contract that’s way overpriced before it even starts. If Francoeur hits like he did in May and June over the next two weeks, he’ll wind up with a line of .260/.310/.420, which is barely worth playing at all, let alone guaranteeing eight figures for. Even if you believe Francoeur’s performance is for real, given his history, wouldn’t you rather have six months of data to feel good about instead of four?

The Royals did this seven years ago, when Allard Baird was so impressed by Angel Berroa’s rookie season that he was committed to getting him signed to a long-term deal, and not even Berroa’s slump to begin 2004 could diminish Baird’s enthusiasm. The four-year deal was announced in mid-May, when Berroa was hitting around .200 with no secondary skills. He wound up batting .262/.308/.385, with noticeably worse defense than he showed as a rookie, and there were already second thoughts about his contract before it even went into effect. But the Royals had already committed to Berroa from 2005 through 2008; after a marginally bad 2005 season, Berroa was one of the worst players in baseball in 2006, and by 2007 the Royals had sent him and his bloated contract to Triple-A.

Francoeur’s contract only runs half as long. But as with Berroa’s rookie season, there is at least some reason to think Francoeur is having a fluky year, and I think the Royals should have waited as long as possible, and for as much data as possible, before committing to him past this year.

The second, and more significant, reason for my skepticism is that while Francoeur’s contract makes sense in the abstract, I don’t think he’s the best fit for the Royals going forward. This contract tells me that the Royals believe they can think about contending as soon as next season, a sentiment I share.

That requires a sea change in the way the organization builds its major league roster – winning trumps development, and tactical considerations trump strategic ones. That means that the Royals can’t just put a bunch of talented players on the field and hope. It means they need to do things like pinch-hit for their shortstop when the need arises, and not stick with a struggling starting pitcher when the game is on the line. It also means that they need to consider how the different parts of their lineup fit together.

Going into 2012, the Royals had three in-house candidates to fill two spots: center field and right field. (I will give them the benefit of the doubt that Alex Gordon’s place in left field is secure.) Those candidates were Francoeur, Melky Cabrera, and Lorenzo Cain.

Cain has the advantage of being the only one of the three who is a plus defender in center field. I’ve said this before, but it’s become enough of a problem that it needs to be repeated frequently: Melky Cabrera is a centerfielder in name only. The Royals rank 27th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, and that’s despite the massive upgrade from Yuniesky Betancourt to Alcides Escobar at shortstop. With a young and inexperienced rotation likely for the next few years, more improvement is needed. Getting Cabrera out of center field is a top priority. That doesn’t mean trading him – he has been an adequate corner outfielder in the past, and probably will be again if the Royals move him to one.

Cabrera has the advantage of being the only one of the three who does not bat right-handed. I’ve written this before, but since no one else seems to be talking about it I’ll mention it again: the Royals are in danger of being a very right-handed-hitting team. Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Alex Gordon all bat left-handed. But Billy Butler, Johnny Giavotella, Alcides Escobar, and Salvador Perez all bat right-handed. Not only that, but every top hitting prospect in the organization bats right-handed. The best prospects in the entire system that don’t bat right-handed are:

Triple-A: David Lough and Jarrod Dyson. (Yes, and Clint Robinson and Kila Ka’aihue, but they have no future in Kansas City.)
Double-A: Derrick Robinson and Paulo Orlando.
High-A: Rey Navarro, the one legitimate prospect on this list.
Low-A: No one.

Everyone from Wil Myers and Christian Colon to Brett Eibner and Cheslor Cuthbert bats right-handed. As does, I should point, Bubba Starling.

Cain and Francoeur both bat right-handed, while Cabrera is a switch-hitter. If the Royals commit to Cain in center field and trade Cabrera, the Royals will have six right-handed bats in the lineup almost every day next year, with little hope that the ratio will balance out in the near future. (Incidentally, this is one of the main reasons why I think the Royals would be foolish to let go of switch-hitting Brayan Pena as their backup catcher.)

Francoeur is the only one of the three who could neither play good defense in center field nor bat from the left side. The obvious solution for the Royals was to promote Cain, move Cabrera to right field (or possibly to left field, with Gordon switching corners), and to wave Francoeur good-bye. That would have upgraded their outfield defense while maintaining the platoon advantage in at least four spots in the lineup.

By re-signing Francoeur, the Royals put themselves in a difficult decision. Maybe they are able to trade Cain for a starting pitcher, in which case they’re stuck with a bad defender in a crucial up-the-middle position. Maybe they can turn Cabrera into prospects, in which case they’re going to be eaten alive by tough right-handed pitching. But the Royals have created a situation where, no matter which way they go, they’ve left the 2012 team with a significant tactical weakness.

Maybe the Royals get really creative here, and trade both Cain and Cabrera in order to open a spot for Jarrod Dyson (which honestly isn’t as crazy as it sounds). Or maybe they trade Butler and DH Cabrera (which is as crazy as it sounds, as I don’t think the Royals can get fair value for Butler). But as it stands now, bringing back Francoeur is the first domino in a chain reaction that, whichever way it goes, doesn’t end well for the Royals.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope that, between now and Opening Day, the Royals come up with an outfield arrangement which maximizes their chances of winning in 2012. The problem is that they already had such an arrangement at their fingertips, and let it go rather than relinquish their precious Francoeur. Re-signing Frenchy certainly isn’t a crippling move along the lines of the Jose Guillen contract; it doesn’t clearly make the Royals worse like the Mike Jacobs trade did. But the Royals spent a fair amount of money on a player who doesn’t have a long track record of success, and who the Royals didn’t really need in the first place.

There were better ways to spend that money. Love may be blind, but it ain’t cheap. If Dayton Moore’s love is requited, this contract won’t hurt the Royals. Unfortunately, “not hurting the Royals” is about the best we can hope for.