Yes, I have not posted on this blog in a while. But now that the Notre Dame football season and my first fall semester of grad school is over, I feel like I can begin to turn my focus toward Royals baseball again, especially as we head into 2020.
And let’s face it Royals fans…you guys have been and continue to be focused on the Chiefs anyways. Let’s keep it real. It’s been all about Red and Gold rather than Blue and White ever since the Royals season ended in September. And rightfully so…the Chiefs have a good shot to make the Super Bowl now that they are the No. 2 seed and have a bye in the playoffs.
But anyways, let’s get back to Royals baseball and look at Dayton Moore’s biggest move of the off-season thus far: signing former Phillies third-baseman Maikel Franco.
Franco at first glance is a puzzling signing, as many Royals fans have been musing since the deal was first announced weeks ago. The Royals seemed solid at third base with Hunter Dozier, who is coming off a career year where he posted a 124 wRC+ and 3.0 WAR over 139 games and 586 plate appearances. Sure, Dozier is no Mike Moustakas with the glove, but neither is Franco, and Franco is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, as he posted a 70 wRC+ and negative-0.5 WAR over 123 games and 428 plate appearances in Philadelphia in 2019. Thus, it makes one wonder what Royals management is thinking by pushing Dozier off the hot corner and possibly into the outfield, as Dozier is more likely to play other positions in comparison to the 27-year-old newcomer.
However, this signing by Moore and the Royals looks better when one analyzes the numbers a bit deeper. First off, the Royals are getting Franco on a pretty low-risk, low-cost deal: at one-year, $2.95 million, Franco will be a steal if he transitions any of his 2018 or 2016 numbers to Kansas City. And if he continues to plummet in 2020 like he did in 2019? Well, the Royals can cut ties with him without much consequence. As Royals fans learned in 2019 with Chris Owings, who was on a similar deal, if Franco doesn’t make an impact right away, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see Moore dump him by June and slide Doz back to the hot corner.
Thus, this deal, at surface level has low-risk, high-reward potential, and that should be promising for the Royals, who appear to be limited financially this Winter, as they have not been mentioned a whole lot in relation to free agents, regardless of profile. Yes, thinking that the Royals would be in the mix for Gerrit Cole was foolish (only the craziest of Royals fans were in that boat), but it was plausible that the Royals could have been in the mix for pitchers like Kyle Gibson and Julio Teheran, who both signed elsewhere this Winter. Hence, when it comes to upgrading the roster, it seems like new ownership will want Moore to do so on the frugal end, much like Moore did with Franco.
However, acquiring talent on the cheap is fine as long as it is smart. Thankfully, this Franco signing fits in that category when one looks into Franco’s advanced data.
First off, it is obvious that Franco made some strides a year ago when it came to honing his plate discipline. His BB/K ratio rose from 0.47 to 0.59 from 2018 to 2019, with his walk rate increasing to a career high 8.4 percent (his walk rate was 6.2 percent a year ago), according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, his contact rate rose slightly (79.9 to 80 percent) and his swinging strike rate declined slightly as well (10.3 to 9.9 percent), according to Fangraphs. These are all signs that he made a commitment to becoming a more patient hitter in 2019, though that certainly didn’t translate to immediate production, as evidenced by his .234/.297/.409 slash line.
But it will be interesting to see if his plate discipline will continue to mature in 2020. Franco made a commitment to swinging less early in the count, as his first pitch swing percentage went down from 37.4 in 2018 to 29.4 in 2019. This could have had an effect on him getting better pitches to hit, which he did capitalize on, as evidenced by him increasing his flyballs hit percentage (19 to 21.8 percent) as well as his solid (4.0 to 4.5) and barrel percentage (6 to 6.9). However, being patient could have been his own-worst enemy, as his BABIP (.236) certainly didn’t help his stat line, and he also swung 10 percent less on “meatball” (pitches that could easily be mashed) pitches from a year ago (85 to 75 percent), according to Statcast data. If Franco wants to better his numbers from 2019, he needs to take advantage of those “meatball” pitches more often in 2020.
That being said, it seems like what Franco was trying to do last year in Philly was a big change in his approach, and usually there are growing pains when hitters make such a change in year one. It is possible that the Royals management recognized this, and are hoping that further work with the Royals coaching staff could help Franco harness the positives of his more patient approach from a year ago (such as the better plate discipline and better GB/FB percentages), while helping in areas where Franco struggled in Philly, which in turn, could help him be more productive as a Royal in 2020.
In many ways, Dayton Moore and new manager Mike Matheny promised to be more analytically active in 2020 and beyond when they introduced Matheny as their new manager this off-season. An affinity for “intangibles” and “traditional baseball sense” over advanced data seemed to not only dog Moore recently, but Matheny as well, and for many Royals fans, the combo of the two in charge didn’t bring much optimism that the Royals could avoid a third-straight 100-loss season in 2020.
While we have not necessarily seen Matheny incorporate that on the field just yet (and we won’t until Spring Training), the Franco signing this Winter demonstrates that Moore may be looking more to analytics to find salvageable talent on a budget. Franco has a lot of flaws as a hitter and player overall. But the Statcast data and advanced numbers show that there are some promising signs that Franco could turn it around with the right coaching as well as some minor adjustments in Kansas City. It’s plausible to think that Franco could be a 20-25 home run hitter who could flirt in the .770 to .800 OPS range, which would be a steal considering his meager contract.
Maybe Moore is feeling the hot seat in year one under new ownership, and is not ready to just throw out cash at guys just for the hell of it this off-season, as he has been prone to do in the post-World Series shadow from 2016-2019. That being said, whether this was mostly his call or his analytics guys’, it is obvious that Franco is a signing where the Royals went beyond just the surface level numbers. If Franco breaks out in 2020 and brings stability to the hot corner, Moore and the Royals analytics guys deserve the credit for it.
Let’s see if Moore and his team have anything else up their sleeve this Winter.