CLEARWATER, Fla. — Maikel Franco’s teasing us again.
He pulled a 93-mph fastball out of Bright House Network Field in the fourth inning on Tuesday. But we’ve seen that before. However, in the sixth inning, down 0-2 in the count to lefthanded reliever Jose Alvarado, Franco lashed a 97-mph fastball, low and away, to right field.
That was different. That was progress. That was tantalizing.
That sort of hit with that sort of swing can transform Franco, 25, from question mark to cornerstone. Franco convinced the club he was a righthanded power piece when he played 80 games in 2015 and hit .280 with 14 homers and a .343 on-base percentage, but he’s hit .242 with a .294 on-base percentage the last two seasons. The team remained hopeful, because he also hit 49 home runs and doesn’t strike out a ton, but he rarely walks and makes anemic contact on outside pitches.
A Phillies lineup with a 2015 version of Maikel Franco would make all the talk about a playoff run much more likely, and that version might resurface if this balanced, closed swing is here to stay. The Phillies believe it is.
“Franco, I’ve noticed in the last two or three days — that’s become his stance. His load. His stride,” said former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, now a front-office adviser who has spent the last four years helping to groom the organization’s rich minor-league talent pool. “It’s what Sal Rende and I talked about as far back as Lehigh Valley.”
Rende, the club’s triple-A hitting coach, and Manuel pleaded with Franco to stop flying open, to keep his hands back, to stride more toward first base, so he could better cover the outside part of the plate. Franco would briefly adapt, but, eager to hit more home runs and worried about being beaten by inside fastballs he would revert to his old swing: mistimed, unbalanced, helmet flying off.
For the moment, the only reason his helmet might fly off is because of his massive crop of frosted dreadlocks.
“I’m trying to be consistent with my front foot — it’s a little bit closed now — and stay more in the middle of the plate, so I can use right-center,” Franco said Wednesday, all that hair hidden under a red Phillies hoodie. “I’m worried about doing what I’m doing the right way. I’m not really worried about the result right now.”
That’s disciplined, and that’s difficult, because the results have been atrocious.
Franco was 3-for-30 before his two hits against the Blue Jays on Tuesday. It was his second homer of the spring, but he has just one walk. His batting average is .156; his on-base percentage, .182.
“His 3-for-30 was not an indication of how he’s swung the bat,” manager Gabe Kapler insisted, “and it was not an indication of the way he’s approached his at-bats. He’s worked deeper counts at times. He’s also hit a lot of balls on the barrel. We don’t do this in spring training, but if we measured his exit velocities — how often he’s been on the barrel — it’s been noticeable that he’s driving the baseball.”
Yes, it’s rich irony that an analytics-loving manager reverts to the ol’ eye test to support his assertion, but Kapler’s right. For the moment, Franco — 10 pounds lighter but still broad through his shoulders — looks excellent.
“Right now, I feel like I have better balance, and I can drive the ball middle, middle-away,” Franco said. “That’s the pitch that affected me most at the end of last season. I have to adjust to that pitch.”
He had little chance against any righthander with a good slider or any lefthander with a strong change-up. According to BrooksBaseball.net, more than 26 percent of all the pitches he saw last season were low, outside, or both. Almost 40 percent of those were sliders from righthanders. He hit .191 against righthanders’ sliders last season.
He hit .071 when righthanders pitched him low and away outside of the strike zone overall. So, the club is trying to get him to lay off those pitches.
He also hit .200 on strikes that were low and away, .192 on strikes that were high and away, so that’s the hitting zone he’s worked on most.
Franco didn’t travel with the team Wednesday. Instead, he joined assistant hitting coach Pedro Guerrero in the batting cage, where Guerrero stood next to a basket of balls and a hitting tee set up so Franco could hit high pitches on the outside of the plate. Manuel sat in a chair nearby.
“Watch this,” Manuel said with a nod.
Franco, hands high and feet square to the plate, strode slight toward first base and smacked 10 balls off the tee over where the second baseman would stand. Guerrero lowered the tee to knee height and fed it again. Franco smacked 10 more. Guerrero moved behind a screen 20 feet away, offset to the first-base side, and soft-tossed 10 pitches high and away, then 10 low and away. Franco smacked all but two of of them to right field: Whap. Whap. Whap.
Rende was working with Carlos Santana, Franco’s mentor, in the adjacent cage. Rende glanced over when he heard the sounds. “Good,” Rende said. “Nice.”
This was the type of cage work that paid off in Tuesday’s game.
“I wasn’t looking for the home run. I just tried to be early with my front foot, and the ball flew,” Franco said. “The other hit, [the count] was two strikes, no balls. I know he throws hard, but he’s got a good breaking ball, so [I] stayed with the fastball, 98, 99. I just put the barrel on the ball. It jumped.
“I feel like I can cover the outside of the plate this way,” he said, with a smile. “With a breaking ball from a righthander, I have a better chance to drive the ball the other way.”
The most important lessons Franco can learn are that he has naturally fast hands, so fastballs won’t beat him, and, at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, he needs no extra effort to drive the ball.
“That’s a good point. I totally get it: I don’t have to try to swing so hard every single time,” Franco said “Use the power that I have. If I hit it good, the ball’s going to jump off my bat.”
We’ve heard all of this before. We’ve seen glimpses of progress, too.
Maybe, this time, it’s not just a tease.