THERE'S A GREAT old story, recounted in a 1947 New York Times article by Arthur Daley, about Yogi Berra and plate discipline. Trying to shake the second-year player out of a slump, Bucky Harris, the Yankees manager at the time, pulled the notoriously bad-ball hitting future Hall of Famer aside as he prepared to walk to the on-deck circle and offered this advice:
"You aren't thinking enough at the plate. Think before you pick out a ball. Make sure it's good before you swing. Think!"
The story, which Berra later both rebutted and confirmed, ends with the catcher heading back to the dugout after striking out on three straight pitches, mumbling repeatedly:
"How can a guy hit and think at the same time?"
Which brings me to the saga of 24-year-old Maikel Franco, in Year 3 of what has thus far been a mostly futile attempt to make him a more disciplined hitter.
Specifically, is it possible? And could it possibly be counterproductive?
With Franco entering what would be, with good health, his second full season in the major leagues, his learning curve seemed to have spiked with the arrival of Matt Stairs as hitting coach this spring. He took his walks, worked counts, had a promising spring in terms of discipline.
"He hasn't lost his helmet on a swing in BP or in a game yet this spring," Stairs beamed late in March, but when April rolled around, some springs sprung from the top of his head again.
Entering Thursday night's game against the Mets, Franco was hitting .148 over his first 14 games and 60 plate appearances with two home runs, 10 runs batted in and a .217 on-base-percentage. A grand slam and broken bat single against the Mets on April 12 suggested a coming-out-of-the slump party, but Franco had not recorded a hit in 22 at-bats since until busting out with a double and first-pitch home run in Thursday's series finale in New York’s spacious CitiField.
Seeking to get out of a jam in a one-run loss Wednesday night, Mets manager Terry Collins issued a bases-loaded intentional walk to Odubel Herrera to get to Franco. He obliged by grounding out. Later in the eighth, with a runner on third and one out, he struck out.
It was reminiscent of Ryan Howard's last few years in the Phillies' cleanup spot.
Franco is supposed to make that all different, make that stretch of 20-plus-homer guys coming before and after him harder to pitch to or pitch around. Right now, and until one of those touted minor league sluggers become a major league one, he is supposed to be the most dangerous hitter in the lineup, not someone you maneuver to pitch to. The Phillies even went out and added some veteran protection in the offseason, acquiring Howie Kendricks and Michael Saunders.
That's why plate discipline has been so emphasized since he wowed them with his half-season in 2015, and his solid, let's-build-upon-this 2016, when he slugged 25 home runs and 23 doubles, knocked in 88 runs, and had an OPS of .733.
Berra's OPS the year of the Harris story was slightly better, at .775 and increased from there. Somehow over his 19 seasons, he managed to walk almost twice as much as he struck out, the inverse of Franco's current pace. He also habitually was near .300 for most of his career, which is why he's in the Hall of Fame. And, yes, it was a different era, where you also habitually faced the same pitcher for four at-bats in a game.
Thing is, Berra always disputed the notion you could think and hit.
"If you ask me, this is true with any sport," he said in his 1998 book, confirming the quote - which he said came from his last minor league season. For him, hitting was more reactionary than cerebral, a notion embraced by many who came before and after.
"Concentration," Ray Knight, another notoriously good bad-ball hitter, once said, "is the ability to think of nothing when it is absolutely necessary."
Me? I think it depends on the guy. And his age. And how he is interpreting what he is being taught. It should be noted that amid his early struggles, Franco's plate discipline - which many think impedes his success - has improved ever so slightly. However, he's not just swinging slightly less at pitches outside the zone as he did last season, he's swinging at less overall. According to FanGraphs, Franco finished last season swinging at 52.1 percent of the pitches thrown his way. Before last night, that number was 44.7 percent.
He's also cut down his swinging strikes from 11.8 percent of total pitches thrown his way to 7.6 percent. That includes a lesser percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone than he did last season. Yet he had walked five times before Thursday night.
It all seems to suggest that Franco may be too tentative, may be too much in his own head right now for his own good: that he would be better off channeling his inner Yogi rather than his inner Wade Boggs.
At least for now. As Knight would advise, the best thought next time he steps into the box might be no thought at all.