Maikel Franco learned a few days before opening day that he had won the competition for the starting role at third base. He would be in the lineup for the fourth straight year on the season’s first day. And he would be batting eighth, just one spot ahead of the pitcher.
“I wasn’t frustrated. Not at all, man,” Franco said. “I didn’t even think about it. I just knew I was in the lineup and I had an opportunity to do something for me and for my team. That’s pretty much all that I wanted.”
Franco’s opportunity produced the best start of his career, as he homered three times and reached base in 13 of his first 22 plate appearances.
Gabe Kapler batted Franco eighth in each of the first five games, the manager rolling out the same batting order for the first week of the season. And it does not seem as if Kapler is ready to make a change.
“I think he’s cementing his role in the eighth spot,” Kapler said with a laugh. “He’s done a really good job. There’s some strategy to this. It’s caused him to be patient. He’s smiling a lot. He’s especially confident. He’s getting a couple pitches to hit per game, and he’s doing damage on them. I don’t think we have to make any changes to the lineup right now.”
Franco, in each of the last three seasons, hit 20 homers but struggled to reach base consistently. The Phillies, after bolstering their lineup this winter, needed to find a place to harness Franco’s power while also increasing his plate discipline, which seemed to drag him down.
Since reaching the majors, Franco has swung at pitches outside the strike zone at a rate higher than the league average. He averaged just 3.58 pitches per plate appearance last season and began nearly half of them with an 0-1 count. His first-strike percentage, which measures the plate appearances that begin with a strike or a ball in play, was 4 percent higher than the league average.
So Kapler moved him to No. 8, where the pitcher would be waiting on deck and the number of pitches to drive would be fewer. If opposing pitchers worked around Franco, that was fine — the Phillies would happily turn over the lineup sooner to their dangerous first five hitters. But if the pitcher attacked Franco, he’d be ready.
With the pitcher behind him, Franco knows he might see only one or two pitches per plate appearance that are ideal for him to drive. The opponent is not going to give him much to hit, meaning Franco can no longer afford to chase pitches outside the strike zone. He has no choice but to be selective.
“When they miss it, I try to not miss it,” Franco said. “I just try to not miss my pitch. You know what I’m saying? Because if I miss my pitch, that might be the only pitch that I’m going to see in the at-bat. I feel good about it right now.”
Kapler often batted his pitcher eighth last season because he saw the chance to place a “second leadoff hitter” in the nine hole. Franco, batting eighth, can be considered a second No. 3 hitter.
Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez, the sixth and seventh hitters, can work deep counts and reach base at a solid rate. In other lineups, they could be batting first and second. If they reach base, Franco, as the No. 8 hitter, batting in a spot usually reserved for a weaker hitter, will have a chance to drive them in.
“There’s going to be a lot of at-bats for him this season, a lot of opportunities for him to do damage, and a lot of opportunities to reach base,” Kapler said. “He’s going to be forced to be patient at times. I think our lineup works pretty well with him down there at the bottom, and clearly it doesn’t limit his ability to produce power.”
Roman Quinn was scheduled Thursday to begin a rehab assignment with high-A Clearwater, which puts the outfielder on track to join the Phillies by the middle of April.
Quinn entered spring training with a spot secured on the bench before he suffered an oblique injury in late February. He can play all three outfield positions and would give the Phillies a solid pinch-hitter and even better pinch-runner off the bench.