Wander Franco is arguably the most highly regarded prospect of all time. How has he fared as a 20-year-old kid facing the best pitchers in the world? Let’s find out.
Wander Franco was brought up to the majors with impossibly high expectations. As the first true 80-grade prospect, anything less than stardom right away was viewed as a disappointment. For that reason, the buzz around Franco quickly dissipated after a so-so first month of big-league production. The expectations around Franco caused this to happen, but it’s unfortunate nonetheless because Franco was showing signs of being an elite hitter even when he was “struggling” by most people’s standards. As August comes to a close many have changed their tune, as the 20-year-old phenom is starting to toy with major league pitching the way he has with pitching at every other level he’s encountered. In this article, we’ll break down Franco’s first 48 games in detail to analyze how different facets of his game have translated to the sport’s highest level.
Bat-to-ball skills/Pitch Recognition
Franco has always raked at the plate, producing elite exit velocities, batting averages, and extra-base hit totals at every level, but his plate approach is what made him an almost impossibly elite hitter as a teenager in the minors. Let’s discuss Franco’s ability to simply get the bat on the ball. Thanks to elite hand-eye coordination, Franco posted the following K rates in four minor league seasons — 7.0%, 7.4%, 6.7%, and 11.9%. Remember that Franco was always many years younger than his competition at every minor league level, and then consider that Kevin Newman leads MLB in K rate this season at 7.4%. So how has Franco’s ability to avoid the strikeout translated at the MLB level? Well, he’s currently sporting a 16.1% K rate that is good for 23rd best among all qualified hitters. Franco is top 25 among all big league hitters in K rate, and it’s not like he’s swinging “not to strike out” if you will, like powerless Kevin Newman, David Fletcher, or Adam Frazier type hitters that litter the top of the leaderboard. Franco’s ability to do this at 20 years old in his first taste of MLB action is incredible, and it’s sensible to predict that he’ll continually cut the K rate down even further as he matures and sees more and more MLB pitching.
The other half of a skilled approach is the ability to recognize pitches and either drive them or lay off in order to draw walks or better count leverage. Franco has also been excellent for his age in this regard, and he walked better than 10 percent of the time in his minor league career. In the majors, that number is down to 7.6%, which is fairly average.
It’s clear that Franco has made adjustments due to the filthy stuff pitchers are working with at the MLB level. In ABs where he falls behind, Franco now has to be more aggressive because pitchers are throwing harder and their pitches are moving in ways he’s never seen before. Franco could be walking more, but he’d have to trade the walks for Ks. As it stands right now Franco has a 0.47 BB/K ratio that’s good for 59th out of 138 qualified hitters. Essentially, Franco’s overall approach at the plate is better than average already despite the fact that he’s a 20-year-old kid facing MLB pitching for the first time. The sky is the limit in this area of Franco’s game.
There’s a reason that switch hitters aren’t common — unless you’re Chipper Jones… switch-hitting is really damn hard. Switch-hitting means you have two separate swings that both require mechanical proficiency, and the extra work needed to achieve that is no joke. During his time in the minor leagues, Franco was dynamite from both sides of the plate, though, at times he did trade average for power as a left-handed hitter while doing the opposite from the right side. Thus far in the majors, Franco’s splits look like this — vs RHP: .221/.286/.361 and vs LHP: .343/.397/.586. The splits are drastic, and Franco has really struggled from the left side, but it’s way too early to say that he will continually struggle vs RHP. Franco’s BABIP vs RHP is .252 while his BABIP vs LHP is .353, which explains some of the disparity. The more concerning factor is that Franco is striking out 18 percent of the time from the left side.
Switch-hitting is tough for anyone at the major league level, let alone for a 20-year-old seeing the best pitchers in the world for the first time. That being said, there’s no debating that Franco has already proved that he can rake from the right side. It’s possible that Franco will always struggle from the left side, but based on the success he had in the minors from the left side and the fact that we’re dealing with a small sample size… I don’t think it’s fair to say that right now. Franco is so talented that I fully expect him to figure things out from the left side, but I do think that he’ll always carry lower batting averages and higher K rates from that side with the tradeoff being plus power.
Franco was never projected by scouts to be a 40+ HR bat, but most thought he *could* get there. Instead, scouts pegged Franco as a probable 20-30 HR bat, albeit with a good chance to routinely hit .300+. Franco hit 27 HRs in his minor league career across 829 ABs, so he was around a 20 HR hitter on a full MLB season (600 AB) pace. Wander has kept a similar pace in his first 192 MLB ABs, hitting 6 HRs and slugging .443. Under the hood, Franco’s Statcast power metrics are great for a 20-year-old rookie, but middling otherwise. Franco’s average exit velocity is 88.4 MPH, his launch angle 10.1 degrees, his barrel rate 5.7%, and his hard-hit rate 38.4%. There are no red flags, but no standout numbers either. Overall, I think Franco will develop into at least a 30 HR hitter in his prime (which is laughably still 7-8 years away), but right now he’s more focused on making contact as he acclimates to facing the best in the world.
Franco’s ability to make contact is exceptional, and we covered his bat-to-ball skills earlier. To offer some more detail, Franco’s 18.6% whiff rate ranks 43rd among 362 hitters with 150 or more plate appearances, good for 88th percentile. Franco’s prodigious ability to make contact will serve him well in terms of hitting for average, but there’s more to the equation.
It would be nice if Franco was hitting the ball harder, but he’s only 20 and he posted 90+ MPH average exit velocities in the minors — it’ll come. Another improvement that would boost Franco’s batting average is cutting down on topped batted balls. Franco’s 34 percent topped rate isn’t exactly ideal even though he does have solid speed. One positive is that Franco is spraying the ball around the yard in a balanced fashion. Sometimes we see rookies struggle to pull because they can’t catch up or pull too much because they’re scared to be late, but that’s not the case here. Overall, Franco’s .266 batting average is actually solidly above average in today’s game and there’s so much room for growth here as Franco ages into his prime and hits the ball harder while worrying less about Ks.
In a strange way, Franco is actually doing precisely what I expected him to do in his first MLB action; he’s more than holding his own, but not dominating. Those who are writing Wander off as being overhyped probably said the same thing when Mike Trout floundered to the tune of a .220/.281/.390 line in his first MLB campaign as a 20-year-old. On the flip side, it’s not fair to say that Franco will be better than Trout because he held his own in the bigs at 20 years of age while Trout struggled. Development is far from linear, but one thing is for certain — Wander Franco is as talented a hitter as we’ve ever seen at his age, and the foundation he has to build from is mind-boggling at this stage of his career. My hype for Franco is holding steady, and I can’t wait to watch him develop the rest of this season and into the future. I fully expect Franco to contend for batting titles while approaching 30 HRs per season, and when he does finally enter his prime near the end of the decade he could be a force unlike the league has seen before him.