Jeff Francoeur and run production

“Jeff Francoeur is a run producer.”

That’s been the talking point used by some Mets fans to justify the Jeff Francoeur trade.  Ryan Church doesn’t produce runs, Jeff Francoeur does.  Heck, Jeff Francoeur has 19 RBIs since joining the Mets!  He must be doing something right!  Heck, Churchy only had 22 RBIs the entire season!  Adding a run producer like Frenchy to the fray will only make the Mets better!

The problem with that line of thinking is that the best way to produce runs is to not make outs.  There is a high correlation between on-base percentage and scoring runs, much higher than the correlation between batting average and scoring runs.  It’s not a 1:1 relationship between OBP and run scoring, but it’s still pretty close; of the top 5 teams in baseball in on-base percentage in 2009, only the Dodgers (8th) are not also top 5 in runs scored, and they have by far the lowest slugging percentage of that group.

Of course, anybody who is reading this knows what I’m going to say next; Jeff Francoeur does not get on base that often.  His on-base percentage as a Met is only .325, and even that is bolstered by a hit by pitch (not a baseball skill) and an intentional walk.  Francoeur has yet to draw his first unintentional walk as a Met.  To put this in perspective, Angel Berroa has an unintentional walk.  Ramon Martinez has an unintentionial walk.  Emil Brown has an unintentional walk.  Argenis Reyes has an unintentional walk.  Wilson Valdez has two unintentional walks.  For crying out loud, Omir Santos has nine unintentional walks!  None of these guys are good baseball players.  Only Santos has more plate appearances as a Met.  Jeff Francoeur, Marlon Anderson, and Robinson Cancel are the only Mets position players not to have drawn an unintentional walk in 2009, and Marlon and Cancel have a combined 5 plate appearances.

“But Jeff Francoeur doesn’t get paid to walk…he gets paid to hit!”

There is a problem with this line of thinking.  If Jeff Francoeur refuses to walk, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that at this point, then he needs to hit at a very high rate in order to keep an on-base percentage high enough to remain valuable to this team.  The National League average for on-base percentage this season is .330, which includes pitchers batting, so let’s say that the average OBP is around .335 (the AL average).  Let’s assume that Francoeur will eventually draw a walk on his own accord, and that he will continue to be hit by the occasional pitch and draw the occasional intentional walk.  Jeff Francoeur needs to hit about .320 to maintain even an average on-base percentage in the NL.  Francoeur has only once hit as high as .300, which came in one half in 2005.

It’s not that I’m saying Jeff Francoeur needs to sacrifice hits for walks.  I’m saying that Jeff Francoeur needs to sacrifice outs for walks.  Too many times, Francoeur goes to the plate too aggressive, and good pitchers know this.  He doesn’t take pitches, he doesn’t grind out at-bats.  A good hitter knows when he can’t win an at-bat against a superior pitcher but finds a way to avoid an out by forcing that pitcher to walk him, be it from fouling off a bunch of good pitches and knowing when not to swing at junk.  Francoeur doesn’t do this, that’s just not who he is.

“But what about the RBIs?  He’s driving in runs, he’s getting it done for us!”

Sadly, the RBIs don’t tell us how well Francoeur is performing either.  He’s been the beneficiary of good lineup positioning more than anything.  Since the Mets acquired Francoeur, he has never failed to hit more than two spots behind David Wright, the team’s leader in on-base percentage.  In eight of his nineteen games as a Met, he has hit directly behind Wright.  Luis Castillo is second on the team in on-base percentage, and has peaked in particular since the end of June.  Since joining the Mets, Francoeur has never failed to hit more than three spots behind Castillo. 

When Wright or Castillo get on base, Jeff Francoeur is likely to get a chance to drive them in.  Any player hitting .300 would be likely to drive in runs in these scenarios.  Jeff Francoeur’s 19 RBIs since joining the team fall squarely in the category of “blind squirrel finding a nut.”  In fact, 11 of his 19 RBIs have been either Castillo or Wright.  They are not evidence that Jeff Francoeur is a good baseball player, or that Jeff Francoeur is a run producer.  They are evidence that he is benefitting from good players batting ahead of him who can get on base.

I don’t mean to completely demean Jeff Francoeur.  His power has been a welcome addition to a team that has sorely lacked it all season.  Probably because he didn’t have to undergo a stupid 75 pitch drill that deemphasized power in favor of going the other way, which has helped the Mets compile a robust .392 slugging percentage.  That ties them for 25th in baseball with the Kansas City Royals.  Yes, the Mets are tied with the Kansas City Royals in a hitting category.  Thanks Jerry and Razor!  Great job there!

But regardless, his pop has been appreciated in this lineup, even if it suddenly reverses trends from Atlanta that had shown his power declining.  If he can continue to hit with some power, he might not be completely worthless, merely somewhat worthless.  The second that power dips, however, he begins actively hurting this team.  Unlike David Wright, he can’t compensate for a lack of power by getting on base more.  He needs to hit .320 with power or else he is a drain on the offense.  The best way to produce runs is to get on base at a high rate.  By its most basic definition, Jeff Francoeur does not qualify for the title of Run Producer.

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