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Once Jeff Francis learned to throw every pitch with conviction, he blossomed into Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year
By Jack Etkin
DENVER—His rise was so sustained and carried Jeff Francis to such sublime heights, it’s easy to forget his struggles the first two months of the 2003 season.
He finished 12-9, 3.47 last year at high Class A Visalia. A deeper look at the numbers suggest dominance rather than hard times and a complete reversal for Francis, a 6-foot-5 lefthander taken ninth overall in the 2002 draft by the Rockies.
Francis had far more strikeouts (153) than walks (45) at Visalia, fewer hits (135) than innings (161), and on July 6 he threw a no-hitter. In short, Francis’ first full professional season was a springboard to the 2004 brilliance that made him Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year.
Francis went 16-4, 2.21 in 24 combined starts at Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Colorado Springs. He totaled 155 innings and averaged 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings, which by itself would be impressive. But consider this: Francis’ strikeouts—196, which led the minor leagues at the time of his promotion to Colorado—far exceeded the number of hits (108) and walks (29) he allowed.
The only thing Francis didn’t do this year was pitch in the Olympics. The Rockies announced in early August that Francis would not travel to Athens to pitch for Canada. Instead, the Rockies’ schedule allowed Francis to make two starts at altitude in Colorado Springs and join the Rockies at the outset of a four-city road trip in late August. General manager Dan O’Dowd explained both the timetable and the Rockies’ reasoning.
“Obviously, we didn’t make the people in the Canadian baseball federation very happy, but we don’t answer to them,” O’Dowd says. “If it’s a mandate that (Francis’ participation in the Olympics) should happen, then we should have followed the mandate. But if it’s up to our discretion, then I don’t know why we’re being criticized.
“If we didn’t feel Jeff Francis was ready to pitch at the major league level, he’d be pitching for Team Canada.”
For his part, Francis said he understood and agreed with the Rockies’ decision. The Rockies purposely scheduled Francis’ arrival in the big leagues to coincide with a four-city trip, meaning his first three starts would come on the road. He lost at Atlanta but showed plenty of promise, lost again at San Francisco and didn’t pitch well, then won his third start at San Diego, pitching 52/3 scoreless innings.
“I have zero regrets,” Francis says. “Where I am now—I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If I’d gone to the Olympics, (the Rockies) told me they would have shut me down after it.”
Two months into the 2003 season, there’s no way anyone would have expected Francis’ destination in August 2004 to be the big leagues. After 11 starts at Visalia, Francis was 2-7, 6.88 and had surrendered 66 hits in 52 innings with 20 walks and 45 strikeouts.
In his next start, Francis pitched six scoreless innings, allowing three hits and two walks with 11 strikeouts. That outing on June 5 was the beginning of a stunning turnaround when Francis went 10-2, 1.83 in his final 16 starts. Take those starts with his performance this season, and he went 26-5, 2.40 over 40 starts with 54 walks, 304 strikeouts and 177 hits in 263 innings.
Francis traces his dramatic improvement at Visalia to “throwing pitches with conviction.” That happened at the urging of catcher Dan Conway during a bullpen session, when he more or less told Francis to cut loose and let the ball go.
Francis remembers doing just that and balls initially going every which way. But before the side session ended, everything clicked and Francis was hitting Conway’s target repeatedly and throwing hard, low strikes. Francis said Visalia pitching coach Jim Bennett kept telling him to remember what he was doing, so the results from the session would last.
“I think he was feeling for his pitches and trying to be too fine, instead of using his overall strength and leverage,” says Conway, Francis’ teammate again this year at Tulsa. “A lot of time pitchers talk about overthrowing, but you can underthrow. He was underthrowing. Once he started to throw harder, he started getting better extension.’’
Fastball command and fastball extension are two of Francis’ primary assets and will help him cope with Coors Field. It won’t hurt that Francis, 23, is poised on the mound—he was a physics major at the University of British Columbia, after all—as well as perceptive, intelligent and adaptable.
Francis throws a fastball in the 89-91 mph range, a curveball and a changeup. His miniscule walk totals are clear evidence of his superb fastball command. But coupled with that is the delivery extension that gives Francis an edge.
“If you have good extension, it means you stayed over the rubber long enough,” says Jim Wright, Colorado’s roving pitching coordinator, “and you stayed coiled long enough and you have learned to hold onto the ball as long as you can. You get a full, complete throw out of the hand. Plus, it’s almost like the hitter can still see what’s going on as your arm comes forward.
“But where the ball is usually coming out of someone else’s hand, if you are one that has better than average extension, you still see the arm coming forward, but the ball has not left the guy’s hand. When it does come out of the hand, you see it, but when you go to get it, it’s already on you.
“Jeff is predominantly 88-91 miles an hour, sits at 89-90 consistently, which is not a plus fastball. But with the extension that he has, it deceives the hitter so much, he has swings taken off him when the ball is already in the zone.”
Given Francis’ strong finish in 2003 and as well as this season turned out, it’s hard to imagine he had misgivings before making his first start this season. “I wasn’t throwing that well in spring training,” he says. “I was really nervous about starting this year, because I really wanted to continue what I was doing last year. I was worried about numbers and wins and things.”
At the beginning of last year, Francis started keeping a notebook. After each start, he dutifully recorded his thoughts during the game, what went well, what want wrong, what he needed to do better and what he needed to continue doing. Occasionally, Francis said he would jot down something salient about a particular batter, where that individual might have adjusted well to Francis’ game plan or, in turn, Francis made a notable adjustment.
With spring training over and the Drillers in Tulsa getting ready to begin the season, Francis pulled out the notebook he kept at Visalia.
“I went back and read some of the stuff I wrote down last year,” Francis says. “And it completely calmed me down.”
Asked if he remembers specific entries from his notebook, Francis politely declines to open it for public viewing. “Yeah, more personal things,” he says. “Mostly my thoughts. Not so much mechanical things.”
The notebook supplements a sharp mind that helps Francis absorb and apply instruction quickly. Wright saw just how sharp when he filled in for Tulsa pitching coach Bo McLaughlin, who had to leave the team for a few days in May. With O’Dowd in attendance, Francis threw a four-hit shutout at Wichita and the next day discussed his outing with Wright, who had been the Rockies’ pitching coach in 2002.
Francis, who received a $1.85 million signing bonus as the ninth overall pick in 2002, had gone to Coors Field before heading off to short-season Tri-City to begin his professional career. During the visit—a perk most clubs give their top draft pick—Wright was working in the bullpen with righthander Jason Jennings. Wright had angled a white board about 10 feet long from Jennings’ glove side toward home plate.
When they chatted in Wichita, Francis reminded Wright of the day they met in Coors Field and told him he still envisions those white lines every time he throws his fastball.
“The board was on an angle, and the ball is supposed to go along that line,” Francis says. “I never even pitched that day. I just saw Jennings do it. I brought that up that day in Wichita. I just thought that was really good to be able to see a line you wanted the ball to go on. I don’t see a line now, but I see the path of the ball going on that angle, instead of trying to get my body (pointed) over there.”
Wright said he was rather surprised when Francis brought up the teaching tool he had seen briefly two years earlier. “That gives you an idea of this kid’s mental perception where he sees something he hadn’t seen before,” Wright says. “He tried it, and it works for him. He never forgot it and uses it all the time.”
As it turned out, Francis used it for seven more starts with Tulsa and seven with Colorado Springs before joining the Rockies. After going 0-2, 13.50 in his first two starts in the majors and giving up 13 hits, including five homers, in 9 1 / 3 innings—Francis made strides when he “just kind of tried to slow things down” in his third start. He held the Padres to five hits in 5 1 / 3 scoreless innings and came away with his first big league win.
“I don’t know if it’s a relief,” Francis says. “I want to go out there and keep pitching the way I can. It’s not like I’ve done anything yet. It’s just one game. It’s a matter of putting a lot of those type of games together.”
The Rockies are convinced Francis, levelheaded to a fault, will do just that.
Jack Etkin covers the Rockies for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.
THE JEFF FRANCIS FILE
Born: Vancouver, B.C., Jan. 8, 1981. Home: Sammamish, Wash. Height: 6-5. Weight: 200. Bats-Throws: L-L.
Career Highlights: Drafted ninth overall in 2002, second-highest draft position ever for a Canadian behind fellow British Columbia native Adam Loewen, who was drafted five sports ahead of him by the Orioles . . . First player from the University of British Columbia, Canada’s only NAIA baseball program, to reach the major leagues . . . While pursuing physics degree, he set school records for starts (42), wins (25), ERA (2.36), complete games (13) and shutouts (7) . . . Went 12-3, 0.92 in 2001 to earn NAIA all-America honors . . . Emerged as a top prospect during the summer of 2001 with the Anchorage Bucs of the Alaska League, winning league player of the year after going 7-1, 1.20 with 83 strikeouts in 76 innings . . . Joined Anchorage Glacier Pilots for National Baseball Congress World Series and was MVP of the tournament with 14 scoreless innings, leading Glacier Pilots to their fifth NBC World Series title . . . First professional season in 2002 ended early after he was struck in the head with a line drive while sitting in the dugout in Asheville; left with a concussion, he returned in time to pitch in instructional league . . . After 10 starts at high Class A Visalia in 2003, had a 2-7, 7.42 mark and had lasted just 47 innings, giving up 59 hits and 19 walks while striking out 42. Over his final 17 starts, he went 10-2, 1.83, allowing just 76 hits and 26 walks in 113 innings while striking out 111 . . . Dominant stretch included July 6 no-hitter against Modesto, followed by 15 scoreless innings in California League playoffs, including a three-hit shutout win against Stockton . . . Rockies’ No. 3 prospect entering 2004 . . . Dominated at two levels in Rockies system this season before making major league debut Aug. 26 in Atlanta.