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Francoeur explodes in Atlanta
by Alan Schwarz
Here at Baseball America, we usually speak of prospects in either the future or past tenses: A player will either be great, like Justin Upton, or once was, like Brien Taylor. Rarely do we get to speak of them in the present tense--exactly while they are fulfilling their promise, even more than anyone had hoped.
But we can with Jeff Francoeur, whose astounding .353-10-30 numbers in his first 36 games for the Braves have made him one of the hottest midseason callups of all time, a fan and media favorite who is as shocked as anyone at his newfound celebrity. No one--not Francoeur, the Braves or us--knows how long this will last, but as Francoeur will tell you, it sure is a blast while it does.
ALAN SCHWARZ: From what I understand, even though you've had this great start, you're in a bad mood.
JEFF FRANCOEUR: Huh?
AS: You walked the other day against the Padres. It was intentional, sure, but I heard you wanted to go the whole season without walking once.
JF: (Laughing) I'm the kind of player who isn't going up there to look for a walk. I think you never want to take that aggressiveness away.
AS: During that walk, you're on national TV--how badly do you want to swing at those pitches?
JF: Well, considering it was second and third in a tie ball game, very badly! When I got to the dugout after that, Adam LaRoche said on the 2-0 pitch I almost took a hack at it.
AS: In all seriousness, when I watched that game, it was clear on your groundout to second the Padres had you positioned perfectly. Teams are starting to make adjustments on you. How do you combat that?
JF: I think you have to make adjustments yourself. The toughest guy I've faced so far, or at least it felt like it, was Carlos Zambrano. Next time I see him, I'll be better--I feel like I'll know how to make some adjustments to get to a guy like that. They're going to know you better, but at the same time, I think you can make adjustments if you know them too. I'll be able to work more counts to 2-1 or so next time around. I feel like I'll be in more hitter's counts.
AS: From what I understand, the only people who know your holes are your old high school buddies sitting out in right field.
JF: They've been watching me play for 17 years. They know exactly how to get me out.
AS: At what point are they going to get bribed by advance scouts?
JF: All it's going to take is a couple dollars.
AS: In the meantime they'll just abuse you from out there.
JF: They're all over me all the time. People ask me how I stay humble--I say, "Just go to right field and sit there for a game. You'll see how I stay humble." If I strike out or swing at a bad pitch in the dirt, they're all over me. They scream out old jokes, inside jokes that we all know about that get me laughing, keep me loose out there. It's kind of nice.
AS: Speaking of keeping you humble, you're the only rookie whose girlfriend has told the major press, "He's a dork." Great P.R., Jeff.
JF: I'm lighthearted. I'm a goofball at heart. I love to have fun. If anything, I think I need to be a little more serious when I'm out there. But I love to play the game and laugh and just enjoy it. When you do that, life can be a lot easier. Last night, I struck out three times. I wasn't happy. But it was such an experience for me to play at Wrigley Field. It was the coolest thing I've ever done probably. The ivy out there, and having all the fans all over you in right field. It's exactly what you hear of and dream of.
I keep things in perspective. I'm talking to my girlfriend last night, complaining about striking out. And she says, "Yeah? Well, I've got to get up at 8 a.m. for six hours worth of class in the morning. So I don't want to hear you complaining."
AS: Of all the things that have changed for you, pumping gas might be the most.
JF: After my second game, me and my girlfriend were at the gas station and this guy comes up to us. He asked us where we went to high school and I tried to avoid the question. My girlfriend said "Parkview," and he said, "Do y'all know that Francoeur guy? He's been doing pretty good. He played last night and hit a home run and I don't know how he did tonight." I wanted to say, "I think he went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts!"
AS: You're putting up one of the best first half-seasons in baseball history, seasons like Willie McCovey and Adam Dunn and other future stars. How do you make sure you come close to keeping it up?
JF: I have high expectations for myself. People ask, "Do you think you've set the mark too high for yourself?" That's a good problem to have. I'd rather have that any day than sitting there hitting .160 and trying to build your way up. The one thing I've learned in this game is to be humbled by it. You're going to have your highs, you're going to have your lows. It's how you react to that. In the minor leagues sometimes it took me three or four days to get over a (bad) game, but now I feel like it's a new night, a new challenge.
AS: Speaking of the minor leagues, who are three pitchers you faced in Double-A who are better than major league pitchers that you've faced?
JF: Ricky Nolasco for West Tennessee. Absolutely nasty slider. And I'd have to say Rich Hill for West Tenn again. He's got a great curveball and he's a lefthander. He was absolutely brutal to face. And then I'd have to say Bobby Jenks because he throws a heavy fastball. When he's throwing his curveball the way he was the first couple times we faced him, he's unhittable.
AS: There are so many phenoms who start off quickly and then tail off, and their legacy becomes, "Remember him?" How do you avoid that?
JF: I think the biggest thing is that you've got to listen to your heart. You hear so many people, "Oh, Jeff Francoeur doesn't have good plate discipline." Well, you know what? You can say that about tons of people in the big leagues. You can say that about Vladimir Guerrero and look at him. If you stay your course and play your game and work hard and never get complacent, that's the biggest thing. If you stay even-keeled and play within yourself, you're going to be fine. I think most guys get up here do fine when they do that.
AS: My theory is the reason you're starting off so hot is you don't want Bobby Cox to ever, ever, ask you to bunt. (Last season Francoeur fouled off a bunt attempt into his face.)
JF: I don't want him to, I can tell you that. But I think that (incident) helped shape me to the person I am now. It humbled me. I got called up on July 6 this year and played my first game July 7, and I got hit in the face July 8 the year before. It's a humbling experience. It keeps you remembering what can happen to you.
AS: Have you squared to bunt in a game even once since?
JF: No. But if Skip needs me to, I'll do it.
AS: Spoken like a true rookie.
JF: Yup. I'm still a rookie.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to email@example.com.