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Wander Franco's Secret Weapon Against MLB Pitching



Wander Franco will join the Tampa Bay Rays today. It’s the long-awaited arrival of the prospect who has stood atop Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list for two years.

And as he arrives to the major leagues, it's hard not to think that Franco may be the hitting prospect perfectly adapted to the modern baseball era.

If there is a criticism of Franco as a hitter (and we’re really, really nitpicking here), it’s that his swing isn’t geared to hitting majestic home runs. Franco is a pure hitter who has power, not the other way around.

As our 2021 scouting report on Franco notes:

Franco stings the ball and has plus power potential, but his level swing leads to more line drives and ground balls than fly balls.

Franco’s swing is relatively flat through the strike zone. That’s why he has always had an exceptional ability to make contact. He has struck out in just 7.9% of his minor league at-bats, which is part of the reason he is a career .332 hitter in the minors.

In recent years, a lot of hitters have adopted a more pull-heavy swing that brings the bat through the zone with a slight uppercut. That makes it easier to hit the ball in the air at somewhat optimal angles for power and distance. The fly ball rate, which dipped to 34 percent of all balls put in play in the early part of the 2010s has hovered closer to 36 percent in recent years. And more of those fly balls are leaving the park.

But baseball is a constant game of move and counter move. Teams and pitchers have begun to adapt to the shift to a more lofted swing by attacking hitters with fastballs up in the strike zone. If a hitter is hitting with an uppercut to their swing, catching up to high velocity fastballs with life and carry at the top of the zone becomes a tall order.

According to MLB Statcast data, in 2012, 5.1% of MLB pitches were four-seam fastballs in the top third of the strike zone. That number remained at roughly 5% every year from 2012-2016. But from 2017 on, that percentage has steadily grown. It topped 6% in 2018. In 2021, 6.7 percent of all MLB pitches are four-seamers in the top third of the zone.

YearUp In Zone
Fastballs
Percent of
Total Pitches
Swings and
Misses
Whiff %AVGOBPSLGwOBAAvg Velo.
2012360065.15909.16.253.275.448.30992.5
2013370685.26335.17.241.258.419.29292.8
2014362405.16306.17.229.249.385.27792.8
20153543356644.19.234.256.410.28593.2
2016367865.17099.19.229.251.421.28393.3
2017416765.87972.19.259.281.484.31993.4
2018445806.28986.20.237.256.440.29493.2
2019470826.410058.21.239.255.466.29593.5
2020166456.33605.22.234.252.454.29593.4
2021209566.74762.23.229.246.421.28393.7

Not only are hitters seeing more four-seam fastballs up in the strike zone, they also are doing less with them. In 2012, hitters hit .253/.275/.448 on those fastballs. In 2021, they are hitting .229/.246/.421. Hitters struck out 19% of the time on those fastballs in 2012. This year, that strikeout rate is 27%.

With Franco’s swing being more level, he is more on plane with fastballs up in the zone, especially those thrown by shorter pitchers. Teams have learned to covet shorter pitchers and those with lower release points because their fastballs are on a flatter plane through the top of the strike zone than taller pitchers and those with more over-the-top release points.

Against hitters with a some loft/uppercut to their swing, a flatter fastball stays off plane with the swing while a fastball more downward trajectory ends up more in plane with the swing. Against a hitter with a flatter swing, it’s the flatter fastball up in the zone that stays on plane with the swing for longer.

So while hitters as a whole may struggle with fastballs up in the zone, this year in Triple-A Franco is hitting .533/.533/.933 on fastballs in the top third of the zone. He has more hits on fastballs up in the zone this year (8) than he has swings and misses on heaters in that location (6). He actually has nearly as many extra-base hits (4 doubles and 1 triple) as swings-and-misses.

Now, that’s a small sample (57 pitches) and Triple-A pitchers’ fastballs aren’t the same as MLB pitchers’ fastballs. But it is a useful indication of a way that Franco should be able to quickly find MLB pitching to his liking.

It's useful to note that before Franco, the hitting prospect with some similar attributes (hit over power, high average, high contact rate but a flatter swing plane) was Vladimir Guerrero Jr. This year, Guerrero is hitting .412/.444/1.176 against fastballs in the top third of the zone, which has played a significant role in his breakout season.

Lance McCullers (Photo By Ron Vesely:Getty Images)

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