Jeff Francoeur was supposed to be the next Dale Murphy. He was expected to be the Braves' right fielder for a decade or more, the face of the franchise, and everything else Chipper Jones wasn't and couldn't be.
But something happened along the way. The kid who was supposed to be a star became just another ordinary player who started to struggle in the big leagues. And his struggles led to the dream of him becoming the main player on this team to end with a trade to Citi Field and the New York Mets.
Statheads have hated Jeff Francoeur. His on base percentage was never good enough for them. They knew, at least they told us they knew, that this would happen – that Jeff would never live up to his hype and he would one day be expendable.
But it's not like Francoeur was never successful. Go back to 2004 and look what he did in Myrtle Beach, in the Carolina League. Francoeur was in a pitcher's park at Coastal Federal Field, and still hit .293 with 15 home runs, 52 RBI, a .346 on base percentage, and a .506 slugging percentage in 334 at bats. Certainly that was impressive enough for the numbers-crunchers.
Then something happened that I wonder now could have possibly made an impact on Francoeur. He got hit in the face. It was a bad injury, as Francoeur had to have his face reconstructed.
Here's what he told me in a January, 2005 interview.
"It just went flush into my cheek," Francoeur said. "Right away I thought I was blind. I couldn't see for a day and a half out of my right eye. The eye was swollen shut. I could see if I opened it up. Anytime you're dealing with the face or the eye, you're thinking it could cost you the sport that you love. I'm lucky. Another fourth of an inch up and I would have never been able to play again."
Did this injury change Francoeur?
His critics point to his lackluster OBP numbers in his career, but I've always been confused why they haven't admitted the improvement that was made by Jeff between 2006 and 2007.
Francoeur's OBP went from .293 in 2006 (when he had 29 home runs) to .338 in 2007. That was significant improvement for a player who was only 23 years old. I thought we were seeing a player make the necessary adjustments to become a solid and productive major leaguer.
And then 2008 rolled around and Francoeur couldn't get going. He hit only .234 before the All-Star Break, with a .285 on base percentage. The Braves sent him to Double-A, hoping manager Phillip Wellman could get him going. But it didn't really work. Francoeur would hit only .246 the rest of the way, with only two home runs and 27 RBI in 244 at bats.
From 2007 to 2008, Francoeur's power went from 19 home runs to 11. His average decreased 54 points, his OBP went down 44 points, and his slugging percentage decreased 85 points.
The question I kept asking was, ‘where did Francoeur's power go?' Okay, so his OBP went up a bit from 2006 to 2007, but we saw him power go from 29 home runs to 11 last season. Did he feel he needed to become the type of hitter his critics wanted him to become, and the expense was a loss in his power?
Wasn't his 2007 season (.293/.338/.444 and 19 home runs and 105 RBI) good enough? Compared to what he's done since then, sure it was. But it's almost like Francoeur changed from that hitter to try and be someone he wasn't capable of being in the first place – just to please his critics.
He heard the statheads. He knew they didn't think he was worth a flip. But if we had just seen him improve a bit from 2007 to 2008 there wouldn't have been many problems. But instead, Francoeur had a horrible season.
Jeff didn't handle his demotion to the minor leagues last summer very well. His comments made him sound like he was entitled to something. Fact is, that's not what the fans wanted to hear from a struggling player. Sure, it was understandable that he was disappointed about the Braves' decision to send him down, but they felt they had to do something to get him on track.
Then he was only there for a few days, before the team brought him back up to Atlanta. That made it seem like he was punished, instead of given the time to work with Wellman to snap out of his season-long slump. It was just rather odd.
So after the 2008 season, you hoped it was just a bad year and that he would bounce back in 2009. But instead, Francoeur's numbers have been worse this season than last year. His average was up 11 points, but his OBP (down 12 points), SLG% (down 7 points), OPS (down 19 points), and his projections for home runs, RBI, and doubles were all down.
Terry Pendleton really never helped Francoeur. That's why he was sent to work with someone else last summer, and that's why he desperately turned to the Texas Rangers hitting coach this winter. But that should have been kept secret, since the revelation really looked bad for everyone involved.
Bobby Cox didn't help Francoeur either with his placement in the batting order. When Brian McCann was out earlier this season, it would have been a good test to see what Francoeur could have done batting fourth. Instead, Francoeur was still lower in the order, and Casey Kotchman, who is less of a power threat than Francoeur, was hitting in the cleanup role. Maybe Francoeur would have had a better chance to be productive if he had been in a better spot in the lineup.
But it was up to Jeff to improve, and he just hasn't. His numbers were not great, and yet he acted like he was surprised earlier this week when he was out of the lineup. Fact is, the Braves were running out of patience with him. He wasn't going to be brought back next year anyway, but trading him to a division rival shows you how much they wanted him gone.
For the last six weeks, it became clear Francoeur just needed a change of scenery. I still find it hard to believe he's this bad of a ballplayer. He is not Brad Komminsk, the Braves prospect from twenty-five years ago who was a monumental flop. Komminsk never had an ounce of the success Francoeur has had at the plate. Komminsk had a .218 career batting average, with 23 home runs, and 105 RBI in 986 at bats.
But there is no doubt that Jeff Francoeur did not reach expectations. Maybe it was too good of a story to be true – a hometown boy playing with his hometown team. Maybe the pressure was just too much. Maybe the Braves just couldn't wait any longer for him to turn the corner.
Francoeur played in 631 games for the Atlanta Braves, and had 78 home runs, 359 RBI, a batting average of .266, an on base percentage of .308, and a slugging percentage of .424. You just have to wonder if his numbers will be better in his next 631 games – and if it's all for the New York Mets, will this come back to haunt the Atlanta Braves?
Bill Shanks hosts The Bill Shanks Show on
WFSM Fox Sports 1670 in Macon, Georgia and The Braves Show Talk Show. Shanks writes a weekly baseball column for The Macon Telegraph and is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. You can email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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