Maikel Franco…But Why?

submitted by Danny Majerowicz (@dmajer347)

Of all the technological and statistical advancements made in Major League baseball over the past decade, measuring defensive performance remains troublesome. While statcast has provided new and exciting information on how a player performs with their glove, predicting future value on defense remains difficult. Perhaps, that is the mentality of the Orioles’ front office in signing Maikel Franco, which they are reportedly very close to doing.

At the very least Franco improved from -5 outs above average in 2015 at third base to -1 in a limited 2020. His ultimate zone rating (UZR), a stat that tries to encapsulate an entire defender’s performance, went up by over a percentage point from 2019 to 2020. To further demonstrate Franco’s improvement at the hot corner, his defensive runs saved totaled 0 in 2020, up from -2 in 2019, albeit in 500 fewer innings played. 

All of this to say, maybe, just maybe, Franco is worth a low-risk deal where the possibilities of a resurgence on offense at Camden Yards are better than at most parks. In fact one might even be inspired to bet on it at olybet.

I fear such a thought process to be widely problematic. In 2019, former Camden Depot EIC Jon Shephard on Twitter explained that the “difference between the worst team defense and the best team defense is about 2500 pitches or effectively half a season from a starter.” The Orioles ranked 20th in defensive WAR last year, 18th in UZR, and 18th in DRS. Not the worst, but improvements are needed. Regressing on defense means more pitches thrown which puts more injury risk on the pitching staff, especially on young pitchers like Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, and Bruce Zimmermann, not to mention all the guys who might debut at some point this year as well.

I want to argue that protecting and developing these young arms should be priority number one for the Orioles at this stage in their rebuilding efforts. Pitching injuries are a guarantee in baseball. Take a look at the top ten pitching prospects in the Orioles system; there is a good chance at least one of them will have their career derailed by injury.

Knowing the rate of injury for pitchers, the Orioles should be doing everything they can to mitigate that risk, especially for the arms who have made it to the big leagues, where they not only demonstrated the required talent, but will also have to pitch more in a longer season.

Which brings us to our central problem: does Maikel Franco improve the Orioles team defense or does he hurt it and by virtue hinder the development of our young pitchers?

If Franco is given the majority of innings at third base, which this article assumes he will, then our comparison falls on Rio Ruiz. Quantifying Ruiz’s 2020 campaign on defense can lead to confusion. For example, His UZR plummeted from his 2019 mark of 1.8 to 1.4. However, his DRS was up from -5 in 2019 to 2 in 2020 despite playing 400 fewer innings. His outs above average also saw an improvement from 2019 to 2020, -4 to 2.

In other words, the defensive metrics aren’t quite sure what to make of Ruiz, though they lean towards him being a slightly above average third baseman. His OOA ranked tied for 6th in qualified players at third base with Manny Machado, Matt Chapman, and Alex Bregman among others. Franco was tied for 20th. And while Franco ranked better in UZR and defensive WAR than Ruiz, Rio edged Franco out in DRS.

Now, the next question we would have to answer is, “which of these stats do we trust to be more predicative of future success?” There are a variety of opinions when it comes to this question.

I do not wish to enter into that debate here. But I will venture to claim that Rio Ruiz, if not flat out better on defense than Franco, is at least his equal. If you are willing to accept such a claim, then why sign they guy who is two years older to take over at the position? At best, Franco gives you the same level of value on defense as Ruiz, meaning the same level of protection for your pitchers. More likely, however, is Franco regresses back to his career norms at the position, in which case he is damaging the development of those arms.

But perhaps you are the type of person who is optimistic. You believe in Franco’s improvements on defense and want to argue that his bat provides a sufficient upgrade to off-set the possible minor defensive risk when compared to Ruiz. You’ll cite Franco’s .278 average in 2019 and his 106 wRC+, all far better than Rio’s 2019. Maybe you like OPS, where Franco was sixty points higher than Ruiz, or that Franco’s K% was seven percent lower. All of which I would have to admit is fair, and if you accept my assumption that Franco will replace Ruiz, I must accept your assumption that his defensive improvement sticks thus clearly making him more valuable because of his offensive upside.

However, I deny that Franco provides any real upgrade on offense. Unlike on defense, using our tools to predict offensive performance has a much better track record. Ruiz had a higher average exit velocity than Franco, was much better at avoiding outs on average, and barreled the ball more. Simply, Rio made better contact on average than Franco. But Franco had a .298 BABIP while Ruiz suffered at .244. Of course, Ruiz also needs to make more contact, but considering the contact made, and each player’s BABIP, their batting average and OPS could look quite similar in 2021.

Now that I have considered this assumption, I will take the easy route and deny it outright. Franco will, as far as we can be certain about future defensive performance, be worse on defense than Ruiz, hindering pitcher development, while providing similar offensive production.

Very few moves from the Mike Elias team have felt as if they were just a move to make one. Almost everything has had a sense of purpose, another step in a larger plan. Signing Maikel Franco, seems to be contrary to that plan.

Orioles fans can only hope Elias & Co. have numbers that provide them a better insight into the future than these publicly available ones I’ve cited provide us.

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