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June 01, 2015

Phillies notes: Franco struggling out of the gate

The Colorado Rockies’ pitching staff isn’t all that formidable. Even after adjusting for the launching pad they play half of their games in, their team ERA is still 21st in the majors. They probably shouldn’t be holding anyone to four runs in 27 innings, but that’s precisely what they did to the Phillies over the weekend.

There might only be one player in Sunday’s lineup that is viewed as a major part of the Phillies’ future, which is why it’s easy to sort of shrug your shoulders at the whole thing. The problem is, that guy isn’t helping matters, either. Maikel Franco went 0-3 with a walk in the 4-1 loss, completing a seven-game streak in which he got on base a grand total of three times in 28 plate appearances.

“Right now, I’m in a tough moment, but I try not to think about it,” Franco said. “The game today is over already, so next day, next game. I got to come in and try to improve and do better.”

The good news for Franco is that he’s still young and early enough in his career that the idea of improvement feels well within the realm of possibility. When hearing him talk, it dawns on you almost instantly this is still a freakin’ kid. Even someone like Freddy Galvis, who is only a little less than three years Franco’s senior, seems much older.  

So Franco clearly has some time to iron out his approach, time the Phillies have no choice but to give him. From a mechanical standpoint, his manager thinks that his swing has gotten a little long recently. I won’t pretend to qualify as a solid judge of such things, but at times during Franco’s ascent through the minors, this has been one of the two major knocks against him as a hitter.

“That’s something that a young player has to go through and try and go for solid contact rather than too big of a swing,” Ryne Sandberg said.

The other main criticism of Franco was his free-swinging approach, namely that he tended to get himself out early in the count chasing bad pitches. Since his call-up to the bigs, there’s nothing too alarming yet about his approach at first glance. Franco is swinging at fewer balls out of the strike zone than last year, making more contact overall, and seeing slightly more pitches per at-bat. These are good signs for a player who will consistently have to make adjustments and thus could be prone to wild hot and cold stretches early on.

None of this stuff really matters, though, not yet anyway. In a way, I see similarities between this and the manner in which I scrutinized Nerlens Noel earlier this year. In both cases, we have young players on bad teams who appear to have a solid chance of being a part of said bad team when/if it eventually becomes good. Like Franco, Noel stumbled out of the gate in some ways, but he rebounded to submit a pretty solid rookie season. We’ll see if Franco can do the same.

“It’s baseball,” Franco said. “You have to understand how the situation can go back and forth. For me, it’s a little bit frustrating but I try to come in every single day, get better, and do one thing to change the game.”

Even though he ultimately came up empty, you could certainly make an argument that Franco changed Sunday’s game in his own way. To lead off the second inning, he worked a 12-pitch at-bat against Rockies starter Jordan Lyles before flying out to left field. He fouled off eight pitches and worked a 3-2 count in the process. The long battle might’ve had nothing to do with Lyles leaving the game with a toe injury after the next hitter, but it definitely shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Right now, Maikel Franco is a .194 hitter who's in a pretty big slump. I don’t believe it’s time to make any judgments beyond that.

Crawford debuts in Reading

As we mentioned in Saturday’s notes, J.P. Crawford has graduated from Florida to Pennsylvania for what the Phillies undoubtedly hope is a long stay. Through two games for the Reading Fightin’ Phils, the 20-year-old shortstop is only hitting .167. No big deal. Early in the season, the beauty of Crawford’s game is that a low average for a couple of games doesn’t necessarily mean he’s unproductive at the plate. How is this possible, Jonah Hill?

Crawford walked three times in Reading’s 6-3 win over the Richmond Flying Squirrels (minor league nicknames are hilarious, by the way). His approach has been excellent so far this season, as he walked 14 times in 93 plate appearances down in Clearwater. That’s good for a 15.1 percent walk rate, which only nine major leaguers are currently topping.

Nobody wants to be lectured at length about walks, though. While super effective, walks aren’t sexy. As an antidote, let’s watch some real fireworks:

OK, so a sharply hit RBI single up the middle is the best we can get from Crawford at the plate, even if it’s happened a ton already this season (.392 average in Clearwater, only two XBH’s). As the youngest player in the Eastern League, there will likely be at least some adjustment period for Crawford. The closer you get to the majors, the harder it will get to put up Looney Tunes numbers. I thought his comments to CSN Philly’s Gordie Jones about the sizable jump from High-A to Double-A were pretty interesting:

“I think it’s a big difference coming up here, instead of going from low to high A,” Crawford said. “You’ve got a lot more experience. Some people have played in MLB before. They have a bunch of experience, so they know what they’re doing out there.”

John Sickels once wrote what many believe to be true: “The transition from A-ball to Double-A often separates the wheat from the chaff among prospects.” In this case, it’s probably fair to say that we know Crawford falls on the wheat side of the ledger.

That doesn’t mean we won’t have the opportunity to find out a lot more about the kid in the next few months.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann