Figuring out Frank Francisco

When the Blue Jays received Frank Francisco in a January trade for newly-acquired catcher Mike Napoli, many were critical of the move at the time. After all, Napoli’s ability to play multiple positions, numbers against left-handed pitching, and power would have made him a nice addition to the Jays lineup. Francisco, though, had been as consistent and dependable as a reliever could be, ranking in the AL’s top 15 in FIP for the last three years, so it seemed as though he would still be a welcome addition to the Jays’ pen.

Then, after Francisco was injured during spring training, he endured a rough month of May while Napoli managed a .933 OPS in the first two months of the season. Needless to say, criticism of the trade increased exponentially.

But since the All-Star break, Francisco has rebounded nicely from his first half of the season and been one of the Jays’ best relievers. Could the club bring him back?

As the Jays’ regular season nears its end this afternoon, it appears as though Francisco is a lock to finish the year as a Type-B free agent. Assuming the Jays offer him arbitration and he signs with another team, he would net the Jays a 2012 draft pick. The thing, though, is that Francisco made $4 million this season and would be in store for a decent raise in arbitration, likely a salary around or north of $5 million.

So who says Francisco even declines arbitration in the first place? A team would have to pony up significant cash in order for him to spurn an arbitration offer from the Jays and sign with their club. Add in the fact that Alex Anthopoulos could work out a new 1-2 year + club option contract with him over the offseason and the team’s huge need for relievers next season, and it appears more and more likely that Francisco will be in a Jays uniform in 2012.

On the year overall, Francisco sits at a 3.62 ERA in 49.2 innings, with 18 walks and 52 strikeouts. His 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest mark out of Jays relievers and second on the entire team only to Brandon Morrow. While Francisco’s season ERA is the lowest it’s been since 2008, his FIP jumped up to a still-respectable 3.85, which is his highest since 2007.

One reason for this has been the career-high-tying seven home runs that Francisco has allowed in 2011 and, having done so in less innings this season than in the past, it has led to a new career-high 1.3 HR/9. It’s interesting to note, though, that six of those seven dingers came at Rogers Centre, where Francisco has had some trouble adjusting to at times.

At Rogers Centre, opponents hit .256 off of Francisco with 9 doubles, 12 walks, and a .793 OPS in 125 at-bats. Compare that to the .229 average against, three doubles, six walks, and .604 OPS in 70 at-bats on the road, and there’s a pretty big difference. Plus, he struck out 23% of the batters he faced at home compared to 33% on the road.

But regardless of Francisco’s full year stats, what’s really been impressive about his season has been the way he has transformed in the second half, once more opportunities to pitch in the ninth inning opened up.

After opponents managed a .301 average and .880 OPS off of him in the season’s first half, Francisco has shut hitters down in the second half to the tune of a .185 average and .545 OPS in close to the same amount of at-bats. Innings-wise, he’s actually pitched more in the second half, replacing his first-half 5.92 ERA and 1.849 WHIP with 1.42 and 0.829 marks, respectively.

Francisco has only allowed four earned runs since the All-Star break and, not only were three of them via home runs, but all four came at home. Plus, since Jon Rauch went down with an injury, Francisco has converted six consecutive save opportunities in the season’s second half while getting the lion’s share of late inning opportunities.

Going forward, though, the biggest thing for Francisco will be retiring the first batter he sees. Not only have five of the seven home runs he allowed been hit by leadoff hitters, but they have managed an OPS over .900 against him this season. Countless pitchers will tell you that retiring the leadoff batter of an inning is critical, and for Francisco, addressing this issue could be instrumental to his success next season.

Above all, Francisco has been phenomenal in clutch situations for the Jays this season, which definitely makes me wonder what he’d be like as the Jays clear-cut closer next year, and not in a closer-by-committee situation like he was for most of this season.

In addition to numbers like a .515 OPS against with two outs and runners in scoring position or .672 OPS against in late and close scenarios, one area that has often gone overlooked regarding Francisco is inherited runners. Out of the 11 runners that were on base when Francisco came into a game, only one scored; good for a 9% rate. Plus, as bad as Francisco’s first half numbers looked, all but one of those inherited runners came in outings prior to the All-Star break.

I always think about the game in Texas back on April 28 when Francisco earned his first win of the season in dominant fashion. He entered the game in the eighth inning with the score tied 2-2, with runners on first and second and two out. Francisco promptly struck out Mitch Moreland swinging to keep the game tied. Then, the Jays went on to score three runs in the top of the ninth and win the game 5-2, but only after Francisco struck out two batters swinging (including Napoli) in a scoreless ninth inning of work.

Many people still forget that Francisco was injured in spring training, and that that definitely played a part in his first half numbers being the way they were. As the season went on though, Francisco has been an intimidating force on the mound and has seemingly thrived from the increased amount of ninth inning opportunities late in the season.

That’s why Francisco could very well be (and should be) the Blue Jays’ closer next season.

-JM

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