Nick Franklin And The Hardest Thing
People weren’t prepared for Dustin Ackley to struggle. Even the realists who noted his odds of busting acknowledged that Ackley was probably going to hit, and he was going to hit soon. There’s no such thing as a sure-thing prospect, but there are prospects with higher and lower chances, and Ackley was thought to be low-risk. He hit, then he stopped, then he got worse, then he went to the minors. But around the same time, Kyle Seager emerged, and that made for welcome consolation. Ackley was supposed to be the good one, and Seager was supposed to be the uninteresting one. As Ackley struggled, Seager took steps forward, and now out of the pair the Mariners have a quality regular and a question mark. Does it really matter which is which? Yeah, it’d be great if both of them were good. It’d be terrible if both of them sucked.
Now the latest infielder to maybe pass up Dustin Ackley is Nick Franklin. We still don’t know what the Mariners have in Ackley, but Franklin has basically forced him to the outfield with his strong higher-level play. However disappointed you might be in Ackley, he doesn’t actually need to be part of the core. The Mariners have options, and if Ackley doesn’t turn out, they may well survive. And if Ackley does turn out, hey, that’s peaches, go Mariners. The situation’s not completely desperate.
Which isn’t to say that Franklin is a sure thing now, since of course Ackley was amazing out of the gate. But Franklin’s improved, and his numbers so far in the majors are legitimate. His defense has been perfectly fine, and in Franklin the Mariners might now see a long-term solution. This was a guy who spent at least a year as trade bait, and who came to spring training out of shape and in the organizational dog house. Now Franklin and his big stupid helmet might be here for the better part of a decade.
And it’s interesting to examine Franklin’s statistical record. He’s always had skills and he’s pretty much always hit. Baseball America has been a fan for years. But Franklin has really gotten going in 2013, and this graph seems significant:
Franklin’s walks are way up, and his strikeouts are way down. His strikeout rate was this low in 2009, but that was 65 plate appearances in the super-low minors. This season, Franklin has 40 strikeouts and 40 unintentional walks, and he’s spent the whole time between Triple-A and the major leagues. His numbers, understandably, are worse with Seattle than they were with Tacoma, but they’re still good and Franklin’s still adjusting.
Used to be Franklin would run a contact rate in the mid-70s. This year it’s shot up to the mid-80s. Also, in the majors, 347 players have batted at least 100 times. Franklin’s rate of swings at balls is 20th-lowest, near names like Ben Zobrist and Kevin Youkilis. Franklin does swing at bad pitches, but everybody swings at bad pitches, and Franklin does it relatively infrequently. Franklin’s approach has been big-league caliber.
It’s not uncommon for prospects to improve in the minor leagues. That’s kind of the whole point. But it’s hard for a prospect to really improve his discipline, so it’s only seldom seen. Especially in the upper levels, when a prospect has already been pushed through and promoted a few times. How often have we daydreamed about Carlos Peguero in the impossible universe in which he figures out what balls look like? Discipline, usually, is the hardest thing to improve. Improvements tend to be incremental. I don’t know where Nick Franklin is going to settle in the bigger picture, but for now he sure doesn’t swing at many balls, and he sure does make a lot of contact. His ratios look different.
Sure, Franklin hasn’t walked much lately. But, lately, he’s seen more pitches in the zone than any other Mariner, so it’s not like the opportunities have been there. You can’t force a walk directly. You can only hit strikes and lay off the balls that pitchers might throw you because they’re worried about throwing you strikes. Franklin has an O-Swing% of 20.5%. The last 14 days, it’s 20.5%. Franklin’s all right.
You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself, because Dustin Ackley is still too fresh in our minds. We don’t know what Nick Franklin is going to be. But he’s improved this season, at a time when the organization really needed it, and now it’s the beginning of July and the Mariners might have a new long-term second baseman. What could Franklin do? It’s not hard to notice a number of similarities between him and Jason Kipnis, if you want a hastily-identified comp. Obviously they’re different players, but they have somewhat similar skills and last year Kipnis was an above-average regular. This year he’s been a star for three months. If Franklin walks enough, makes contact enough, and defends enough, well, that’s a fine player right there. Not a fantastic player, not an All-Star, but good’s good and the Mariners haven’t had enough good. The Nick Franklin piece might fit in this puzzle.
And, boy, what if Ackley hits? It sure can be easy to not hate this team.