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Will the Diamondbacks Experience a Bounce at Third?

A quick look at two third basemen: Eduardo Escobar and Maikel Franco.

Maikel Franco
Maikel Franco
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Sometimes it’s all about bouncing back as a batter.

Let’s look at two bouncing third basemen: Eduardo Escobar and Maikel Franco. The key questions are: “Why did change happen in 2020?”, “Will Escobar bounce back?”, and “Is Franco’s batting bounce maintainable?”

Why did Eduardo Escobar slump? Escobar’s batting slumped in 2020. A few measures that fell are: BA, HR/PA, RBI/PA, SLG, and OPS. Let’s look at four possible reasons: his place in the lineup, his aging curve, his illness led to weight gain before start of season, and small sample size.

  • In 2020, his slump was not caused by his place in the lineup. In 2020, nearly all his at-bats were with protection, either Calhoun or Walker next in the lineup. Unfortunately, of the six Diamondbacks with more than 10 protected at-bats, Escobar’s performance was the lowest.
  • He is 32 years old. For many stats, 32 year old position players are on average about 28% below their peak. Looking at the aging curve for ISO power, he is at his peak. In 2019, Escobar had 35 HR and SLG of .511. How can he restore that level of performance? Become a DH? Move to an easier position to field, like first base? More rest days? Platoon at third?
  • Due to illness, he was hospitalized in December of 2019. It is logical to think that illness led to a weight gain that was observed in spring training.
  • His 222 plate appearances are half or less than a full season for him. Perhaps his slump was due to small sample size. Next full season should confirm or contradict whether it was a statistical anomaly.

Will Escobar bounce back in 2021? Ignoring 2020, in 2019 his 29 doubles and 10 triples were an indicator that he is potentially a power hitter, something the Diamondbacks need. For 2021, let’s look at his projected HR/PA. As a benchmark, my demarcation line to define a power hitter is .038 HR/PA or better.

  • .039 HR/PA Marcel
  • .036 HR/PA Steamer
  • .037 HR/PA ZiPS

He is projected to be a borderline power hitter. If he bats slightly better than projected he will be a power hitter, which certainly would count as a bounce back. A bounce back is a reasonable expectation because he was a power hitter in 2019 (.050 HR/PA).

Why did Maikel Franco bat so well in 2020? Maikel Franco is a third baseman who had a batting slump in 2019 and the Phillies granted him Free Agency. The Royals signed him and his batting improved in 2020. Perhaps the different home stadium or the change of scenery was what he needed.

Maikel Franco said that in 2018/2019 he was too much a ground ball hitter, and in 2020 he worked on his swing to create more fly balls, thereby achieving greater success. Two statistics back him up: his hard hit percentage of 38.6% was his highest since 2016 (Baseball Savant), and his doubles per PA increased from .040 in 2019 to .066 in 2020. One statistic adds context: His homers per PA fell from .042 in 2019 to .033 in 2020.

Is Franco’s batting bounce maintainable? Let’s look at three possible reasons: projections show it will be maintained, he has not reached his ISO peak, and he has the raw tools.

Three projections predict his bounce will be maintained. They each project that his HR/PA will be higher than 2020!

  • .039 HR/PA Marcel
  • .044 HR/PA Steamer
  • .034 HR/PA ZiPS

Franco might not have reached his peak power performance according to data from this article. His relatively young age (28 years old) is a reason his batting is maintainable.

“The curve below shows isolated power grows rapidly, more so than most other components, until age 29, and then plateaus from 29 to 33 before declining.” — Jordan Rosenblum, February 2019

Jordan Rosenblum

He has the raw tools. “I think he’s a 30-100 (homer-RBI) guy.” — Mike Schmidt, 2016

Let’s compare defense for Escobar and Franco.

FanGraphs and Baseball Reference show Franco had higher WAR.

  • In 2020, Franco was the ninth most valuable third baseman with 1.3 fWAR. Escobar was near last with negative 0.5 fWAR.
  • Baseball Reference. Franco has 1.1 bWAR while Escobar had negative 0.5 bWAR.

The Fielding Bible shows they had equal Defensive Runs Saved in 2020. Franco and Escobar each had 0 DRS. Franco was better in double plays (68% vs 57%), and Escobar had better range. Their equality may not last because the difference in player ages (Franco is 28 and Escobar is 32). Escobar’s defense will decline faster than Franco according to a this article:

“When looking at the plot [showing DRS change vs age], the pattern in defense becomes clearer. The average player’s defensive performance begins a steady decline following their age 25 season and takes an even sharper decline following their age 30 season.” — Fielding Bible, April 2019

The Fielding Bible, Volume V.

“[Maikel Franco is] probably a better defensive player than I was. He does make some flamboyant plays. He’s very good charging the ball and bare-handing it. He has an unusual arm. He throws three-quarters to side-arm, but his ball carries and it’s strong.” — Mike Schmidt, 2016

Why might free agent Maikel Franco be affordable?

“He went from a player who, as a rookie, deserved serious All-Star write-in consideration and, in any other rookie class, a real shot at NL ROY to a source of all-too-frequent consternation.” — Eric Chesterton, December 2016

After his awesome rookie season in 2015 raised expectations to a rarified altitude, his performance inconsistency was seen in a very negative light. The truth is that although he may not be an All-Star, he could make a positive contribution to many teams, including the Diamondbacks.

Attitudes matter; a memorable incident happened:

“Franco was batting with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the third Monday with his team up 1-0. He hit a weak grounder and was thrown out at first. He barely gave any effort running down the line...” — Larry Brown July 2019

A positive view: Gabe Kapler, Phillies Manager, said Franco had a groin injury. Playing while injured (and maybe not telling anybody) shows a fierce competitor, which is an awesome attitude.

A negative view: Always running all-out to first base is an awesome attitude. Did Franco lack that attitude?

To add context, here is another incident:

“Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco left Tuesday’s game against the Nationals after he tumbled over the railing while trying to catch a foul ball off the bat of Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton.” — Thomas Lott, September 2018

The third reason Maikel Franco might be affordable is risk that his improved performance in the short 2020 season was an anomaly.

What if the Diamondbacks acquired Maikel Franco?

Looking at PAs in 2019 and 2020, Escobar faced lefty pitchers more often than righties (655 PAs vs 267 PAs) while Franco faced righty pitchers more often than lefties (506 PAs vs 165). That fact suggests a platoon at third base with Escobar facing left handed pitchers and Franco facing right handed pitchers.

A platoon at third base would give Torey Lovullo an option to play the hot hand (although the advantages of that approach can be debated).

Sometimes details matter. Eduardo Escobar will be a free agent in 2022. Including a team option year in Maikel Franco’s contract would improve the outlook for next season.