Francoeur deals with sophomore jinx
Still motivated, young outfielder needs to make adjustments
ATLANTA -- Although Jeff Francoeur has been in the Majors for less than a full season, he's graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and been selected to be part of the United States team that competed in this year's World Baseball Classic.
There was a point where it seemed justified to anoint him the King of Atlanta. That is until recently, when he was reminded that life in the big leagues isn't supposed to be as easy as he made it seem during his first two months last year.
Through the first three full weeks of this season, Francoeur has encountered the roughest stretch of his celebrated athletic career. That free-swinging approach that provided him success in the Minors has led to the .190 batting average that he'll carry into Friday night's series opener against the Mets at Turner Field.
"When you're used to doing something a certain way, I think changing is a lot harder than people think," John Smoltz said. "Everybody is going to have their opinions, but he's just going to have to go through it. Really, it comes down to him making certain changes. This game is a game of adjustments."
Although he hit .342 with 10 homers in the two months following his July 7 big-league debut last year, Francoeur came to Spring Training knowing that he'd have to be more selective at the plate this year. The .235 batting average he compiled in last season's final month served as an indicator.
But through the first 22 games of this season, there's no sign that he's being more selective. He hasn't been able to draw a walk in his first 87 plate appearances, and he's seeing an average of just 3.09 pitches each time he comes to the plate.
As of Wednesday, the only other Major Leaguers who had at least 80 plate appearances and drawn just one walk were Detroit's Placido Polanco and Colorado's Matt Holliday.
"I had such a good mind-set coming in, and when things didn't go so right, I think I almost left it and I'm just going to go up there and swing," Francoeur said. "Hopefully I can get back to where I was in Spring Training."
Those fears that Francoeur might experience a sophomore slump were immediately realized when he recorded just two hits in his first 37 at-bats this year. Then, all of a sudden, he had seven hits, including three homers, in his next nine at-bats.
Suddenly the real Francoeur was back. Or so it seemed, until he recorded just five hits in the 31 at-bats he had during the eight-game road trip that concluded on Wednesday in Milwaukee.
"It's almost like I'm wasting at least one at-bat a game," Francoeur said. "I'm giving too many at-bats away right now and I can't do that. I need to make the pitcher work all four at-bats. If you do that, you're going to be successful day in and day out."
Admittedly sickened by his recent futility, Francoeur went into the visitors' clubhouse at Miller Park on Wednesday afternoon. He'd just hit a weak grounder to third base on a pitch he felt he should have been able to drive.
While looking at tape, he found that his hips were flying open toward third base, preventing him from generating power and making solid contact. Two innings later, he drilled a first-pitch triple off the center-field wall to spark a two-run ninth-inning rally that fell just short.
It was his only extra-base hit during the road trip. But much more importantly, it was a product of his desire to change the way things are going.
"You could never tell he's in a slump the way he walks around the clubhouse," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He stays the most motivated individual I've ever seen."
|"You could never tell he's in a slump the way he walks around the clubhouse. He stays the most motivated individual I've ever seen."|
-- Bobby Cox on|
Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton doesn't want Francoeur to lose aggression. Instead, he's told the 22-year-old right fielder to "be a bit more selective." The hope is that gradually becoming more selective will allow Francoeur an easier transition, while he attempts to harness his free-swinging ways.
"Just like everybody else, he's going to have to go through it," Smoltz said. "You've got to figure it out yourself. It's what everybody has had to do."
Because of his amiable personality and tremendous talents, Francoeur has already drawn comparisons to Dale Murphy. There are some also some similarities to the way their careers started.
Through his first 341 career at-bats, Francoeur has batted .273 and struck out 76 times. As for Murphy, he didn't record his 341st at-bat until the third season of his big-league career. But at the time, the two-time NL MVP was hitting .238 and had struck out 71 times.
Like Murphy, Francoeur has been forced to face adversity before coming to the realization that he needs to make adjustments.
"That's the only way you can do it," Francoeur said. "Even last year when I was in a slump or even getting out, my batting average was still at like .330 or .340. When it's like that, you don't realize you need to make adjustments."
In fairness to Francoeur, he's being heavily critiqued before he's experienced a full big-league camp. That was supposed to happen this year. But he obviously and understandably jumped at the opportunity to represent his country in the inaugural Classic.
It's a choice Francoeur doesn't regret. But he's at least wondering if the fact that he didn't receive regular at-bats for two full weeks hasn't factored into his slow start.
"The experience was great," Francoeur said. "I think I'll know more next year because I've never gone through a Spring Training to figure out how many at-bats I need to get ready for a season. I never want to make excuses. When I'm failing, I'm failing. It's nobody's fault but my own. But I definitely want to be able to find out."
Contrary to some thoughts being voiced by members of the national media, the Braves haven't even discussed the possibility of sending Francoeur back to the Minors. Instead, they're anxious to see what he does when he's surrounded with better production.
Chipper Jones returned to the lineup on Tuesday and Edgar Renteria is expected back on Friday. Their production at the top of the lineup should allow Francoeur the chance to see many more hittable pitches.
They are confident Francoeur will turn things around and are most pleased with the fact that he's continued to keep his spirits just as high as they were when he burst on the scene with so much success last year.
"That's the great thing about him," Brian McCann said. "It doesn't matter if he's on the cover of Sports Illustrated or if he's struggling, he's the same person. That's a great quality to have."
It's that quality that's helped Francoeur stay mentally focused while enduring the same struggles that most every big leaguer experiences during the early stages of their career.
"You know you're going to have some good weeks or months and you know you're going to have some bad weeks," Francoeur said. "There's going to be no good come out of it if I just come in here and sulk in the locker room. I think your real character comes out in adversity."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.