A relaxed Maikel Franco could be in for a breakout year
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Matt Stairs watched Maikel Franco last season from the broadcast booth, observing a free swinger who too often looked lost at the plate.
"The wild swings, the helmets coming off," Stairs said. "Trying to turn an 0 for 3 into a 1 for 4 with a home run instead of taking the base hit to right field and building something."
Stairs has moved to the dugout as the Phillies' first-year hitting coach. And the 24-year-old Franco has been one of his key pupils during spring training. Stairs is not teaching Franco a new approach, instead just trying to alter the hitter's mind-set. He wants Franco to relax. Good things, the Phillies believe, will then come.
"He's capable of having a tremendous year and a breakout season," Stairs said. "Let's face it. Last year: 25 homers and 88 RBIs in his first full season. Hell, I would've taken that. A lot of guys would've have taken that. We're not hard on him. We just know there's so much potential there."
Nearly 80 percent — 79.9 to be exact, according to FanGraphs — of Franco's batted balls last season were either pulled to the left side or hit up the middle. He hit just four homers last season to right field. Franco admitted that he was simply waiting for inside pitches to pull to left field. That mind-set left him vulnerable. Stairs is guiding him during camp to keep his hits up the middle, which will help Franco spray the ball to both fields.
"He has that swing in him. He's had it through his whole career," Stairs said. "We've seen it. We've seen him hit balls to right field for base hits. We've seen him hit balls to right-center field for home runs. It's just that he can't get so anxious and try to do a tape-measure shot every time. Be happy with a 374-foot homer to right-center. That's the point we need to get him to."
"He's getting to that point right now where he's trying to force the ball that way," Stairs said. "If the ball's inside, it's OK to say, 'Turn and burn.' All and all, we're very happy."
Franco will be inserted somewhere near the middle of Pete Mackanin's lineup. The third baseman will have added protection this season with veterans Michael Saunders and Howie Kendrick. Tommy Joseph — if he produces at last year's rate — will be an asset. The offensive burden will not fall squarely this season on Franco. Perhaps it will be possible for Franco to relax.
"Stairs told me when I go out there and try to do too much, that's the time that I do something wrong," Franco said. "I just have to be more consistent, repeat the same swing, go out there and have fun."
The best sign this spring of Franco's development came Wednesday as the Phillies played out a rather nondescript Grapefruit League game in Disney World against Atlanta.
Franco had runners on second and third with one out. A season earlier and Franco would have tried to rocket the ball to Epcot. He instead drove a grounder to second base. Franco was out but a run scored. He said he was "taking what they're giving me." Franco did not just wait for his inside fastball, but instead adjusted and produced a run.
Stairs said it was a great example of the small things Franco can do to turn last season's 88 RBIs into 105. Mackanin said it will take time, but it showed that Franco is learning to hit to the middle of the field. If he does that, the manager said, Franco "will be real successful." And it could lead to a breakout season.
"I think this will be the season that I break through," Franco said. "I'm working hard. I'm preparing myself because I know it's a long season. I want to stay on and stay pushing. This year will be much better."